On June 21st, Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib chose to invite the world in to the interior parts of his mind via Instagram, and told everyone he was gay. As I listened to Carl’s Instagram message, I smiled and thought, “This one feels different.” Carl talked about the importance of representation, the suicide rates of LGBTQ+ youth, and how he hoped his openness about his sexuality would help everyone reach a maturity where these invitations would no longer be necessary.
As I listened to others talk about Carl, I hoped the conversation about homophobia in sports — and homophobia more broadly — had evolved to let us finally dig a bit deeper, and get to the source of this particular ism. Sadly, too many people are still just scratching at the surface.
As a former NFL player who is also gay, I am often asked to share my perspective when high-profile professional athletes “invite in” the world. I am predictably asked the same types of questions: “What was the catalyst for you to come out after your NFL career?” “Was the homophobia in the NFL the reason you waited to come out until after your playing days had ended?” These questions center the conversation around homophobia, when the bigger issue is male fragility and naked sexism.
When I chose to “invite in” the world, a large catalyst in my decision emanated from newfound learnings I gained while reading feminist literature. Feminism gave me the language to describe what was happening inside of my mind, and once I could describe it, I was able to muster up the courage to tell others that I’m gay.
The first book on feminism I ever read was titled Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center by bell hooks. After being asked to read the book three times — I had called someone a term that was deeply sexist and needed to gain some much needed perspective — I came to understand that feminism was not only about, nor is it only for women-identified people: It was for me and is work for everyone.
My answer to the second question often surprises people, and it’s usually because they have never really thought about the relationship between gender and homophobia. My complicated answer is no.
Hearing homophobic language was not an issue for me inside of the five NFL locker rooms I sat in.
While I did hear homophobic slurs in college, the primary place I remember hearing that type of language was high school. Homophobic language was not the weapon of choice in the NFL. In many of the spaces I inhabited, sexist language was more omnipresent. Though I didn’t have the ability to describe it at the time, the sexist language used towards me and others was just as debilitating and demoralizing as any anti-gay slur.
Words like “pussy,” “soft”, “weak,” “hoe,” and everyone’s favorite, “bitch,” were used against me and other men in an attempt to emasculate them. The most tried and true method of attempted emasculation is to call a man something that increases their proximity to being a woman. After reading feminist literature and reflecting on the language used so often to seemingly insult other men, it become clear to me that the root of homophobia must be sexism.
Using sexist language towards another man as a weapon reveals an often unconscious but still known truth between male-identifying people: for a man to be placed or seen to exist in proximity to women, is to be in danger or perceived as less than. Therefore, men use sexist language in an attempt to consistently move other men from the center, where male collective power exists, to the margins where danger is ubiquitous. For so many folks, being gay places men in the position of being treated like or acting like women. Thus, it is sexism that drives a significant amount of our culture’s battle with homophobia.
As more gay athletes extend an invitation for the rest of the world to get to know them, all gay men must increase our understanding of the ways that homophobia rests on a foundation of sexist oppression and become true partners with women-identifying folks so we can finally get to homophobia’s root. As we stand with women-identifying folks, we can work more effectively to help cisgender, heterosexual men understand what bell hooks asserts: as long as men are brainwashed to equate violate abuse of women with privilege, they will have no understanding of the damage done to themselves or the damage they do to others and no motivation to change.
Former NFL Player Wade Davis is a thought leader, public speaker, and writer on gender, race, and orientation equality. Wade has consulted with Google, P& G, Viacom, Bacardi and others to co-create transformative solutions to build inclusive corporate cultures.