Editor’s Note: Allison Hope is a writer whose work has been featured by The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, Slate and elsewhere. The views expressed here are the author’s. Read more opinion on CNN.
Carl Nassib has become a household name in the past 48 hours for one very poignant reason. The doe-eyed, clean-shaven 28-year-old defensive end for the Las Vegas Raiders stepped fully into his truth and took the whole world’s attention by sharing that he is unflaggingly, unapologetically gay.
“I’m not doing it for attention. I just think that representation and visibility are so important…. I’m a pretty private person, so I hope you guys know that I’m really not doing this for attention,” he said in a video he posted to his Instagram, which has garnered more than 700,000 likes.
It probably doesn’t hurt that Nassib is stepping so publicly out of the closet during LGBTQ+ Pride Month in a year when it seems everyone, from straight moms to corporate cheese brands, is waving the rainbow flag. The NFL, though, has historically remained largely a stubborn fixture in perpetuating yesteryear’s stereotypes of hypermasculinity. Until now, perhaps. At least one can hope that’s the case.
We queers have, in decades past, survived in a world where nearly every public sector had closets busting at the hinges with people who were not out – business, politics, entertainment, sports, education – you name it. Over the past 20 years or so, we have cheered as those closet doors opened wide and LGBTQ+ people poured out. High-ranking public officials like Barney Frank and Dr. Rachel Levine; Hollywood stars like Ellen DeGeneres and Billy Porter and scores of others; business leaders like Tim Cook of Apple and Beth Ford of Land O’Lakes. As we put one foot in front of the other in the steady march toward justice, it feels there are an ever-growing number of community members joining our ranks.
Still, professional sports in many ways feels (along with the Catholic Church) like one of the last frontiers of America’s closet. In an era where A-list pop stars like Demi Lovato are embracing fluid identities like pansexual and nonbinary, even the language some have turned to to describe Nassib’s identity feels claustrophobic and reminiscent of a bygone era. Terms like “out gay” or “actively gay” that are being used in news stories around Nassib’s message feel much more 1991 than 2021.
Even so, it’s worth savoring the fact that Nassib’s public declaration – and his fellow players’ embrace of him – in a masculinity-seeping-from-the-pores, smashing-Budweiser-cans-on-your-forehead sport like football in America means we are turning a major corner in representation for the LGBTQ+ community. Striking is the word that comes to mind for me. The outpouring of ally support, including from other players within the NFL and the Raiders, is truly groundbreaking. Nassib’s jersey has risen to become top-selling apparel since he came out.
In the past, we have seen players come out in other leagues and watched their careers take a major hit as a result. Or we have seen former players come out once they have left their playing days behind. Nassib’s bravery and the reception it’s received leave me hopeful that this is the start of a new era – in youth, college and professional sport – where you can be gay and be a football player and those truths don’t automatically negate or detract from one another.
As great as that would be, it’s not enough. I’m hoping Nassib’s openness about his identity will have power beyond sports to accelerate the process of flipping the script on what constitutes masculinity in American culture. Let’s see some more gender diverse pro sports figures – and fans. Maybe more straight men will start to understand more intrinsically that gay men are as male as heterosexual men. Maybe the gay kid in the room filled with straight men shouting at the TV screen will feel a little less anxious.
Maybe Nassib’s openness as a gay male pro athlete will be another domino in the effort to dismantle the homophobia and transphobia that still exist among football fans of a certain ilk. Maybe that would mean fewer kids getting bullied, or more trans men going out for sports. Maybe lawmakers would lay down the swords they’ve been wielding to attack transgender kids in sports. Maybe all of us could let go of the need to police people’s identity according to perceived social norms and embrace allowing them to live in their own, unique truths.
I’m not putting all of that on Nassib’s shoulders, but it’s a future I’ve long hoped and worked for – and I think he’s gotten us one crucial step closer with his actions this week.
What remains more shocking to me than an NFL player coming out and being met with a warm reception is that Nassib remains – for now – the only one out of the 1,696 active players in the league.
Similarly, Jason Collins, who became the first gay NBA player to come out in 2013, remains the only one. When Collins came out, he was met with epithets and offensive, appalling rhetoric, most notably from ESPN basketball analyst Chris Broussard. When Michael Sam, another football player to come out while still playing (in college, before he was in the NFL), told the world he was gay, he was sidelined and ridiculed. No Major League Baseball players have yet come out to the public while playing their sport.
The response to Nassib, regardless of what it can or cannot do to change things for LGBTQ Americans, at heart reflects a previously unseen level of positivity and support around a male pro athlete embracing queer identity. The pioneering work of queer athletes (and fans) in the WNBA and the US Women’s National Soccer Team is so far ahead of where most men’s sports are that they are essentially a world apart.
We have an opportunity before us that Nassib helped to ripen: to change the discourse in a permanent way.
Some male-centric sports circles contain deeply toxic misogynistic and homophobic and transphobic commentary. A lot of people in these circles will now be talking about Nassib because he’s trending, and it’s the perfect chance for the rest of us to interject and nip the epithets and misinformation in the bud by engaging, not turning away.
It’s a chance for us to push back on those outmoded tropes and instead lean into new ones that say you can be tough and get touchdowns and just happen to date men rather than women. And that’s perfectly fine. Maybe even something to celebrate.