NBA player Jason Collins, left, in 2009. Collins recently came out as gay in a Sports Illustrated op-ed, the first active player in a major-league sport to do so.
As the first active member of one of the major sports leagues to come out as gay, NBA player Jason Collins’s announcement yesterday has generated praise from gay-rights supporters. Predictably, it has also prompted dire warnings about gays in the locker room from homophobes like the Family Research Council’s Brian Fischer:
I will guarantee you ... if the ownership of whatever team is thinking about bringing him back, or thinking about trading for him, and they go to the players on that team and they say 'How do you feel about an out active homosexual being in the same locker room, sharing the same shower facilities with you?' they'll say no way. I don't want that. I do not want some guy, a teammate, eyeballing me in the shower.
This seems to be a concern primarily among men—women, for whatever reason, aren’t half as scared of lesbians—but it’s a common refrain among homophobes trying to stoke gay panic. The gay-shower scenario comes up whenever public discussion turns to gays in sports, and it was also a concern during the debate over “don’t ask, don’t tell,” with some members of the military suggesting separate showering facilities for gay and straight soldiers. For those who don’t fear gay people, it may seem a bit juvenile or downright paranoid—for guys like Fischer, it’s as if the mere gaze of a gay guy has the strange, infectious power to rob you of your masculinity. But one can understand how the idea generates mild discomfort even among guys who are pretty accepting.
First, let’s state the obvious. For as long as there have been sex-segregated locker rooms—and, if we’re talking about the Romans, public baths—gay guys have been showering with straight guys; it’s a natural consequence of using sex as a proxy for sexual orientation. The only difference now is that, at least in the military or on sports teams with openly gay members, you know who’s gay. You’d think that homo-haters would prefer to know where the threat is coming from, but the point is that same-sex harassment in locker rooms should be no more a problem with openly gay athletes than it was before. It would be silly to say that no guy has ever been hit on in a locker room, but as far as I know this has not been a widespread problem in any of the major sports leagues; having a colleague who’s had the courage to be honest about who he is won’t change that.
Which brings me to the main point: As a gay man, I can assure you that we’re probably less likely to look at your junk than your fellow straight guys. Rather than engage in the typical bro-to-bro bravado at the gym—I’ve never witnessed towel-snapping fights so often portrayed in movies, but I have seen guys shout boisterously across the locker room, pat each other on the back, and comment on each other’s bodies (“dude, what’d you do to get those pecs?”)—I and the gay friends I’ve spoken to do our best to keep to ourselves. Frankly, we find this behavior sort of terrifying. Part of this is no doubt a vestige of our closeted high-school days, when we’d stop at nothing to avoid being found out (as a lanky teenager with no eye-hand coordination to speak of, P.E. was a special challenge). But I’ve also come to see it as a means of showing respect for the comfort of others. I’m aware that even the most gay-friendly straight guy doesn’t want to be ogled in the locker room—who does?—and do my best not to give off that impression.
This is precisely what a Department of Defense working group found in recommending how to implement the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” In addition to posing a logistical nightmare, the group predicted that creating separate facilities for gays and straights would stigmatize gay service-members and that concerns about integrated showers were based on stereotypes about gay people as predators. Gay service members, their report said, have “learned to avoid making heterosexuals feel uncomfortable or threatened in situation [sic] such as this.”
Despite the plot lines of countless porno flicks, anyone who’s a regular gym goer can tell you the experience of sweating and heaving in the weight room or cleaning up afterward in the showers is hardly sexual. Gym tunnel vision sets in. With your iPod playing “Final Countdown”—or in my case, the soundtrack to Les Misérables—you’re ensconced in a prayer-like state of isolation. Church time isn’t for cruising, and for most of us, neither is gym time.
Allowing gays and straights to share locker rooms begs the question of whether we should stop segregating these spaces by sex altogether. If gays can shower with straight guys, shouldn’t straight guys be able to shower with women? In principle, this seems like a reasonable conclusion—until you take into account our current gender and power dynamics. Women are regularly victimized by men; this includes not only being disproportionately the victims of sexual assault and rape, but everyday harassment like being cat-called while walking down the street. Like all-women’s colleges, sex-segregated changing facilities provide women a sanctuary from these pressures. So long as our culture puts up with and encourages such behavior, women should be able to keep the boys out of the locker room.
Note that in the scenario above, we’re not talking about men needing protection from lecherous women. Similarly, it is not straight guys who are bullied, become the victim of hate crimes, or have discriminatory laws passed against them. The most ridiculous thing about the gay-shower scare tactic is that it paints straight guys as helpless sheep when in fact—in the locker room and in life—they have most of the power. Unless we’re talking about an all-gay sports team, trust me: Straight guys, you have nothing to worry about.