Outsports / Sterling, Alves and the comparisons between racism and homophobia in sports
I was having a Skype call with my friend Doug when he said: What if instead of talking about blacks, Donald Sterling had talked about gays? I was puzzled that such a question would even occur to him. While the model “remove gay and replace with black” is extraordinarily pertinent for issues such as marriage equality, I didn’t see how it would work here. The historical bogeyman of the black man threatening the virginal white woman that seems to underlie Sterling’s worldview regarding his girlfriend Vanessa Stiviano just won’t work with a gay man: quite the opposite, in fact. There is no-one as sexually non-threatening to a woman as a gay man.
But the exercise is still interesting: racism is perhaps the biggest social taboo in America. It took one use of “nigger” to make Cliven Bundy radioactive. Had he spoken of gays, would he have suffered the same fate? And had Donald Sterling warned his girlfriend not to bring Lance Bass to a Clippers game, would the reaction of America have been anywhere near as strong or as speedy?
I’m going to say: No way. On Slate itself you’ll find a respected long-time contributor who claims that it can be legitimate to discriminate against gays and lesbians if the discrimination is based on sincerely held religious beliefs. If he felt the same about African Americans, he would never dare say so today, despite the fact that until not so long ago, many Americans had a sincerely held religious belief that miscegenation was contrary to God’s law, and were prompt to use that belief to justify their racism.
I had a similar thought about the response of Brazilian footballer Daniel Alves da Silva to a racist gesture. As in the United States, racists in Europe enjoy identifying people of African descent with monkeys and apes. Last Sunday, during a match between Alves’s FC Barcelona and fellow Spanish team Villarreal CF, a fan of Villarreal (and a coach of the club’s youth team, no less), threw a banana at Alves. Alves calmly picked up the banana, peeled it, and ate it up. It was a fantastic gesture, depriving the insult of all its sting. After all, bananas aren’t grown as projectiles: they’re grown to be eaten. Thanks for the banana!
While soccer players are often taunted with insults relating to their supposed homosexuality, I know of no cases of objects being thrown at them by hostile spectators. I suppose a message could be sent by throwing a dildo at a player, but it’s probably less easy to smuggle a dildo than a banana into a stadium.
So is there an equivalent response to homophobic taunts? If so, it would have to come from solidarity among players. The players on Sterling’s team wore their warmup jerseys inside out as a protest against their owner’s racism, and it’s reported that Clippers and other NBA players planned stronger actions had commissioners Alex Silver not taken firm measures. Similarly, one could imagine players of both teams on the field responding to homophobic taunts by kissing each other smack on the lips. I know of no such responses so far, but am pretty confident that we’ll see them… someday.
Discrimination, insults, abuse, and violence in sport is a shared experience for people of color, for people of faith, for women, for LGBTQ people. The context, history, and backgrounds are not identical, but the combat is the same. That’s why it was non surprising that the LGBT Sports Coalition responded strongly with a call for Sterling to be forced to sell the Clippers. And that’s why in LGBTQ sport, and at the Gay Games in particular, we constantly strive, not always with success (I’m thinking in particular with some embarrassment of our response on past occasions to trans women athletes) to be inclusive. My own club is a member of the French LGBTQ sports federation “FSGL”, whose motto is “contre les discriminations, faisons du sport ensemble” (against all forms of discrimination, let’s play sport together), and it’s a great message that while forms of discrimination vary, their effect is the same; isolation, intimidation, exclusion.
The NBA has said that in collaboration with the players’ association, it will use the mega fine to be paid by Sterling to fund actions against discrimination. It would be fantastic if the NBA and its players association recognized that all forms of discrimination are wrong, and demonstrated their commitment to the principle of sport for all by announcing those grants during opening ceremony of Gay Games 9 on the floor of Quicken Loans Arena, home of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, where among the performers will be… Lance Bass.