Sissy That Walk, Jason Collins: Life Lessons from Charles Nelson Reilly

The coming out of NBA player Jason Collins has scratched a long-standing itch among professional sports in the United States.  For the past several years, pundits in the media have speculated on the possibility of the first “out” professional athlete in a major American team sport.  The NHL has even been setting the stage for its once or future queen, recently teaming up with the You Can Play Project, a group that combats homophobia in professional sports.   And though some figures like ESPN’s Chris Broussard have used the opportunity to remind the public of Christianity’s ostensible condemnation of homosexuality, the overall consensus among athletes and the public has been supportive and respectful.

I have had serious issues with the way this conversation has played out prior to Collin’s recent interview with Sports Illustrated.  First, it has ignored or elided both past figures (like Martina Navratilova in tennis) and present (like the WNBA draftee Brittany Briner), revealing the professional sporting world’s lack of interest in women and women’s sports.  Secondly, pundits have been clamoring for a heroic figure–a gay Jackie Robinson–who would break the pro sports world’s gay glass ceiling.  The problem with that fantasy is that the burden is placed on the gay person (usually seen as a man) who would overcome the homophobia of those around him.  There has been little or no discussion of how structurally homophobia is built into sports, from the earliest days of little league to the very public homophobia of men like Broussard or baseball’s Ozzie Guillen.  Just as white people produce racism, heterosexuals produce homophobia, and though it is great to celebrate the bravery of Collins (or Billie Jean King or any other trailblazer), those heroic narratives tend to ignore how complicit a large group of heterosexual people are in the production of the closet that Jason Collins came out of.

The dream of the gay professional athlete (beyond its sexism and blindness to structural homophobia) also reveals a more specific dream; the dream of a butch gay man.  There have been LGBT people out and proud in all walks of life for some time now.  Though it makes sense that people hope cultural institutions like the NBA or MLB would have a publicly gay figure, as these sports play such a pivotal role in the cultural imagination, the other side of this dream is to have a man who looks and acts like any normative male, but just happens to be gay.  When another sissy actor, another interior designer with a reality TV show, or another lesbian professional athlete comes out, we shrug.  These people are mere confirmations of our understanding of homosexuality–sissies, fairies, bull dkyes all.  Where can we find a gay man who exudes a confident masculinity without a whiff of the queen’s queer mannerisms or the leering eyes of a faggot?  A gay professional athlete allows a lot of people–gay and straight–to breathe a sigh of relief about all of those sissy behaviors that haunt gay men.

This is not to belittle Collins or his tremendous act of bravery.  Collins has spoken eloquently about all those who have come before him (including Navratilova and Briner) and wears the number 98 on his Jersey to memorialize the death of Matthew Shepard.  Collins has fashioned himself as a spokesperson for gay rights and the larger gay community he is a part of  within the uncertain realm of the NBA.  And a handsome gay black Christian male who is also a professional basketball player broadens our understanding of what gay means in really special ways. The criticisms I have is toward the public conversation predicated on the willful unknowingness of the straight community to the gay world and that community’s dream to have a gay man who looks just like them.

All of this is a long segue in praise of the sissy, and one sissy in particular: Charles Nelson Reilly.

CNR

For those who don’t know him, Charles Nelson Reilly began his career on the stage (the original Hello Dolly!) but became perhaps most famous for his regular appearances on 1970s games shows like $10,000 Pyramid,and best of all, Match Game.  Here Reilly played himself–a flamboyant, sarcastic queen who always looked on the world with a jaundiced but absurd eye.  I spent many years in high school and college watching Reilly on Match Game reruns on GSN.  I was captivated by him–by his flamboyance, his humor, his silliness, his boldly patterned shirts.  Though Reilly was never quite “out,” he certainly wasn’t in.  In this regard he shared a lot in common with fellow game show seat warmer Paul Lynde.  But I always preferred Reilly, who was  more humane and more generous, than the vicious (but hilarious) Lynde.  Being a queen seemed to make Lynde a bit bitter, but Reilly sashayed across the television with a smile and a wink to the audience.  And both in first run and reruns, Reilly brought gay flamboyance into the average American living room, teaching his audience the cadences and content of the gay male sensibility.  Being a closeted gay kid in the Midwest, Reilly provided me with an outlet for my sexuality that wasn’t the tragic narrative of the closet (or the dangers of the world Shepard’s death taught me), but based on survival by humor.  Being the only gay man in the room (as Reilly was on Match Game) he taught me how to carve out a niche for myself, and how to survive the straight world not by blending in, but by standing out.

Watching Reilly’s surprisingly touching one-man show (filmed as The Life of Reilly), one sees that his sexuality cost him.  Despite his training as an actor and early stage success, larger career success eluded Reilly; he recounts being told by a television executive early in his career that he was too queer for television.  Reilly couldn’t do what Rock Hudson could, live as a gay man while playing straight for an oblivious audience.  And so he took what work he could get.  If you were to ask Reilly if he was happy with his career you might have heard a note of sadness–surely he wanted more from being an actor than to trade double entrendres with Match Game‘s ghoulish host, Gene Rayburn. But that sissy provided me with a lot of laughs and a lot of comfort during my own confused queer emergence.

So I again say kudos to Jason Collins–I’m glad to know that he’s playing for my team.  And my hope is that his presence–and the other future gay athletes who will continue to emerge onto the scene–signals a broadening of the gay community; that we will not retreat to the safe, normative world of male professional sports and leave all those troubled weirdos behind.  It’s not easy being Jason Collins, or Martina Navratilova or Charles Nelson Reilly and the best world will have space for all of them and others.

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