May 3, 2013 — When I moved to Chicago in July 2004, I spent the majority of my first weekend in the city incredibly pissed. On Saturday, nothing went right. Moving all my stuff from college was more than I could really manage on my own, I didn’t know my way around in this crowded new metropolis, and I got rear-ended by aggressive drivers twice my first day in town.
On Sunday, it got worse. It felt ninety five degrees at dawn, and my furniture acquisition and second phase move-in were slowed to a turtle’s pace by the Gay Pride Parade passing the top of my block, which happened to be a one way, rendering my street useless for the entire day and making it impossible to navigate my new neighborhood, let alone park close by and bring things in from my car.
It wasn’t Pride’s purpose which frustrated me. My position on gay rights always has been, and always will be, that all Americans deserve equal opportunity under the law, and that our differences as people should be celebrated, not segregated.
What frustrated me is that I didn’t see the point. What are all you people trying to accomplish?? I yelled to an empty car and banged the wheel. Revolutions, I thought then, were fought and won with charismatic politicians, rhetorical certainty and victory at the ballot box. Not parades. What’s the point of all this stupid marching? This isn’t doing shit for equal rights! Plus, how am I going to carry this futon for five blocks? Aaaggghhh!!
Nine years after that scorching and frustrating summer weekend, the landscape of professional sports evolved dramatically with NBA free agent Jason Collins’ brave declaration in Sports Illustrated that he is gay. The 34-year old center’s act has been met, with a few notable exceptions, with respect and support. Collins’ courage deserves all the praise we have to offer, but it also reminded me of a lesson I’ve learned since that first Chicago weekend but always benefit from remembering. Peripheral acts of bravery, even the simple ones, are essential in paving the way for paradigm-shifting breakthroughs of equality and justice.
In 2009, Brendan Ayenbadejo, then a linebacker for the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens, penned a Huffington Post op-ed questioning the logic behind gay marriage opposition. Over the next several years, Ayanbadejo made several public statements in support of equal rights, but as he emerged as a leading pro-equality voice in the sports community, he wasn’t exactly operating risk-free. While a solid player, the Raven linebacker was never a league star, and alienating his teammates or management could have led to a lack of playing time or perhaps the loss of a job. He was, after all, playing in a league which has been called “the standard-bearer for homophobia in professional sports.”
Eventually, Ayanbadejo drew the ire of Maryland politician Emmett Burns, who wrote a public letter to Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti, asking him to “inhibit such expressions from his employee.” In response to Burns’ public display of ignorance, Minnesota Viking Chris Kluwe publicly defended Ayenbadejo with a hilariously scathing letter of his own, which was both sent to Burns and published on Deadspin.com. In the letter, Kluwe shreds Burns’ anti-first amendment argument and assures the politician that gays in sports won’t “come in to your house and steal your children…or magically turn you in to a lustful cockmonster.”
Kluwe’s position, like Ayenbadejo’s, did not come without risk. Aggressively defending gay rights in the public market place could have cost Kluwe dearly, either with the letter to Burns or, as the former polisci/history double major did in another instance, with a response to an anti-marriage equality campaign endorsed by former teammate and all-pro Matt Birk. Bucking politicians and peers in the midst of a hyper-masculine culture isn’t easy. On top of that, Kluwe plays the position, one often ridiculed by other players for not being tough enough and, sometimes, found not worthy of having an opinion at all.
But Kluwe described a moment in a 2012 New York Times profile, where he lay awake at night, unable to sleep while thinking about the bigoted and ignorant things he was hearing, and realized he couldn’t not say something. He rolled out of bed, opened the laptop, and the phrase “lustful cockmonster” was born.
Over in the NBA, the league where Jason Collins would ultimately make his stand, there is an even more prominent star culture in place. It is a generally accepted truth that star players receive and deserve special treatment, whether in consulting ownership on the hiring of a team’s next coach, or in receiving preferential calls from referees.
Commissioner David Stern bucked that mentality and nudged his sport’s culture toward progress when he levied a $100,000 fine against LA Laker Kobe Bryant for calling a referee a “f***ing fag” during a televised game, one of the most expensive fines ever laid down by the league.
Stern could have ceded to Bryant’s defense that he was simply caught up “frustration during the heat of the game” and meant no harm to the gay community with his statement. Who knows, maybe Stern even had a Kluwe moment where he considered remaining silent but ultimately realized he couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t speak out and act as a responsible ally. Issuing the fine and calling the league star player’s actions “offensive and inexcusable” took courage, and ensured the future Jason Collins’ of the world that the NBA would offer them institutional cover from explicit bigotry.
Ayenbadejo, Kluwe and Stern all risked alienating their communities to make public statements that took a stand for equality. But it was Jason Collins’ former Stanford roommate, Rep. Joe Kennedy III, who inspired social change with something even simpler than taking a stand: he went for a march.
In the Sports Illustrated profile where Collins details his decision to come out, he credits Kennedy’s march in Boston’s 2012 Gay Pride Parade with inspiring his emergence from the proverbial closet. Joe Kennedy’s Massachusetts district is a pretty liberal one (Republicans didn’t even enter a candidate for several straight elections in the last decade), but even his simple public action ran the risk of alienating friends, voters and donors, or marking him as a high profile target for anti-gay rights groups who have plenty of money to spend attacking pro-gay opponents. But when the moment came, Kennedy didn’t grandstand, he didn’t write open letters, he just told an old friend that he’d marched in a parade. And in doing so, he told a friend and the world: I care. People are equal. Even if you’re not just like me, I’ve got your back.
Would Jason Collins have been able to take his historic leap without little acts of courage by Ayanbadejo, Kluwe, Stern and Kennedy? Maybe. Maybe a couple more years down the road. Maybe never.
If you’re someone like me, who works in the social justice movement and is so often go-go-going trying to change the world on a very macro scale, it’s easy to forget the power of the little things. It’s easy to forget the power of a comment, or a friendship, or a Sunday afternoon parade in paving the way for heroic actions. It’s easy to forget, until Jason Collins and his allies so bravely remind you, that marching matters.
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