You Are a Cog in the Machine: On Being an Ally

When my parents told me I would never rise further in rank than Tiger Scout, the technically second but effectively first level of the Cub Scouts, the explanation they gave to quell my abjection confused me in that, ostensibly, my great aunt’s gayness had nothing at all to do with the situation. Yet it did, or it at least represented my parents’ broader cultural motivations. They pulled me from the Boy Scouts of America because of the organization’s longstanding and open discrimination toward the LGBTQ community, and in this one, relatively minor act, my parents made a stand of alliance.

Athletes like Jason Collins, the first openly gay player on an active NBA roster, and Michael Sam, the first openly gay player to enter the NFL draft, have begun to set a precedent for the gay movement in sports today. What makes these male athletes especially admirable is that “locker room talk,” as it’s been called, is no myth. Only an ignoramus would impart that today’s dominant culture is a gay-friendly one. The hyper-masculine jargon between males – most often jock-ish types or posturing as such – that exists in athletics has perpetuated a culture within which anti-gay remarks and microaggressions are accepted as commonplace. Locker room talk is real; of this there is no doubt.

On the first day of freshman orientation, a senior captain of my lacrosse team pulled all of the freshmen aside and told us this: “We have two rules on this team. Don’t punch anyone and don’t say ‘faggot.’” The prevalence of the latter rule proves indicative of this school’s over-arching progressive and tolerant culture. However, I believe Amherst athletics is an exception. I attended a private high school that appeared equally as progressive as Amherst, yet I heard anti-gay putdowns all the time in the general men’s locker room. In the culture of locker room talk, ‘fag’ has transcended its foundation of sexuality. It is no longer a pure synonym for ‘homo’ but has become instead a unique, ubiquitous slur that will not disappear entirely from locker room lingo by our simply raising awareness about its harmful consequences.

Michael Sam will change whichever NFL locker room he joins next season. Period. That locker room will be different because gay slurs will no longer transcend their origins with such ease. Every use of the f-word will be followed by a glance over the shoulder and a thought: I hope Sam didn’t hear that. And pretty soon those who have that thought enough times will stop saying the word altogether. And hopefully, once they’ve stopped saying it for long enough, the more our culture will grow away from it – and the buried connotations it carries with it.

In his “I Have a Dream” speech, perhaps our most compelling oration on human rights, Martin Luther King Jr. preached, “We have come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now.” He called the country to arms against the stagnant manner of its mindset. “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism,” he shouted from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. He was right. A theory of gradualism (i.e. sitting back and waiting for change to happen) could indeed be tranquilizing. Succumbing to its coma would surely inhibit change. Even still, when later in his speech MLK said the famous words, “I have a dream that one day…right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers,” he certainly didn’t expect to see little white and black kids out on the front lawn together the very next day.

I bring up this speech not in an attempt to equate two distinct struggles and forms of oppression, but instead to learn from a great leader. By stressing both a call to immediate action and also the temporal reality of aspiration, MLK clearly described a universal feature of large-scale social movements. They do not sprint. They crawl. Any cultural shift requires an ongoing gutting of membranes, and the bulk of these membranes consist of small, quiet words – not big, loud ones. Most influential change is found somewhere between activism (an MLK speech or an openly gay NFL player or a protest of the Sochi Olympics etc.) and, on the other end of the spectrum, gradualism. While gradualism as such will fail, societal change will always occur gradually. Jason Collins and Michael Sam have spurred what will be a slow shift in male locker room culture. As more gay athletes come out, and as more straight athletes stand next to them on the field, court etc., the more accepting the world of athletics will become of the LGBTQ community.

Take, for example, a lesser-known story of how tolerant a team – and a locker room – can be. When Dartmouth lacrosse goalie Andrew Goldstein came out to his team after his sophomore season in 2003, his teammates’ main concern was not that Goldstein was a homosexual. They worried instead that Goldstein’s feelings had been hurt by something they might have said in his presence. Many players spoke with Goldstein immediately to apologize for using certain words or acting a certain way in the past. The Dartmouth lacrosse team, a group of men who would have stereotypically promoted locker room culture, didn’t want to lose the respect of their valuable teammate and, more importantly, their friend, so they changed. “It’s pretty normal practice,” Goldstein once told to a SportsCenter reporter, “to email out to the team if Anna Kournikova is on TV, and then everyone can change their station. So this year my captain emailed out, ‘Hey Goldy, Andy Roddick’s on ESPN2 playing’” – and that small act proved him more than just a captain, but an ally as well.

That was 2003, and between then and now, seventeen U.S. states have legalized gay marriage. Our elected president has vocalized his support for the gay community. The LGBTQ movement makes other, less obvious strides nearly every day. However slowly, times are changing.

Doesn’t the mother of a gay son, who encourages him to come out to his Pop Warner football team, play an equally important role in the movement as Michael Sam? Doesn’t the coach of that Pop Warner team, who teaches his players to respect and love their gay teammate before their minds have yielded to complacency, deserve equal praise for his part in the gay movement? Doesn’t that young football player, who is brave enough to face the inevitable hardships of coming out, to expose himself to the world as nothing at all but himself – doesn’t he propel the cause as much as those who wave rainbow-emblazoned flags?

In high school, my father earned the rank of Eagle Scout, the Boy Scouts’ highest merit. He still owns a display of knots he tied as a Webelo. He tells stories occasionally of his scout camping trips. Nonetheless, he would not let me follow in his footsteps. This was not a decision I could control, nor was it a decision directed at me. My parents directed that decision at the Boy Scouts of America, saying with actions as opposed to words, we will not support this organization as long as this organization won’t support gays.

My mind continued to sharpen to LGBTQ issues after that, spurred on and affected by that seemingly meaningless statement my parents had made on my behalf. But it is these decisions – the smaller ones, the private ones – that drive the movement. While pride parades and other forms of activism raise awareness to the issues at hand, I think those actions often do more to rally those who are already allies and less to incite change in the eyes of naysayers. While we don’t have to respect bigots, our goal should nevertheless be to educate them. Activism may provide fuel, but the motor behind any movement will be found deeper within the chassis.

April 14th kicks off Pride and Allies Week this year at Amherst, and in anticipation of it, I want to make clear that you can be an ally while not necessarily also being an activist. Alliance doesn’t have to entail flashy campaigns and in-your-face rhetoric. Sometimes even the smallest of decisions can make a difference. Often those who are less outspoken, or those who identify less with the movement for whatever reason, sit back and say to themselves, this is not my challenge. But it is your challenge. If you identify as a humanist – as I hope we all should – then you identify also with the gay movement, and at some point, in a moment seemingly small or insignificant, you will be called upon to do something about it. You will not be called upon to be Jason Collins or Michael Sam or Ellen DeGeneres. You will be called upon to be you. You will be given an opportunity, however trivial or private, to be a cog in the machine. Please spin the right way.

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