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Keidel: Equal Rights Under Spotlights

(credit: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

(credit: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

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By Jason Keidel
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The Manti Te’o melodrama seems to have stirred some dormant cultural demons. Specifically, our view on homosexuality, our willingness (or lack thereof) to accept gay people as part of the entire American mosaic. Why a gullible young man’s gaffes – like being snagged in some catfish prank – automatically make us question his sexual orientation is a head-scratcher. But the Te’o case seems to be the springboard to a more weighty and often toxic topic.

Some will always feel that Lady Liberty’s arm doesn’t wrap around gays. But for those whose with more malleable minds, some of the more recent montages on gay athletes – like the HBO profile on rugby star Gareth Thomas – can serve as an ample platform for discussion. If you haven’t seen the “Real Sports” profile on Thomas, you may find it quite didactic. As the subject of gays in sports reaches deeper into our living rooms, we should find our own tolerance deepen exponentially. And we can stop defending our deafening biases.

What doesn’t help is our rampant denials. I love the newly enlightened who call talk radio with rehearsed indignity. “Of course we want gays and lesbians to come marching out of the closet. This is America!”

Where were all these people in the 1970s and ’80s, when I was growing up? Even in Manhattan, the cradle of tolerance, a gay male was plagued, either with actual diseases or assumed nefarious characteristics. As a child I was taught that gays were sinister, stalking boys in bleak alleys and locker rooms. Only as an adult did I not only meet many gay men but also befriended them. I spent the 1990s as a travel agent, an industry historically friendly to men and women of all predispositions. Growing up in an ethnic melting pot (one block south of the Frederick Douglass projects), matters of color meant nothing to me. But we were way behind the curve when it came to alternative lifestyles.

No doubt it takes decades to grind our way through the thorny portal of prejudice. And the fact that no one in American team sports has come out while still active in his sport says everything. Ask any retired NFL player and he’ll say that locker rooms are de facto prison yards. Whatever weakness you have will wash ashore amid the raging rivers of testosterone. Suffice it to say the first man to admit he’s gay will need more than muscle to defend his choice.

Some see this as a unique and lucrative business opportunity, whereas the first openly gay male in American team sports could cash in on countless endorsements. But pioneers don’t tend to be so self-serving. Indeed, the cause is more personal than financial.

Jackie Robinson didn’t endure all the unparalleled barbarism for that “Chock Full o’ Nuts” contract he signed at the end of his resplendent career. Of course, I will receive emails denouncing the analogy, asserting the chasmal difference between Robinson, who was born black, as opposed to a gay man, who chooses to act a certain way. The nature v nurture argument is moot in this case, since we’re talking about people in the minority, no matter what put them there.

To invoke a 12-step maxim, we can’t solve a problem until we admit we have one. And despite our colossal progress over the last century, we still have subconscious bigotry to behold and defeat. Ironically, the Super Bowl italicized this, as Chris Culliver, whose home team resides in the vortex of the gay rights movement, slighted gays on our nation’s largest stage. We were so quick to denounce Culliver rather than observe his remarks as a microcosm of the warped worldview we have. Forgive the nauseating cliche, but perhaps that was a teachable moment.

What is prejudice other than fear of change? Is there any logic in assuming someone is inferior because of color or gender? Likewise, we associate manhood with machismo, a distorted template where athletic splendor and sexual preference are symbiotic. Yes, we think only straight guys can rush for 2,000 yards. No, it makes no sense. So how do we fix it?

It’s all beyond my pay grade. But just as ensconced bias isn’t the way to go, neither are these practiced epiphanies, this absurd self-righteousness that distorts the discussion. Pretending that prejudice doesn’t exist – particularly in ourselves – thwarts any real progress. Maybe we just chisel away at the problem, one bigoted thought at a time. Maybe ten years from now we’ll laugh at the notion that this was an issue. Maybe we’re more grown up than we realize. Maybe.

Do you think an NFL player will come out while he is active with a team?