14 May 2014

Sam I am?

Green eggs and ham version. Maybe.

I admit I am not fully aware of the logic involved in anti-homosexual perspectives, such as there is any. I've tried to engage with it somewhat with more religious (read: anyone who is religious) people. But in observing the case for Michael Sam's drafting being some kind of issue, I'm at a loss to explain much of it.

I see several perspectives emerging in response to the media circus surrounding this story.

"Why is this a big deal?" Surely there are gay men playing in the NFL right now, before this man was ever drafted, in a late round at that. To some extent, this point gets a part of the vision of tolerance correct. At some point this will cease to be a big deal as more players or potential NFL players (or NBA or MLB or NHL) come out. Fewer and fewer people will care. Larry Doby is not widely perceived as a major American heroic story the way Jackie Robinson is and was, despite starting his MLB career at almost the same time and facing many of the same enormous problems of acceptance and tolerance in a widely racist society and its then most beloved sport.

The problem is not that there are gay players in the NFL and so this isn't a story for that reason. The problem today is that none of those players are currently open about their sexual orientation. We do not know that there are. It is hidden, from teammates, owners, fans, and so on. That makes the first player(s) to do so kind of a big deal because it changes things a little. This knowledge of certainty, with a human name and face to the story changes things a little for all of us. It is yet one more arena where a person's sexual preferences should cease to be a matter of great public concern and we can focus on evaluating other aspects of their character and performance in a given setting/task.And it is now a story, relating to the plight and success of one individual, instead of an assumption based on statistics and reason, an abstraction. And stories are usually given far more power by people than abstractions.

Perhaps more importantly in a practical sense, it may also open up the ability of other players to be open about this aspect of themselves once the wall comes crashing down from the first to make it through the barrier without the world and professional sports as we know it coming to an end. From a societal perspective it may indeed stop being a big deal within a year or two that there are, and always have been, gay men playing professional sports (Most humorously mocked by Conan O'Brien's joke about it being the first time anyone celebrated being drafted by the Rams as the basis for the historical nature of the event). From an individual perspective, the individual outing themselves as some particularly unpopular or previously unpopular group, be they homosexual, transgender, atheist, Muslim, or whatever, potentially gains a tremendous amount by no longer concealing part of their basic humanity and identity from friends, co-workers and other trusted associates. And from a societal perspective we gain by seeing that these prejudices that we harbor, unconsciously or not, about said groups, are often incorrect in assessing the quality of people who make up such groups. Homosexual men can go play a physical game with other men, without posing any grave risk to any other male player's perceived masculinity. That's actually, surprisingly, a big deal to many people still.

The big deal is therefore not the individual event. It is the change overall it represents about how we are to relate to people who are different from ourselves. People asking this question are blithely or even maliciously ignoring the importance to the people who are being oppressed currently that they may rise above that status, and would most likely prefer that people who have unpopular and otherwise invisible character traits remain in the closet about them rather than have to tolerate this knowledge. That there is someone out there trying to overcome that barrier despite this hated or otherwise intolerable attribute of their identity. This ship has sailed, and putting it back isn't going to happen. Not for a long time.

If there are identity traits we don't like about other people, and we perceive them as something fungible about their nature, say their choice of religion or their sexual proclivities, however inflexible those things actually are, then it is not really appropriate to demand that these traits remain quietly present at all times in the background rather than as something we may come to know about this person. Indeed, if people actually perceive them as "sins" or otherwise problematic elements of character and behavior, then they should probably want them in the open so they know to either stay away from or seek to talk to such people as is their want. The common idea that these should remain hidden or unimportant strikes me as a counter-intuitive practice of the faiths that (often) lead religious people to condemn such people, and comes off more as a defensive tactic of saying "I don't really like them, but I'm going to hide behind my religion to say something else". It's not the worst such example of this kind of thinking. But this perspective has been doing considerable violence to the health and sustainability of various religious institutions throughout the Western world for well over a decade, if not longer. It has not done much to slow down the process of accepting amendments to our legal and cultural institutions (marriage rights, media coverage, pop culture characters and portrayals).

Why is a 7th round pick such a big deal? As a more football oriented point this one is pretty lame all around. This factor has been seized upon both by people who are looking to detract from the historical and cultural importance of the event of a pro team drafting and potentially selecting a gay man to come play for their team and by those seeking to look for evidence of bias that other NFL teams did not want to do so and that the NFL has a homophobia problem. The reality here is that it's probably both. He may not be very good at professional football, or he could be much better than a 7th round pick and teams will regret having passed on an otherwise appealing prospect. And some of them likely did so because of concerns over sexuality. Either personally as owners and executives or as a perspective of bias they believed is shared or even widespread in the locker rooms of the respective teams they control. It is not impossible to believe that others share our biases, nor is it possible that these biases do not exist on some level, perhaps even a very high level on some teams.

On the football grounds, asking about the importance of a "7th round pick" is the case for almost anyone who is drafted in the NFL (1st rounders included). NFL teams are notoriously terrible at assessing professional prospects through the draft. All pro sports are bad at this, but baseball at least has a minor league system for player development and the NBA seems to have gotten a decent handle on translating basketball abilities from college or international leagues to the big time that competent teams have far fewer misses. The NFL has no clue and no effective system for evaluating talented players. Some of this is the complexity of the sport with various players with more specialized roles per team, each ideally contributing to the success of others around them, making it very hard to narrowly focus on individual achievement. Some entire roles (linemen for example) have few meaningful publicly available statistics for the public or outsiders to act as a quick rational check on which players might be "good" or "bad" at a particular skill. It is therefore difficult to show evidence that the other teams passed on him because they feared the effect of his homosexuality or some such. It is possible he may not even make the team that drafted him and could end up playing elsewhere, or not make the league at all. As with the Jason Collins announcement last year at the tail end of the NBA season, this may not in itself be evidence of a fearful bias if he is not playing next year in the NFL (Collins was eventually signed by the Nets late in the year, but was playing in the league).

So okay, there's a gay guy playing football (potentially). Well then, I guess we will love the man but hate the sin. This to me is the worst kind of prejudice being paraded as religious nonsense that demands our toleration and respect. Because it rarely comes down to people who find the man tolerable but the behavior not so much who would say such a thing. I do not have a preference for having sex with other men, nor any interest in it and would not indulge someone who wanted to do so with me. But I do not find it hateful that other men do have this preference, they are welcome to do so with anyone else who wishes so far as I am concerned. So the logic that the behavior is to be despised because it is somehow icky or not what we would do ourselves doesn't really move the morality needle at all as a first order problem with this statement. I don't find it to be categorically sinful in nature to seek out the people whose company you enjoy, to express feelings of affection toward them, and to have sexual attractions and seek to act upon them as a portion of that relationship with other consenting human beings. There are categories of behavior within that that can be harmful, and which I would not condone. I would not condone cheating sexually and physically on a partner without some arrangement with that partner for an open relationship for example. This behavior carries risks and can be damaging to a relationship, and thus to another putatively cared for individual, if not more than one. Obviously sexually forcing oneself on others is categorically wrong as it removes their agency and declares that whatever it is they want or wanted, "my" wants are more important and to thus seek personal sexual gratification at the expense of their body and potentially the physical and mental health of another person to be placed at risk by this action. It is not impossible to conceive of a significant and important gradient of moral difficulties that individuals must navigate where it concerns human sexuality even in a relatively hedonistic anything goes world that I might perceive as morally appropriate and tolerable as compared to a more repressive culture as we inhabit now. I would not say I am blinded to the prospect that there are in fact sexual "sins" in that light.

Within any given religion, there are numerous examples of "sin" that are not condoned, or have had amended connotations to allow for certain varieties of acts but not others, and so on down the line. But, taken as given that there are in fact any varieties of wrongness or sinfulness to each of them, then the issue isn't limited to homosexuality, if one is consistent. It's applicable to almost anyone at all in the human condition. The disparity seems to be in this instance, because we do not care why someone does a thing for which we have dogma disapproving of it, it does not matter if that thing is inherent to their person and identity or not. Indeed, usually it is not even a concern to investigate the matter, it is declared a choice or a phase and something which shall be treated and excised from themselves in favor of our own preferences, again a destruction of agency. This, as a method of "treatment", is considerably harmful to individuals who go through it. It is, in effect, unethical rather than humane and sensible to behave this way. To parade around this as a variant of tolerance that should be itself tolerated and respected is not a wise thing either. Other people are being actively harmed by this notion. "You" are merely being disgusted by, or inconvenienced in your desires for, the behavior of other people.

A more serious error here is the position that any and all sins are worthy of such treatment. Or, more precisely, the issue is that not everything that has been deemed sinful behavior, or otherwise immoral and immoderate for which religion is often used to claim its wrongfulness is universally and eternally condemned by religions. Or likewise, to claim that the position of wrongfulness was determined and ordained by a deity rather than by men interpreting that deity (or inventing a deity to ordain what they disapproved of, as is the sociological and anthropological explanation).

Tolerance is difficult, and it often requires us to permit people to do or say things we do not like or do not approve of ourselves, while giving us the liberty to present alternatives or views that oppose those disdainful duties of others. It is, on many levels, perfectly permissible for people to state that they disapprove of homosexuality for personal distaste and disgust, for traditional reasons, or even a belief formed based on religious dogma. It should likewise be permissible to argue against these traditional beliefs or question how or why a personal distaste and disgust is formed and why it is needed in a particular format. Watching a gay man, or at least man we now know to be gay, running with and hitting other men with physical violence on a football field, in essence the performance of his job, is not the same as watching a gay man have sex, presumably the object of disgust involved here. This is a separate thing. This distinction is not obviated away and protected from polite discourse by claiming "that is what I believe", and by extension, "my beliefs are based on inviolable truths" so therefore others can't talk about them, threaten them with reasoned arguments, or listen to them with a learned intention of understanding one's motivations.
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