Culliver’s travels: Equality heads for the end zone
One of the side effects of getting older is the feeling that time has started to move faster. Usually, this impression is received as a negative: You realize you’re getting less done every day; you try to figure out how old you were when your favorite TV stars were born; and every holiday seems to creep up on you like George Zimmerman bearing fruitcake. But if you shift your focus every now and then from pure selfishness, you have the privilege of noticing when the accelerated pace of change is doing great things in corners where it’s been long overdue.
We saw it this week, when the San Francisco 49ers’ Chris Culliver addressed the prospect of having to play alongside openly gay teammates. “Can’t be with that sweet stuff,” Culliver spewed all over interviewer Artie Lange – only to draw an immediate firestorm of condemnation from his employers and a bunch of fellow athletes.
“We have and always will proudly support the LGBT community,” the 49ers’ management declared, appending a sheepish-sounding retraction from Culliver himself. Apparently, he had consulted the team nutritionist and learned that a little bit of the sweet stuff really isn’t so bad for him after all.
If you’re in your 20s, you might not have considered any of this a very big deal: A guy said something stupid and everybody came down on him about it. But if you’re, say, 20 years older, you might instead have found yourself wondering if it wasn’t just yesterday that Tone Loc could ad lib “Ain’t no plan with a man” on all channels without fear of censure, knowing full well that mainstream society was squarely in his corner. (At least Culliver was asked; somebody who raises the issue of gay sex only to condemn it needs to have a long and honest talk with himself.)
It’s kind of ironic that a pro baller like Culliver could so misjudge the ground on which he stands. Maybe it’s just hard when that terrain is shifting so quickly beneath your feet.
Full disclosure: I’m a straight guy. So I know it’s highly problematic for me to talk up the supposedly rapid gains being scored groups to which I don’t happen to belong. If it isn’t worded just right, the logical response to “You’ve come a long way, baby” is “And where the hell have you been?” But on an empirical level, we have to admit that, while LGBT equality has been a long time in coming, the lag time between its emergence as part of the national conversation and its acknowledgement as “the right thing to do” seems to have been much shorter than what we’ve seen in past, similar struggles. And that’s something for all people of good will to celebrate.
The evidence is all around us. It’s there when national polls show public approval of gay marriage going from under water to above it in record time. It’s there when an innocuous bit of hand-holding between same-sex partners out for a pizza inspires unanimous rebuke – not of the loving couple, but of the single homophobic witness to the incident who saw fit to shoot off his fool mouth.
And it’s there when an organization like JC Penney defends its queer spokesperson not with a simpering plea that she really doesn’t want to bother anybody, please, but with a resounding affirmation that the pitchwoman in question is firmly in line with the company’s all-American values.
Naturally, shifting ground can be dangerous ground – for everybody. I didn’t blog about Jodie Foster’s Golden Globes speech, in part because my reaction to it was so atypical that it ended up worrying me. Essentially, what I took from her comments was “This is how you are and are not allowed to worship me for all my mighty contributions.” I’m glad I didn’t air that assessment in this forum: Andrew Sullivan ended up expressing similar sentiments with far more personal authority, while Gawker managed to convey exactly how I feared I might sound if I weren’t careful.
But just a few weeks later, I can’t call up any strong reaction to Foster’s harangue; the only adjective I can think of to attach to it is “quaint.” I had been on her side in the early ’90s, when the gay press was treating it as her duty to come out. That had struck me as almost fanatical groupthink — a pretty blithe show of disregard for the rights and safety of the individual. But here in the 21st century, the idea that one’s sexual orientation needs to be shrouded in “privacy” is disappearing so rapidly that those who still defer to it risk looking like museum pieces – as voiceless and unconvincing as a Madame Tussauds exhibit.
Jim Nabors, who came out publicly this week upon marrying his partner of 38 years, couldn’t do so without tripping all over himself to avoid sounding militant:
“I’m not a debater. And everybody has their own opinion about this and actually I’m not an activist so I’ve never gotten involved in any of this … “ Nabors told Hawaii News now. In referencing his orientation, he used some terminology that was deeply telling: “I haven’t ever made a public spectacle of it.”
At least he admitted he has no worthwhile counsel for the LGBT teens of today: “[Y]ou don’t ever understand what people look down on you, or say cruel things to you about that sort of thing, but nevertheless, that’s just life, and you just have to get above it.” In an era in which the name “Stonewall” can find its way into a President’s inaugural address, that advice has all the instructive force of a Whitman Sampler.
No, Nabors really has nothing to say to this generation – any more than today’s young people of color can find any personal comfort in Herman Cain’s explanation that he had sat out the civil rights struggle because he was just too busy livin’ life. Dodges of that nature simply don’t fly anymore, and it isn’t because the American public has developed some newfound affinity for “activists” (to use Nabors’ word): Then as now, we tend to grant knee-jerk approval to people who go to work, take care of their families and don’t get involved in what we view narrowly as politics. The difference is that the playing field on which all of that living, working and striving takes place has been upended. These days, we understand that the activists – the radicals — are the ones opposing equality, not the ones demanding it. And that’s one hell of a sea change.
Of course, I could be wrong. I could just be being naïve about the whole thing. If I am, I trust that my gay friends will find a way to inform me (politely, I hope). In the interim, I’m just going to close my eyes, take a deep breath, and enjoy that feeling of the ground beneath me racing ahead of me one more time.
Are you ready for some football?