I must confess, I did not anticipate that this year’s Super Bowl would become a referendum on the status of gay rights in America.
Nor did I anticipate that the single greatest force in favor would be a member of the Baltimore Ravens, while the single greatest force against would represent the San Francisco 49ers.
Yet both of these improbable events have come true, and they are instructive in understanding the current position of gay acceptance in the long arc of history.
In short: If there has never been a better time in America to be homosexual, there has also never been a worse time to be homophobic.
A brief primer: Although there are no publicly gay active players in the National Football League, a handful of hetero ones have made themselves advocates for same-sex marriage and gay acceptance in general.
One such person is Brendon Ayanbadejo, a linebacker for the AFC Champion Baltimore Ravens, who has taken it upon himself to carry the marriage rights banner for as long as his team’s current media saturation will allow, explaining matter-of-factly, “I was raised around gay people in a very liberal society. Discrimination was never allowed.”
In the other corner, meanwhile, is NFC Champion San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver, who this past week remarked on a radio talk show, “I don’t do the gay guys, man. I don’t do that. No, we don’t got no gay people on the team, they gotta get up out of here if they do.”
The 49ers leadership publicly renounced Culliver’s comments, saying in part, “There is no place for discrimination within our organization at any level. We have and always will proudly support the LGBT community.” Indeed, last summer the Niners became the first NFL club to produce a video for the anti-bullying “It Gets Better” project.
More interesting, however, was Culliver’s own apology, which contained the following magnificent sentence: “The derogatory comments I made yesterday were a reflection of thoughts in my head, but they are not how I feel.” He added, “It has taken me seeing [the comments] in print to realize that they are hurtful and ugly. Those discriminating feelings are truly not in my heart.”
As far as I’m concerned, that collective statement pretty much sums up where gay rights currently stand in the American consciousness, and we should be very thankful that Culliver made it.
Let us unpack that first bit, that the anti-gay comments “were a reflection of thoughts in my head, but they are not how I feel.” By this, Culliver can mean only one thing: That he is, in fact, uncomfortable with the idea of a hypothetical gay teammate, but has only now been made aware that saying such a thing out loud is unacceptable in polite society.
He should not be blamed too harshly for this, as it is a quite recent phenomenon—particularly within the cocoons of all the major sports, where the utter invisibility of actual gay people has allowed a less-than-welcoming attitude to endure well beyond its natural lifespan. To now suddenly occupy an environment in which homosexuals are presumed to warrant basic respect as fellow human beings—well, it takes a bit of getting used to.
But then, such is the case with scores of people outside of sports as well: They might share Culliver’s views, but they are more reticent than ever about expressing them in public.
In a way, this all leaves me rather conflicted. On one hand, I find few things more repulsive than a public figure making an irrational pejorative generalization about an entire group of Americans—one or more of whom may well occupy adjacent lockers in the Niners’ clubhouse.
However, I am equally (if not more) repulsed by the practice of making people apologize for having opinions that are unpopular or politically incorrect. Yes, I think Culliver’s views are stupid, ignorant and destructive, but I would not for a moment wish to prevent him from expressing them, or force him into a sort of self-censorship. Is there anything more wretchedly un-American than that?
The real and proper solution is for the NFL to produce more folks like Brendon Ayanbadejo—guys who understand that co-existing with gays—or with anyone who is not precisely like you—is not a matter of “tolerance” (a word I’ve never much liked) but one of simple courtesy and respect.
“The goal of the gay rights movement,” blogger Andrew Sullivan once rather beautifully wrote, “should be to cease to exist.” In that spirit, I would note that the movement’s official objective should always be to seek equal protection under the law, and nothing more.
The harder job of changing hearts and minds is one that will always be a work in progress and never be fully completed. It is a game of converting and persuading, one football player at a time.