By Karima E. Rustin
During the second weekend of May, I read two articles in The New York Times in which two men, both highly visible and successful in their respective careers, made public that they are gay. There are very few commonalities between these two men, yet after reading both articles, I began feeling annoyed, not about their decision to openly discuss their sexual orientation (I commend them for that), but about the inevitable issue of homophobia in the black community.
Don Lemon, an Emmy Award-winning journalist and prime-time anchor on CNN, has written a memoir entitled Transparent. He initially wanted the book to be about his professional life but felt compelled to divulge details about his childhood and ultimately discuss his sexual orientation. Mr. Lemon believes that the black community would have a more adverse reaction to him revealing his sexual orientation than the general population. In his New York Times interview, Lemon states “It’s about the worst thing you can be in black culture. You’re taught you have to be a man; you have to be masculine..."
Rick Welts, the President and CEO of the basketball team the Phoenix Suns who has spent the majority of his adult life ensconced in basketball culture, decided that instead of waiting for his industry to be comfortable with his sexual orientation, he would make it public and encourage others to address the issue that envelops the court and boardroom—homophobia. Within 24 hours of Welts’ meeting with David Stern (commissioner for the National Basketball Association) to discuss his decision to go public, Kobe Bryant, the iconic guard of the Los Angeles Lakers and a black male, belligerently objected to a referee’s verdict of a technical foul by calling him a derogatory gay term. (Bryant later apologized after being fined $100,000.)
I was saddened to read about Lemon’s fear of being emasculated by his own race and fed up with hearing about a black athlete demonstrating blatant homophobia. Sports is where many young black males of limited economic means see their opportunity to achieve greatness, a chance to change their current economic circumstances and attain individual recognition.
The majority of the players in the NBA are people of color, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. I believe there is a black cultural myth that the totality of your masculinity is made up from your sexual orientation, and being gay doesn’t equate with the current virile image of the professional basketball player. I worry about the young black gay kid who aspires to play ball and watches Bryant and other basketball players express an unwillingness to embrace a fellow teammate who happens to be gay. Four years ago former Miami Heat player Tim Hardaway let it be known that he hates gay people and would not want a gay man on his team.
Why black people struggle with homophobia baffles me. What are we so afraid of? Why does acknowledging differences in sexual orientation make so many of us uncomfortable? We must debunk this idea that to be a man means you can only be heterosexual. I would like to see more black people supporting men like Lemon who choose to come out publicly and condemning the use of gay slurs. Men like Lemon and Welts might need to make us uncomfortable in order for us to start addressing our unwillingness to accept people of different sexual orientations.