Queer Men of Color: A Sin of the NFL

Issues about homophobia and racial representation in the National Football League are derived from male domination that structures the institution to distribute power through a culture of heterosexual dominance and white supremacy; just a scratch on the surface of the problems within the institution of football. However, a more problematic concern is that the overly represented and normalized structure of heterosexual dominance and white supremacy are interpreted as disconnected forms of oppressive power; a notion that  symbolizes  “American” sentiments about identity. Roy Simmons was the second of only three Professional Football players ever to publicly address his homosexuality. In addition to that, he is the only African American player to come out.  In his autobiographical narrative, Out of Bounds, he highlights his life of lies in the NFL as a closeted gay African American male and the feelings of exclusion that  impacted his professional and personal lives. Esera Tuaolo was the third NFL player to address his homosexuality, and the second to publish an autobiographical narrative titled Alone in the Trenches: My Life as a Gay Man in the NFL, which describes his experience as a Filipino gay man in diaspora, specifically as a professional football athlete. Each of these players waited until after retiring to publicly state their news. Although many scholars claim that the struggle for homosexuals to be openly gay are lessening, I will deviate from this claim to specifically illustrate that nationally accepted versions of white heterosexuality are carried into the NFL through heteropatriarchal dominance, white heteronormative sports coverage, and white masculinity, causing  physical and institutional removal from acceptance. The institution of football represents issues that form the homosexual struggle in the NFL: sex inequality, which alludes to heterosexuality in the form of patriarchal dominance, and an inter-male dominance hierarchy through measurements of racialized masculinity. However, most critical race theory in sports does not address Blackness and Queerness as intersecting, nor does it trace the trajectories of non-black queer people of color. In order to critique the structure of professional football, I consider intersectional approaches of race, sexuality, and gender to consider the political and cultural implications of racialized and sexualized minorities within white heteronormative structures.

Heterosexual misogynistic dominance is normalized in football through controlling and supervising male-and-female sexual relations. Simmons, while discussing his opinion that the locker room is the collective space in which heterosexual sex frequently dominates the conversation, shares that his teammates would create “contest[s] to see who could fuck the most women in a week–you know: male ego bullshit” (118).  By creating such competitions that are evaluated by the number of sexual encounters with women, heterosexuality is therefore celebrated  and rewarded when practiced excessively. In her article, Nightmares of the Heteronormative, Ferguson discusses how non-normative sexualities are created through “regulating sexual expression through heteropatriarchal intimate relations….such confirmation is crucial to the integrity of …allocation of rights and privileges” (421). In this quote, she critiques how constant regulation of male to female sex creates homosexual relations as a non-normative sexuality. Also, this quote illustrates that constant regulations of heterosexual intimacy normalize the meaning of homosexuality as unspoken and taboo.  Furthermore, she indicates that the power of these heteronormative applications are crucial in understanding how privilege and belonging are directly related to heterosexuality. Simmons explains how heterosexuality is seen as a privilege for professional football players:

In the NFL, you could be a wife beater, you can do drugs, get piss-ass drunk and wreck your car… No matter what sin you committed, the team would accept you…If anything the team would hold you in higher esteem! A man who played professional football could get away with pretty much anything, but never- under any circumstances whatsoever- could you announce that you were gay. That was the unpardonable sin. (Simmons 126)

The simple fact that amongst the team members, one could get away with domestic violence and illegal drug activity–and be praised for it– demonstrates how heterosexual players are praised for misbehaving; while homosexuality itself serves  as justification for punishment. The hierarchy of heterosexual privilege is extended  into the structure of football as Anderson states that any variance to heterosexuality is subversive and therefore likely to less opportunity for promotion (68). Although there is no promotion beyond the NFL level, the significance of Anderson’s argument is that it demonstrates that  homosexual players are  automatically perceived as less valuable compared to their heterosexual counterparts. Finally, the limits of homosexuality within the structure of football are crafted through an assumption of heterosexuality and racial stratification within a hierarchy of whiteness.

Representations of NFL players reflect white heteronormativity through the reproduction of images that display sexual and racial difference as disposable to public interests. Kimberly Crenshaw notes in her article Mapping the Margins, “Race, gender, and other identity categories are most often treated as intrinsically negative frameworks in which social power works to exclude  or marginalize those who are different” (493). Within this quote, those who are different are those who do not embody whiteness.  The complexity of understanding both race and sexuality in relation to lived experience  serves as helpful information in understanding how far queer people of color are placed underneath straight white players.  As she explains in her article The Whiteness of Sport Media/Scholarship,  Mary McDonald writes that Black masculinity has “repeatedly construct[ed] Black male athletes as inherently physically oriented and with binary visions of ‘good Black’ and ‘bad Black'” (155) . The dichotomy between ‘good and bad’ represents the placement within measurements of whiteness that Black football players can fit into. This binary reproduces “good” and “bad” physical capabilities of Black bodies, while simultaneously ignoring  larger systemic disadvantages that affect people of color on a large scale.  In addition to his Black identity, it also seen how his sexual identity works to suppress true self-expression. We can take an experiment conducted by Jennifer Knight and Traci Giuliano from Southwest University on the “image problem,” which showed that athletes described as clearly heterosexual were perceived more favorably than athletes whose sexual orientation was ambiguous. Most importantly, the test concluded that male athletes “who transgress their ‘heterosexual assumption'” are affected more harshly than women, deeming that gay males who are “inconsistent” with the idealized male image are extremely feminine (Knight 280). Since male athletes are represented to embody heterosexuality in their public image, Simmons encounters a formidable path as his queer identity and Black skin place him farther away from ideal whiteness. Popularly circulated images of football players are constructed to be viewed as strictly white and heterosexual, and as these representations are extensively portrayed through popular media outlets,  leaving little to no representation of queer brown men. Therefore, queer players of color must commit to a privileged racialized and gendered performance of whiteness in order to be read as legitimate in within the dominant white male gaze.

In her discussion on whiteness as racialized privilege, Cheryl Harris addresses how racial stereotypes about African Americans in popular culture “helped the masses of America create a positive and superior sense of identity”  for white Americans (173). By identifying the Black body as subordinate to white bodies, blackness as an identity is disposable while whiteness is glorified. Thus, the racialized stereotypes in the above quote, paired with the “heterosexual assumption” of athletes,  demonstrate how  perceptions of non-white gay athletes are grouped underneath whiteness; as abject/ others.  Simmons adds to this discussion by explaining the overwhelming pressure that accompanies great publicity and the need to conform to dominant representations of  the white heterosexual, “I am no longer allow to do certain things  I may have liked to do. Suddenly I can’t just  act the same way I used to. From out of nowhere you’ve got all these people relying on you, and theres no room for error” (Simmons 124). From the quotation,  public representation caused Simmons to constantly have to hide his sexual identity and police his Black masculinity, due to misleading and limiting representations of gay athletes and Black athletes. To contribute, Tuaolo has immense fears of excelling in his football career because it would result in an abundance of publicity since he does not reflect white heterosexuality. He explains after he would make a successful play on the field his anxiety would heighten, “hours later, in the middle of the night, I’d wake up sweating… Maybe someone who knows [that I’m gay] saw that…Maybe they’ll call the coach, or the owner, or the papers. Sometimes I’d spend hours laying awake, praying for the anxiety attack to end” (Tuaolo 147). The fear that Tuaolo experienced was that his image of homosexuality would prevail in the sports coverage, which is derived from his abjection from the glorified white masculinity.  Due to life under the microscope of the public eye, Simmons and Tuaolo must combat individual stereotypes of gay men and non-white men in order to genuflect to the expectations of his audience’s gaze.  This demonstrates the idea that heterosexual and racial performance are constantly being scrutinized, on and off the field as a way of maintaining white heteronormativity.

In addition to heterosexual and white dominance in football, there is a deeper inter-male competition that occurs due to the patrolling of one another’s masculine performance in order to identify femininity as a direct opposition to masculinity. The need for professional football players to patrol each other’s masculinity is how they replicates the scale of hegemonic masculinity. The term hegemonic masculinity can be understood as “the most dominant form of masculinity (white, middle-class, heterosexual) in a given historical period, [and] is defined in relation to femininity and subordinated masculinities” (Dworkin 49). Immersed in the cultural dynamics of football is the concentration of hegemonic masculinity, as expectations and ideals of masculinities are informed and practiced.  The use of “fag” as a slur among football players is one method of patrolling masculinity; by reducing the masculinity of another player, a football player could validate his social status by reassuring his own masculinity.  Relating back to Crenshaw, she explains how  categorization of identities  “vulgar constructionism thus distorts the possibilities of meaningful identity politics by conflating separate but closely linked powers.”  In this quote, vulgar constructionism distorts meaningful identity politics because of the immense power of categorizing sexual identity, and the limits to which categorizations manifest into social meaning. The word; “fag” plays a very critical role in the applications of gender performance, as it exemplifies how the pressures of gender performance are extended through language and communication. As C.J. Pascoe describes it, the “fag discourse” represents the use of the word fag in social interaction as a way to police one another’s actions within and beyond the boundaries of masculinity, thus categorizing homosexual and feminine categories in male bodies. Pascoe argues that the policed boundaries of masculinity constructs a gendered sense of homophobia towards male homosexuals, which represents how “fag” is powerful in creating exclusion of gay identities in football. Michael Messner explains that the performance of masculinity is a task for homosexual athletes that occurs with “the development of a positional identity that clarifies the boundaries between the self and the other….in which [gay players] struggled to construct masculine positional identities” (100). Here, Messner explains how words that police masculinity directly contribute to how football players define themselves in relation to one another. Tuaolo confirms this notion as he remembers old lessons of masculinity from his football coaches, “Since you were little boys you’ve been told, ‘hey, don’t be a little faggot'” (330). This form of insult is initiated to teach boys that their masculinity is a necessity for the athleticism of a professional football player.  It is the use of this word that perpetuates the notion that masculine men naturally dominate football. Tuaolo writes about how shocked he was when he got to the professional level from hearing the word fag in the locker room, mostly from coaches, “They called each other ‘fags,’ ‘fucking queers,’ fudgepackers'” (Tuaolo 94). Although the word fag is taught to a little kid as a relation to the inferiority of  homosexuality and femininity, the NFL culture demanded of Simmons  and Tuaolo a greater internalized feeling of homophobia  because of the intensified boundaries of masculinity.  Since categorizing fags defines self in relation to the other, heterosexual men collectively engage in what Messner described as “cultural values and behaviors ….which are culturally valued aspects of masculinity” (99). Messner claims that through these culturally valued aspects of masculinity, men create status differences among other men in order to legitimize their masculine practices and behaviors. Moreover, since masculinity is culturally valued, players who reinforce and police masculinity create bonds through the internalization of their own masculinity as dominant over femininity. This represents a method of how gender performance is geared to oppress the male homosexual, as reference to “fags” is a way of checking the performance of masculinity, a trait that is directly linked with heterosexuality.

By looking through the lens of Roy Simmons  and Esera Tuaolo’s experience as gay African American, and Filipino men, respectively, we can identify the structures that silence the racialized homosexual struggle. The institution of football directly incorporates hegemonic American ways of addressing identity difference.  These epitomized ideas of white heteronormativity and masculinity are external forces that shape the way a male football player should be on and off the playing field. This paints a larger picture, as it exemplifies how offensive stereotypes and exclusion of “the other” are reinforced through a societal discourse. The exclusion of homosexual identities within football causes their struggle to be invisible in a way that promotes the normalization of heterosexual politics, so much that the homosexual identity then becomes hyper-visible in that same framework. By introducing intersectionality of race, sexuality, and gender, I bring spotlight to the microscopic community of homosexual football players of color in the large culture of professional American football to demonstrate the formation of an underrepresented individual in a war against sexual discrimination and racial oppression. The significance of this battle is that homosexual men of color in the NFL  not only battle against the constructed ideas of whiteness, masculinity and heterosexuality, but that they are fighting against a hierarchical privilege that seems to prevail throughout the idealized “American” identity. This heteropatriarchal privilege has been constructed and perpetuated to form an enclosed circle, that from within is exclusive to any diversion from “normal” criteria. Moreover, the concept of normality allocates privilege to those individuals who embody this normality.  As white,  masculine, and heterosexual privilege is idealized and practiced in the institutional aspects of football, homosexual players of color are then oppressed. Then, we can understand how the lives of underrepresented minorities are shaped based on the hegemonic discourse that in many ways perpetuates norms, and cultural and social traditions of heteropatriarchal whiteness.

Works Cited

Anderson, Eric. In The Game: Gay Athletes and the Cult of Masculinity. Albany: State University of New York Press. 2005. Print.

Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review , Vol. 43, No. 6 (Jul., 1991), pp. 1 241-1299. Print.

Dworkin, Shari Lee, and Faye Linda Wachs. “The Morality/Manhood Paradox: Masculinity, Sport, and the Media. Masculinities, Gender Relations, and Sport. Vol 13. Thousand Oaks: Sage Productions, Inc. 2000. Print.

Ferguson, Roderick. “The Nightmares of the Heteronormative.” Cultural Values 4.4 (2000): 419-444. Print.

Harris, Cheryl. “Whiteness as Property.” Harvard Law Review , Vol. 106, No. 8 (Jun., 1993), pp. 1707-1791. Print.

Knight, Jennifer L., and Traci A. Guiliano. “Blood, Sweat, and Jeers: The Impact of the Media’s Heterosexist Portrayals on Perceptions of Male and Female Athletes. Journal of Sport and Behavior.” Journal of Sport Behavior 26.3 (2003): 272-284. Print.

McDonald, Mary G. “The Whiteness of Sport Media/ Scholarship.” Examining Identity in Sports Media. Ed. Hundley, Heather and Andrew C. Billings. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc. 2010. 153-169. Print.

Messner, Michael A., and Donald F. Sabo, eds. Sport, Men, and the Gender Order: Critical Feminist Perspectives. 1990. Print.

Pascoe, C.J. 2005. “‘Dude, You’re a Fag’: Adolescent Masculinity and the Fag Discourse.” Sexualities 8:329-46. Print.

Simmons, Roy, and Damon DiMarco. Out of Bounds: Coming Out of Sexual Abuse, Addiction, and My Life of Lies in the NFL Closet. New York: Da Capo Press. 2006. Print.

Tuaolo, Esera, and John Rosengren. Alone in the Trenches: My Life as a Gay Man in the NFL. Naperville: Source Books, Inc. 2006. Print.

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