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Wednesday, February 21, 2007
Sport and the Meaning of Homosexuality

A commenter with the handle ChapelHeel makes an interesting point to the post about the reactions to John Amechi coming out. ChapelHeel tries to distinguish Tim Hardaway's anti-homosexual comments from Shavlik Randolph's statement that he was OK as long as Amechi (or anyone else) does not "bring your gayness of me."

ChapelHeel says, in part, as follows:

There are lots of people in America who are fine with gay people living a gay lifestyle, but do not want to be personally involved. Call it a middle ground of acceptance.

Let's assume Randolph is Jewish (based on his first name), and let's also assume he is heterosexual. Now suppose he said he was fine with Christians "as long as you don't bring you Christianity on me." Would we be upset? I doubt it.

So why do we get upset if we substitute "gayness" for Christianity when Randolph is heterosexual? Because it is the hot topic of the day.

I don't find his comment unenlightened. It is not as accepting as it could be, but it isn't non-acceptance. It is non-participation; and that's different.

This raises important issues about sexual orientation and the significance of having gay and straight professional athletes co-exist. And it also gets into some issues about the role of religion and sports, something I have been thinking about a great deal.

In the original post, I criticized Randolph's comment as incoherent because I really do not know what he meant by "bring your gayness on me." What is he talking about? As for suggesting it was unenlightened: I used that word not because Randolph's comment was antipathetic towards homosexuals; I was not using it in the political sense of intolerant towards gay people. In fact, if more people took the attitude of "gay people can do what they want and it does not affect me," we would all be better off.

But I think Randolph's statement is unenlightened in a different sense: Any meaning we can ascribe to it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of sexuality and sexual orientation. As I see it, he could have meant any of three things.

Possibility # 1: Do not make me gay by being around me--as if it were catching. I think most of us can agree that sexual orientation is not akin to a communicable disease that can be passed around the locker room--that being around someone who is gay can "make you gay."

Possibility # 2: Do not try to make me gay by converting me to your homosexual lifestyle. This one gets a bit closer to ChapelHeel's religion comparison. The problem is that sexual orientation is not a choice; it is a genetically hardwired predisposition as to who or what one is sexually attracted. So the idea that Amechi might "convert" Randolph misunderstands this fact about sexual orientation. True, this point is subject to some scientific, social, and religious controversy about the ability to "cure" homosexuality. And the anti-rights movement speaks of a homosexual agenda involving "recruiting" of new members, especially children. But I think the weight of science is on my side on this one.

Possibility # 3: Do not hit on me; I am not gay and am not interested in having sex with you so don't approach me. I call this the "Get Over Yourself" Problem: Do not assume that, just because the man standing next to you is gay, he wants to have sex with you; you aren't that good-looking. Just like we would not (or at least should not) assume that the heterosexual woman standing next to us wants to have sex. (Although the rules of sexual attraction are quite different with professional athletes, but that was the subject of Michael's post). If this is what Randolph meant, it is a bit presumptuous--and again reflects a misunderstanding of sexual orientation and what it means to be attracted to particular people.

Any of these three meanings is troubling in my view, for what it shows about Randolph's misunderstanding of homosexuality and sexual orientation.

But I do find this part of the issue interesting. While all the controversy has surrounded Hardaway's openly antipathetic comments, little attention has been paid to Randolph. But in many ways the worldview reflected in Randolph's comments is more troubling than the worldview reflected in Hardaway's. Randolph presents ideas that are fundamentally wrong about sexuality and sexual orientation, ideas that, if widely accepted, hold back the ability of openly gay athletes to exist and function in professional sport. But the ideas are presented in such benign, quasi-tolerant terms ("As long as I don't have to be involved, I'm OK with you doing what you want") that the danger of the underlying ideas gets buried. He is seen as being "accepting," as opposed to troublingly uninformed. At some level, rabid bigotry ("I hate gays") is easier to confront and less harmful.

Also, I take issue with ChapelHeel's suggestion that if a Jewish athlete (and my quick check says Randolph is not Jewish. And trust me: We are so starved for Jewish sports stars that we keep a very close watch on these things) requested that a Christian teammate "not bring his Christianity on me" we would not be upset. Actually, there would be an uproar from the Christian Right and the people on Fox News like you would not believe. The controversy over prayer at football games is precisely because non-Christian athletes and fans seek to avoid the bringing of Christianity on them--how is that working out? This is a separate and intriguing subject that I would like to discuss more in the future.

Finally, a personal note to ChapelHeel. Judging by the handle, I am guessing you are a UNC fan. I commend the fact that you declined to trash, and in fact defended well, a Dukie. That is enlightened.


Perhaps some of the difficulty here is that all we have is a short quotation from Shavlik Randolph with no context?

Since speculation is all we have to go on, maybe what he meant was, "I don't care if a teammate is homosexual so long as I don't have to deal with that as a topic of discussion with him."

If that is the case, then I really don't have much of a problem with Randolph's statement. Frankly, I never want to have any discussions with any of my professional colleagues about their sexual preferences/practices no matter what they might be. That is a very inclusive position; I don't want to discuss that kind of thing with anyone in the workplace.

I'd have to stretch a bit to believe that Randolph was saying he feared that homosexuality was contagious.

I might be convinced that if someone were "ambivalent" about one's own sexuality they might not want to have to confront an openly gay individual in their workplace every day wherein that might become a topic of discussion/exchange. But that scenario requires an axiomatic belief in a lot of facts that have no basis at the moment.

I'd give Randolph a pass here. I believe someone asked him a question about this subject out of the blue and he had no solid basis of thought upon which to construct his response.

"Don't ask/Don't tell" has gotten a negative connotation attached to it in the last decade. But that model has worked very well for a very long time when it comes to social interchanges within a work environment. Maybe there's not much more than that in the remarks here...

Anonymous The Sports Curmudgeon -- 2/21/2007 10:03 PM  

Two Things
1. I am 99 percent postive that Shavlik is A. not a Jewish name but Russian, and B. That he is not Jewish.
2. I was listening to Max Kellerman the other day and I think he made the opposite point that you made. You try to say that if you were standing next to a heterosexual women she isnt thinking about you however if I was the girl, it is almost a scientific fact that a guy is most likely thinking that he wants to have sex with the girl. Guys think of girls as sexual objects, and the logic would be that gay guys would think of their "prey" as sexual objects, herego, guys. So therefore, I think this is another possible explanation to what he meant. If heterosexual guys want to sleep with any decently looking girl they see, than I would think he is imagining that a gay guy would think the same to a guy.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 2/22/2007 12:00 AM  

I'm with anon - it' sbeen my experience as a woman that the mindset of the men who get upset about homosexuality is that they seem to think that men should be wanting to bonk, so if it's men they are into it's men they want to bonk.

Add to that the weirdness that their focus is always on penetration. The derogatory terms are always about the passive partner. And sure enough, men who get upset about homosexuals instead of "meh, not my thing" also seem to be ugly towards women.

I've learned that a man who shows fear or antipathy towards homosexuals is a man who doesn't much like women either.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 2/22/2007 4:29 AM  

Conversations with gay friends suggest that Anonymous # 1 and Anonymous # 2 are right about heterosexual men always thinking they want to have sex with the woman standing next them (and therefore the gay man standing next to them wants to have sex with them). But I think that mindset is (generalizing broadly, I admit) less prevalent among gay men.

So the fact that heterosexual men assume that homosexual men share the same ideas about sex does two things: 1) It explains the discomfort many men (especially athletes) have with gay men; and 2) It shows the misunderstanding of sex differences that may be at the heart of the problem.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 2/22/2007 7:18 AM  

Arent you implying then that gay men have somefeminine tendencies, therefore they do not think like a "normal" man and therefore he is different, which may be the problem too. Admiting that they dont want to sleep with every guy they see is sayign that they dont act like herterosexual men and therefore, by being gay you loose some "manship". This may be a reason why people are homophobic.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 2/22/2007 11:04 AM  

I was not making a normative point that wanting to sleep with everyone you see (of the class to which you are attracted) to is more "manly" or more "normal." It simply is a different way of seeing and approaching the world. And to the extent that difference from "normal men" is the basis for homophobia, it is inconsistent with the "don't hit on me" attitude reflected in Randolph's statement.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 2/22/2007 11:59 AM  

If these athletes are cool with having female reporters in the locker room, what is the big deal with having a gay male in their midst?

Anonymous Anonymous -- 2/22/2007 12:11 PM  

I took "don't bring your gayness on me" to have a different meaning.

Possibility 4: Don't expose me to your homosexual lifestyle, for example by holding hands with a man in public.

That interpretation gives the original comment a less benign meaning.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 2/22/2007 6:58 PM  

To anon 12:11pm, are athletes accepting of women reporters in the locker rooms or is that something that is forced upon them? I seem to remember a bit of an uproar when women reporters first got that sort of access.

Anonymous km -- 2/22/2007 7:14 PM  


There was an uproar initially, not to mention some wildly inappropriate behavior. Then, the athletes got over it.

They realized:
a) Women had as much ability to do this job as men;
b) Women had as much right to do this job as men; and
c) These women did not care what the players looked liked naked, were not in the locker room so they could look at the players naked, and did not want to have sex with the players--they wanted to do their jobs and go home.

Is there a moral in there somewhere?

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 2/23/2007 9:40 AM  

First, I was 100% unenlightened about Shavlik Randolph's religion, and the origin of his first name. I could have researched it, but I was too lazy on that particular occasion. I think the point I made stands, irrespective of Randolph's particular religion, but I wish I had done the research.

Second, Howard's point about homosexuality not being a "choice" -- as a distinction from my religious analogy -- is a good one. I think it is worth pointing out, though, that many people do not view their religion as a true choice. In some literal sense there is a choice, but many people are so tied to their religion that it is a part of their very being.

Also, there is a more subtle point to my example that is not based on whether Randolph is capable of being "converted" to homosexuality or another religion. Most people value personal space...not just physical space, but something more intangible. People do not like being put in uncomfortable positions in their personal space.

Suppose a non-Christian is approached by a Christian trying to save him (by bringing his "Christianity" on him) or a heterosexual male is approached by a homosexual male trying to seduce him (by bringing his "gayness" on him). In each case the non-Christian or heterosexual will likely feel uncomfortable because his personal space has been invaded. (Obviously it is more likely a Christian will talk to a non-Christian without saving him and more likely a homosexual male will talk to a heterosexual male without seducing them. I am just using an example in which fears are aroused.)

That is, of course, a commentary on how we react to other people's orientations, lifestyles and/or beliefs. Perhaps it even rises to the level of unenlightened. It is not perfect behavior, but nor is it unusual or particularly egregious, in my view. I am guessing that every reader and writer on this blog (including liberal law professors like myself) are unenlightened with respect to some aspect of our personal space.

Again, I think a person in this position can feel comfortable with the concept of homosexuality in the world as long as that does not trickle into his personal space, because his personal space is just that.

I still believe that acceptance, and participation, are mutually exclusive.

Third, if Randolph was presuming he was attractive enough to be hit on by other men, then he should "get over it," to use Howard's phrase. But presumably Randolph is attractive to SOMEBODY (aren't we all?). Perhaps he is just saying "don't bother," to foreclose having to feel uncomfortable in his personal space.

Fourth, I agree that the Christian right would complain if an athlete said "don't bring your Christianity on me." But would it get this level of attention and would the general public complain? I don't think so, at least not to the same degree. I don't get the impression that the only people complaining about Randolph's comments were gay men. The complaints seem to come from a broader group.

Finally, it is indeed hard to defend Randolph, because he is a "dookie". :) He never really had a great game against UNC, though, so I can forgive him. It's not like he's Christian Laettner!

Also, irrespective of the alma mater, in a soundbite society I find that the media, and then the public, tend to jump (and judge) too quickly based on one soundbite alone. I tend to give the benefit of the doubt to the speaker if the only evidence I have is an off-the-cuff blurb -- and one which has likely been edited in one way or another to ensure it has some sensationalist appeal.

I see Hardaway's comments and Randolph's as distinct, and I am glad Howard noticed the comment and cared enough to respond.

Blogger ChapelHeel -- 2/23/2007 2:59 PM  

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