Is it really no big deal that pro-athlete Jason Collins is openly gay?

Pundits who have made a career smearing the LGBT community suddenly find themselves in trouble, writes White.

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"It is hard for most people to remember that gay marriage was radical a decade ago, and fantasy the decade before that," writes Jessica White [Getty Images]

On Monday, NBA player Jason Collins came out. He is one of only a few out gay pro-athletes in the United States. His announcement met with widespread support, but not from everyone. 

Author Ben Shapiro tweeted

“So Jason Collins is a hero because he’s gay? Our standard for heroism has dropped quite a bit since Normandy.” 

He doubled down on twitter – “What kind of America does the left think we live in? This is not 1947 with racism. This is not 1997 with Ellen” – and then again in a testy interview with Piers Morgan. Shapiro finally wrote a column defending the tweet: “What’s the big deal?”

When I was in college, I knew a woman who was a lesbian. She told me that when her father found out, he put her in the hospital. I said, aghast, “He had you committed?” She explained that, no, he put her in the hospital.

This would have been about 1997. Her father beat her up when she was a teenager, so I suppose that takes us back to the early 90s or late 80s. 

I caught up with another friend of mine in San Francisco this winter. We used to work together, and we have lunch whenever I am in town. He told me about getting bashed on a trip to Las Vegas last year. He said that he really should have been more aware that he might get hurt. 

Another friend was talking about his upcoming marriage to his partner. He mentioned that his parents were not happy about the idea – their son in love, engaged – at first, but that they are slowly coming to terms with it. I know a few other people who do not talk to their parents at all. 

Disowning vicious homophobia

Admittedly, none of these stories are as bad as getting strafed by Nazis. However, they are  common.

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1997 was the year before Matthew Shepard was bludgeoned and then left to die. I do not know if Shapiro chose it for that reason. 1997 was the year after the Defense of Marriage Act was signed into law. 1997 was also five years before Gwen Araujo was beaten with a shovel and strangled. At their trial, her murderers claimed that her trans status was so disgusting that it drove them to kill.  

This is how acceptance works in the public imagination. 

Once bigotry recedes to the wrong side of history, few people want to be associated with it. They do not want to acknowledge that it remains in force anywhere – that hatred does lasting damage. That would implicate them.   

Pundits who got famous smearing the LGBT community suddenly find themselves in trouble. And so you have people like Ben Shapiro situating 1997 somewhere between the Dark Ages and right now. 

In his own cowardly and dishonest way, Shapiro is disowning vicious homophobia. He can tell that it is about to be shameful. He is trying to get out in front of that shame.

He is also hoping that homophobia can still earn him professional capital from the right audience if he displays a little more finesse. This is not unreasonable. It is hard for most people to remember that gay marriage was radical a decade ago, and fantasy the decade before that. Maybe the problem is exaggerated. Maybe we do not need to worry about it anymore. 

These changes are not only recent. They are incomplete.  

2012 was the year three states voted to allow same-sex marriage, and one state voted to ban same-sex marriage. 

The 2012 Republican primary featured – and for a time celebrated as a forerunner – a candidate who had described homosexuality as, “personal bondage, personal despair and personal enslavement”, and who lamented LGBT equality as dangerous to schoolchildren.  

The Democratic incumbent announced his support for gay marriage in 2012. In 2011, that was a daunting step, one he was clearly reluctant to take.   

This year, Tennessee lawmakers sponsored the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which would have forced school officials to contact parents if they even suspected a student might be gay. LGBT students would also have been forced to undergo counselling – not to prevent them from committing suicide or dropping out, but to make sure other students were safe around them. 

This March, a gay man named Lawrence “Mikey” Partida was hospitalised after he was the victim of an alleged hate crime. 

In 2007, Ben Shapiro wrote a column entitled, “The homosexual assault on traditional marriage”, which contains some memorable lines like: “There are those of us who do not believe that homosexuals… have designs beyond mere tolerance”; “The goal of same-sex marriage proponents is to elevate homosexuality to the same moral level as heterosexuality”; and “We must uphold the value of heterosexuality over homosexuality.”   

‘What’s the big deal?’

In 2008, he asked the same question– “What’s the big deal?” – about another public statement: pastor Rick Warren’s equation of same-sex marriage to, “an older guy marrying a child”. In that column, Shapiro argued that Warren was, “articulating the same traditional Judeo-Christian perspective that has been a moral standard for thousands of years”. 

There is no law in any state in America that gays cannot live together or engage in consensual activity of any sort.

by Ben Shapiro , author

Shapiro did not just claim the moral high ground for homophobia. He claimed to represent the entire country: 

“Advocates for traditional morality have won virtually every electoral battle over gay marriage. The gay community has won its victories in the courtroom, calling on elitist judges… it’s illegitimate, and it cuts against the most basic American value: the right of the people to decide.” 

This year, he has the gall to ask, “Is America nasty and homophobic?” 

Hypocrisy? Not at all. Shapiro simply defines ancient history in a very creative way:

“There is no law in any state in America that gays cannot live together or engage in consensual activity of any sort.” 

He does not explain that this has only been true since the Supreme Court ruled that sodomy laws were unconstitutional in 2003. 

He did comment on that ruling in 2005: 

“Justice Anthony Kennedy blithely informed the American public that homosexuals are ‘entitled to respect for their private lives’, an idea that should come as news to anyone with access to a Bible.” 

It would be disgraceful for anyone to claim that sexual orientation is no big deal. Shapiro has spent his career blasting gay people as a threat to American values – nay, to America herself.    

This is why Shapiro has to insist that Collins is nothing special. He knows that he belongs to the ugly past. These days, America thinks it is histrionic to call the Supreme Court a pack of tyrants for striking down sodomy laws. These days, America is starting to see the moral urgency in dismantling homophobia, not defending it.    

Shapiro cannot openly cling to his bigotry, so he blames the LGBT community for its persistence: not as a problem, but as a self-aggrandising lie. Really, when was the last time you read about someone being brutally murdered for being gay?

The problem is that moral consensus evolves through the undeniable strength of memory. We are trying to be good to Jason Collins because we know how many people we failed. Matthew Shepard would have turned 37 this year. That is not so ancient.  

Shapiro may want us to forget the past. He cannot keep us from leaving it behind. 

Jessica White is a journalist, translator and playwright who has lived and worked in Asia, South America and the US. She currently makes her home in Chicago. 

You can follow the editor on Twitter: @nyktweets