Ryan Lee: Black athletes—gay and straight—are changing the game for all of us

Miami Heat point guard Dwyane Wade might turn out to be as significant a figure as Jason Collins or Michael Sam in advancing LGBT acceptance in sports. While professional leagues have established a concrete party line in their acceptance of Collins, Sam and other LGBT athletes, Wade is unshielded from virulent homophobia as he challenges social norms.

Wade—along with other openly heterosexual NBA players like LeBron James and Russell Westbrook—have made a fast break from the staid suit-and-tie that defined NBA fashion during the years of Jordan through Kobe. They have splintered even more sharply from the oversized, deliberately apathetic uniform of the euphemistic hip-hop generation.

LeBron rocks skinny jeans and ascots, while Westbrook has been spotted in leather shirts, leopard prints, capris pants, sheer tights, and a suspenders-bow-tie-hiker-cap ensemble that made him look more like a champion yodeler than a basketball all-star. Dwyane Wintour—I mean, Wade—is the cover boy for the NBA’s new look, recently sporting a Huck Finn-inspired denim overall and white button-down muscle shirt combo that I have been unsuccessfully trying to pull off for years.

When photos of these outfits make their way to blogs and social media, Wade and other fashion non-conformists are typically berated as fags and fairies, and as an affront to black masculinity. My defense of their attire likely solidifies the “gayness” of the outfits, but I don’t believe that any of these players is homosexual.

Nor do I think any of them are going to let critics alter their wardrobe.

With subtle grace, they continue to insist that baggy clothes or gender-restrictive styles do not determine their manhood. They offer a new model of determined, successful and stylish straight black men—a group whose expression can be stifled by rigid constructs of masculinity.

American masculinity is as potent—and more enduring—a force as organized religion in opposing LGBT acceptance. It might be wishful to believe that an expanded tolerance of fashion would bridge to, say, being able to experience a breadth of emotions without being labeled soft or suspect, but this trajectory offers hope that black males—gay and straight—will have a larger, healthier space to explore and express themselves.

Prior to Sports Illustrated announcing that Jason Collins was “The Gay Athlete,” I worried how detrimental it would be to our movement if the first openly gay athlete were a punter.

Punters make great allies—Chris Kluwe, bless his heart—but they outrank water boys as the most ridiculed figure in sports. Such a historic moment deserved more than to be a punchline, but that was only half of my angst.

Punter is one of the most historically white positions in football, and I believed it was important—essential—for the Jackie Robinson of the LGBT movement to be African-American. The demographics of the NFL and NBA would have made a white gay athlete an anomaly, squared; and might have reassured some black folks that being gay was a Caucasian quirk.

Black resistance to LGBT equality is unfortunately complemented by the failure of LGBT history to cite the contributions of black queer folks. These oversights range from the buried impact of black gay men in the heroic response to HIV/AIDS narrative, which Atlanta activist Charles Stephens is attempting to unearth, to the benign (though emblematic) shortening of the most important case in gay rights history to Lawrence v. Texas, giving no indication that Tyron Garner, a black gay man, was a co-plaintiff with John Lawrence.

For that reason, it is worth highlighting that three young black gay men—Collins, Sam and U-Mass basketball guard Derrick Gordon—are carrying our cause into new arenas, inside and apart from sports.

Ryan Lee is an Atlanta writer.