This week, Jason Collins of the Washington Wizards, became the first male athlete from one of major sports leagues to come out as gay. It’s certainly an act of symbolic importance. We shouldn’t inflate it beyond all recognition; a millionaire with some degree of celebrity isn’t putting quite as much as a queer or trans teenager who finds themselves kicked out and homeless for coming out. But his coming out still shows bravery, and no doubt in the hyper-masculine, hyper-hetero world of professional sports he will face some tremendous obstacles, all while under the media spotlight. So congratulations to him and to all queer athletes.
What I find interesting is the myriad reactions to the news from a wide range of athletes, journalists and other random figures. This is what I find so fascinating about the hot-button issues called “homosexuality,” “gay marriage” etc: They take ordinary people from all walks of life and hoists them into the theologian’s chair. When they are confronted with different sexualities, it solicits from them a theological account. What is the bible? How should it be read? What does it mean to love someone? There are the explicitly theological reactions: An opposition to his “lifestyle” based on literal readings of Leviticus and certain Pauline texts. And an approval based on visions of Christian love and deconstructions of fundamentalist readings of those texts.
The case of LeRoy Butler is a brilliant exemplification of this conflict. Butler was offered a large sum of money for a speaking engagement at a church. After Butler gave a remark in support of Jason Collins, the pastor of the church canceled the engagement unless Butler “retract the statement and ask God’s forgiveness.” Butler admirably refused, remarking, “only God can judge.”
Unlikely people are being forced to become theologians. In the 19th century, people like John Ruskin discovered a sense that people like medieval craftsmen were in a way doing theology. There was a stronger sense that all sorts of different people were doing theology, and theology is something of a democratic endeavor (this is an observation made by theologian, John Milbank). Our current historical moment is an opportunity to recover and develop this sense.
Then there are comments with implicit theology. Take for example Kobe Bryant’s tweet:
”Proud of @jasoncollins34. Don’t suffocate who u r because of the ignorance of others
#courage #support #mambaarmystandup #BYOU,”
There we see straightforward encouragement, that at the same time seems to beg the fundamental religious questions. I am also fascinated by this tangled web of a comment from LeBron James:
With teammates, you have to be trustworthy. If you're gay and you're not admitting that you are, you're not trustworthy. It's the locker room code; it's a trust factor."
To be fair this remark was made in 2007, and LeBron’s views may no doubt have evolved very much. There is some element of truth in what he is saying. Collective endeavors need a certain openness to be effective, a place where people do not suffocate who they are, to use Kobe’s phrase. But he is wrong here to place the onus on the closeted teammate. The team (or Church, or society) creates the conditions that either make one shell up their identity or offer it to each other openly. This to me, seems to be the Christian significance of “coming out.” One offers oneself, becomes vulnerable before the other, and solicits the other to love. Of course, there are thousands of other ways this happens besides coming out, but this is one that’s incessantly put before us in the public light. Christians should rise to the occasion.