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Basketball superstar Sheryl Swoopes, celebrated in the LGBT community in 2005 for coming out, quietly becomes engaged to a man this year and the world has a collective WTF moment. Former NFL player Michael Irvin takes his top off to appear on the cover of Out magazine to speak out in support of gay rights and talk about his deceased gay brother while detailing the excessive measures he always took to make sure folks knew that there was no way in hell he was gay.
(Or, as Jerry Seinfeld might say, not that there's anything wrong with that.)
As the stories filtered through the blogosphere last week, I could not help but think of how both illustrated the contradictory pressures in sports, especially at the highest levels, both to conform and to be an individual. Just how do you follow your own drummer without breaking ranks?
Although she was the center of media attention when she came out nearly six years ago, for Swoopes, coming out was not a political statement but a personal reality. "I'm a firm believer," Swoopes told ESPN at the time, "that when you fall in love with somebody, you can't control that. Whether it's another woman. Whether it's another man. Whatever."
"Whatever" currently is a man, a fact buried deep in an ESPN story by Mechelle Voepel on Swoopes return to the league at the age of 40 on a Tulsa Shock team mired with injuries and a losing record, but visible before that by a visit to her Facebook page. In the ESPN article she credits her fiance, Chris Unclesho, with helping her find her way back to the WNBA.
"If Chris and I had not gotten together, I'm not sure I'd be playing today," she told ESPN. "I know he has a lot to do with where I am in my life now. There is nothing I've been through in my life that I regret, or that I would go back and change. I feel like everything that happened – personally and professionally – I went through for a reason, and I learned from those things."
Autostraddle.com offered perhaps the most cogent comment on Swoopes's revised status, saying it's about the courage, not the labels: "In 2011, maybe we're ready to see this as a story about being honest about everyone you love and have loved, being honest about the weird and indescribable ways love works inside you by refusing to really try to describe them at all. For a culture as obsessed with labels as ours is, that's truly brave and transgressive. And for anyone else who doesn't feel like they were born into a label, Swoopes may now be a real role model – the question is whether everyone else will be able to accept those terms, or whether 'not so gay anymore' is the story we're going to stick with."
Speaking of labels, hopefully no mailing sticker on your copy of Out obscured any part of Irvin's anatomy you longed to see. I'm guessing when the magazine posed him in shoulder pads and low slung jeans, it was an attempt to capture what every homophobic jock's fear is of how gay athletes see them in the locker room.
Not that there's anything wrong with that.
But seriously: what kind of mixed messaging are we being offered up with Irvin's story and photo spread? Remember how Magic Johnson was quick to reassure Arsenio Hall that he was 100 percent heterosexual after he became infected with HIV and the big audience cheer he got? Flash forward and we have Irvin telling us that while he was very protective and proud of his gay brother, he overcompensated by excessively womanizing, lest anyone think he was gay. In so doing he exposes the pressure he felt to fit a gender label and cater to it at the same time. Quite deftly, too.
Not that there's anything wrong with that.
So, why exactly is Irvin posed as though he is in the early scene of a soft gay porn flick? Same reason Sports Illustrated runs an annual issue of women in swimsuits. Same reason why most of the bar ads you see in gay publications show guys with their shirts off. Working on the psychological principle that men are, essentially, pigs, publishers like to offer eye candy to entice readers. Go ahead: tell folks you're just getting it for the articles.
And no harm in that in a wink, wink, nod, nod kind of way. But here's the thing: if you consider the one unifying issue in the modern LGBT world is the fight against sexual repression, don't we owe it to ourselves to show a bit more creativity in our editorial selections? Need every photo be there because it caters to a stereotype or fantasy or because it is so easy? Can we not strive for more diversity of gender expression and race? Can we not have pictures of how people are in real life and work, not as they are in fantasy personal ads?
Case in point. One of my favorite sites to check out regularly is http://www.outsports.com, which has a rich array of blogs, does a great job of monitoring the news, and has provided an indispensable public service by providing a venue for countless athletes to come out and connect.
But the most refreshing and remarkable thing about seeing a picture of Swoopes leading Outsports' home page last week is that it was a picture of an African American woman. Think that's not rare? Well, on the photo gallery index page, there were 48 pictures last week, showing approximately 94 people. Correction: 94 men. No women. And only three African Americans.
I pause a moment now as every friend I have in the media protests the very legitimate and practical reasons they have for making the choices they make. Reflect what people want, others do it so we have to, etc. etc. Okay, done? My turn.
I have sat in daily newspaper editorial meetings and criticized the choices those papers make. I recall telling editors I didn't understand why every story about travel agencies we had quoted men when the vast majority of travel agency employees I ever knew were women, or why only male doctors were quoted in stories about breast implants. Was a real pain in the ass about it, but I kept getting asked back and gradually they changed.
When I was in Anchorage and in charge of a daily sports section, I made a rule that we would match coverage of local men's sports on the front page with coverage of women's sports there as well. Story for story. That was in the early 1980s and nobody else was doing it. I took a lot of second-guessing for it, but the paper stuck with me and we built up a loyal following for women's sports. We created an audience and awareness.
Which, quite frankly, we could use more of in the LGBT African American community. And that means more pictures of African Americans, whether they are L, G, B, or T.
And speaking of folks defying labels, here's a hooray for out Olympian Diana Nyad. At the age of 61 she is attempting the treacherous and unprecedented swim from Cuba to Florida. Way to defy expectations and limitations. You go, girl!
Vancouver Outgames scale down
The North American Continental Outgames are scheduled to open next week with a fraction of the athletes and sports that organizers originally projected, raising questions about the viability of the Outgames model for North American LGBT sports.
In the weeks leading up to the opening ceremonies Monday, July 25, organizers announced a rollout of sports cancellations. Disciplines dropped from the program include bowling, water polo, figure skating, ice hockey, swimming, mountain biking, and the mountain marathon. Dragon boat racing was listed as an exhibition sport but has also been dropped. In addition, on Tuesday, July 19, the 2011 Vancouver Outgames board emailed 89 track and field athletes who had registered for the sports festival that the local club that had been scheduled to host the event had opted out and it was scrambling to try to find an alternative host and venue.
The Continental Outgames were created by the International Gay and Lesbian Sports Association to run in years in which there are no quadrennial World Outgames. They follow the GLISA model of allowing the host organization free reign to stage human rights conferences, sports competition, cultural events, and parties. The 2008 Asia Pacific Outgames in Melbourne was an acclaimed success.
But the Outgames have failed to generate projected traction in North America, which is already heavily served with growing numbers of LGBT single-sports tournaments and multi-sport festivals. Vancouver organizers had projected more than 4,00 athletes would participate, but in their latest estimates had revised that down to 1,000.
For more information, visit http://www.vancouver2011outgames.com.