A victim of locker room politics, Jason Collins retired from basketball a few days ago,
becoming the first openly gay player to leave the parquet floor behind. It can be unfortunate but wherever men congregate, there’s bound to come up the question of sexual orientation. Just like buying shoes is in the DNA of women, this reckoning of manhood, called the dozens by purists, is likewise in almost every man’s genes.
Words that many would consider offensive-faggot, punk, queer, pussy or little girl-are material for creative expression to guys playing the dozens and busting on each other; nothing serious, just a bit of male bonding. Collins himself even jokes about such things in his account of locker room exchanges with teammates.
But looking further at his case and reading his first person accounts of being “busted on” and questioned about his orientation, you come away with the idea that there might, at times, have been something else going on; something a bit more sinister with a lot more implications.
It reminds me of something I learned as a very young man: that the best busts were the ones that hurt. I discovered that it’s those jibes that carry an air of truthfulness about them that smacks swiftly in the face of those individuals who know that particular truth. Hence, “the blush” Collins described on his face when an Atlanta Hawk’s teammate accuses him of being a homosexual.
Personally, I think it’s a nudity thing where once we drop our pants, we’re not only concerned about just who might be watching but everybody also then grabs a ruler, if only in their minds. Most times, those men feeling a bit self-conscious and concerned for their own “virility” will most likely be the ones to start the insult ball rolling.
Every now and then though, the tables can be turned on those bent on trying to embarrass another. It helps if your team, or your company, or the group you happen to belong to as a gay man, is even tacitly accepting of your orientation from the get-go.
Take the conversation that happened one night in 1980 on CV-61, in the radio shack.
In the case of the ship’s company back then, we all knew who was gay. In COMM (Communications Division) we had two men who were openly so and one dude, who liked to parade around in the nude, whom we surmised, was bisexual since he was always advertising. One very slow night, a straight member of the unit asked the gay man, I’ll call him John, how could he do the things he does with men.
Now, when I heard the question, I cringed since there was no high ranking NCO in the shack. But to his credit, John took the question like a man and readily responded to it. I forget exactly what he said but I remember it took us all aback because of his forthrightness. He was willing to discuss what he saw in men, what he liked, that sort of thing. Of course, the obvious following question was “Well, do you look at us in the shower?” And I give him credit again, he answered with a truthful yes.
Now, that shocked us, I have to say. As a collective, “Aw, Man” went around the room, he explained. He told us it was no different than the way we look at each other, sizing each other up. He went to say that he knew we were not gay and he would never approach any of us , caring more about the professional relationship he had with us and would do nothing to jeopardize that.
That last statement worked for most of us and something very cool happened then. We went on to spend the whole shift (there was very little traffic) rapping about the differences between being a gay man and being a straight one. Very little was off-limits. The one thing I came away with from that night was that a gay man is still a man and therefore should be respected, and his friendship cherished.
It’s then that I started thinking how people were a lot like water: they have to find their level. Just like liquid flows and fills any space or void, men must come together-truly acknowledge their faults and desires-in order to allow the currents of their mutual existence to merge. It’s this truthful vetting of individuals that allows all of us to live together in harmony. Once we truly recognize who the other person is, we can then accept them-or reject them- as the case may be.
I ask myself that if we could have had such a dialogue in the confines of what was then the uber-male, solitary aggressive world that is the US military then why can’t they do so in the sports theater today.
I’m inclined to think that it has to start with the gay player. With that in mind, I think Jason Collins missed a golden opportunity. It’s one thing to confess of being openly gay but I think it’s another thing entirely being openly gay, especially in the world of sports. To the point, Jason may have ‘come out’ but he did so in the twilight of his career. Doing so at his career onset would have not only given him a chance to establish his level with his teammates but it could’ve also provided a teaching moment for other gay athlete’s out there attempting to assimilate but afraid to do so.
So, what do the dozens, water level and male bonding all have in common?
As Jason Collins found out too late for basketball but not for life, it’s about acceptance and assistance and all three are involved in a man’s ability to achieve both. Knowing more than a few snappy comebacks, and having the balls to utter them, will go far in making your fellowman accept you for who you are. That’s not to say that all men will be so readily tolerant. But then, that’s what water level is all about; finding your way around those obstacles that hinder your flow.
Photo by Keith Allison (Flickr: Jason Collins) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons