ANALYSIS

More macho men speaking out in support of gay marriage

Posted March 20, 2013, at 10:23 a.m.
Clint Eastwood in 2012.
Handout | MCT
Clint Eastwood in 2012.

Macho (mä´cho): a man who is aggressively proud of his masculinity (see also: football players, gunslingers, rappers).

Heard the latest among the straight, tough-guy set?

Two NFL players have filed a brief before the U.S. Supreme Court in support of gay marriage. Paul Wolfowitz, the neocon defense hawk from the George W. Bush administration, signed on to another. In the testosterone-roiled world of hip-hop, macho men from Jay-Z to 50 Cent had the back of crooner Frank Ocean after he posted an open letter about his sexuality.

In the top sports leagues and conservative circles, the announcements of support for gay rights have been increasing — and increasingly bold. More are coming as the Supreme Court prepares next week to fully examine same-sex marriage for the first time. The two NFL players — Baltimore Raven Brendon Ayanbadejo and Minnesota Viking Chris Kluwe — have long been on the team of those supporting gay rights and filed a brief with the high court urging the justices to upend California’s 2008 voter-approved measure restricting marriage to one man and one woman. Locally, sports broadcaster Brett Haber this year joined with the group Athlete Ally, started two years ago by former University of Maryland wrestler Hudson Taylor, to take a stand against homophobia in sports.

The move among straight guys in athletics and other ultra-manly arenas is reflective of a national trend that shows the majority of Americans support marriage rights for same-sex couples. But it is also indicative of the place of the “tough guy” in society, said sociologist Michael Kimmel, who directs the Center for the Study of Men and Masculinities at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

“They do the right thing even if nobody else supports them,” Kimmel said. “A tough guy also always stands up for the little guy. The tough guy isn’t a bully. The tough guy is righteous. Part of being a tough guy is standing up for the underdog — so I see it as perfectly consistent.”

Consistent, maybe. But rare, still.

In sports, rap music and the military, many of the men who are speaking out are countering the relative norm in their industries. (The NFL is under scrutiny for allegedly “gay checking,” in which team officials are accused of trying to determine the sexual orientation of prospective players.) And after Ocean described his relationship with a man (the artist prefers not to label his sexuality), there was also trash-talking in the industry.

But the support was definitive. Last year, Jay-Z compared same-sex marriage opposition to discrimination against black people. 50 Cent, a.k.a. Curtis Jackson, a.k.a. the rapper who came to fame after being struck by nine bullets, said in an interview last year, “Obama is for same-sex marriage. If the president is saying that, then who am I to go the other way?”

Haber, the sportscaster who lives in Bethesda, Md. and anchored the news for TV stations in the Washington area before moving full-time into play-by-play, joined Athlete Ally to help “create an atmosphere that is conducive to acceptance and tolerance” with the hope that an active player in major professional team sports will come out.

“Reality tells us that gay athletes are there, so it’ll happen and it will be fine,” Haber said.

Haber was raised by politically progressive parents and said he did not have to evolve on the issue of gay rights but, for years, did not feel comfortable discussing his values publicly. “When you’re younger, maybe you just don’t have the confidence to make a bold statement about a topic where sentiments aren’t universally shared. Maybe I was afraid of losing a part of my audience or being labeled as gay myself,” Haber said.

But after seeing the coverage of Ayanbadejo, the Ravens linebacker who compared laws barring same-sex marriage to opposition to his parents’ interracial relationship, Haber decided he should find a way to be involved.

The world of sports has become one of the most-watched slices of the debate over gay rights. Cyd Zeigler Jr., co-founder of OutSports.com, said he struggled to find things to write about when the site launched in 1999 to cover the intersection of sports and gay culture.

At the time, Zeigler said, “no one was talking about the intersection of the gay community and sports. It was on both sides: Sports people didn’t want to talk about gays, and gay people didn’t want to talk about sports.”

Taylor, the former University of Maryland wrestler, became a story in 2010 when he stuck a Human Rights Campaign sticker on his helmet. Taylor, who is straight, majored in theater at Maryland and also spent a bunch of time in locker rooms. He was struck by the dissonant conversations in the two spaces, which he found open and accepting in theater but hostile in athletic circles.

After word of his sticker supporting the gay-rights organization spread, Taylor said he heard from 2,000 gay athletes — many of them closeted. In response, he founded Athlete Ally, which doesn’t explicitly support gay marriage but does ask straight athletes to sign a pledge to “respect and welcome all persons, regardless of their perceived or actual sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.” More than 11,000 athletes have signed on.

There are important historical markers, according to people who have tracked the movement of support in macho culture. In 2007, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, a Republican and former police chief, gained national attention after he declared his support for same-sex marriage at a teary news conference in which he discussed his gay daughter and staffers. In 2011, NFL Hall of Famer Michael Irvin appeared shirtless on the cover of Out magazine addressing his passion for LGBT equality and his kinship with his late brother, Vaughn, who was gay.

Kimmel, the sociologist and author of “Manhood in America: A Cultural History,” compared the straight tough guys who have made their support of same-sex marriage in recent months to the Walt Kowalski character Clint Eastwood played in “Gran Torino.” In the film, Kowalski is a hardened Korean War vet who is at first distrustful of his Hmong neighbors but befriends them and soon becomes their avenger. (The film is rife with Hollywood stereotypes, but the tough guy metaphor holds.)

“Because the closet doors have swung open as dramatically as they have, we are far more likely to know someone who is gay, and what we find out is that it doesn’t make a big difference,” Kimmel said.

This month, Eastwood signed on to a Supreme Court brief, along with other social and political conservatives, moderates and libertarians, backing gay marriage.

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