Jason Collins And The Challenge For Men

Collins' courage to be himself created a watershed moment.

“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay­.” Jason Collins’s words and courage created a watershed moment in sports history. As an NBA player he is the first openly gay, male athlete in major U.S. professional sports. Lesbian women have already been out in professional sports. Gay men have not.

This pattern shows up in other parts of society as well. A police sergeant in the Midwest asked me, “How come we have plenty of out lesbian officers, but no out gay officers?” The pattern and the underlying causes are the same.

One factor is the strong impact of gender conditioning amongst men. In his book The Macho Paradox and his film Tough Guise, anti-violence educator Jackson Katz shows how men are socialized to act tough and wear a mask of invulnerability. It isn’t hard for me explain the phrase “Act Like a Man” with statements like: show no chinks in the armor; win at all costs; sometimes wrong, but never in doubt. And I can tell what you are called if you don’t fit in that box—in my experience it boils down to being called feminine or gay.

Because of strong peer pressure we avoid being seen as outside of the macho box. Essentially our own internalized homophobia, regardless of our actual sexual orientation, is used as a weapon to keep us in the box. A men’s locker room is one of the last bastions where these messages can be intensely reinforced. One sports writer called the men’s locker room a jungle. Thus the pressure on any male professional athlete to remain publicly heterosexual is intense—to be gay is high risk. 

But this week Jason Collin’s defied that risk and found the courage to be himself. He wrote about his fear and said that as soon as he came out he felt more whole.

As a seven-foot, 250 pound, very aggressive basketball player, Jason defies common stereotypes of being gay. His masculine traits are not “cancelled out” by his being gay. 

The challenge for even straight men is to claim the freedom to show, and be all of our masculine and feminine traits. When we accept that as OK in each other, we free up more of our full selves for our work and for life. As Jason, we will feel more whole.   

This moment has been a long time coming, and the implications reach beyond sports into the business world. Indeed, research on executives shows that success as leaders is more highly correlated to emotional intelligence than either IQ or technical skills. Yet these EQ skills, such as empathy and deep listening, have often been suppressed or devalued in men because of our traditional gender conditioning. 

As athletes like Jason and other visible role models in society take the risk to be their full selves, society will accept a wider view of what being a man can be. And we will all benefit when every man is freer to feel—and be­—whole. Thank you Jason. 

Jason found the courage to be himself. What would it look like if you acted courageously by bringing even more of your full self to your work and to life?
Posted by Michael Welp on May 2, 2013 10:33 AM America/New_York
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