This was supposed to be a fun column.
I had the idea to write about NBA Pride last Wednesday, when the Brooklyn Nets hosted Emmy Award-winning choreographer Travis Wall at their third annual Pride Night. The evening tied into New York’s yearlong celebration and remembrance of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots — a seminal moment in the gay pride movement.
It was one of many similar events hosted throughout the league, as the NBA slowly adopts a more vocal stance on gay pride. Most importantly, it looked like a hell of a lot of fun, at least from the eyes of Wall, who posted approximately 30 Instagram stories documenting his excitement from the sidelines, tossing T-shirts into the crowd and cheering on players whose names he didn’t even know.
That’s what I wanted to write about this week — the joy of seeing one of the top two leagues in American professional sports create a special event specifically to lift up and embrace the queer community. It was supposed to be a fun, happy column about love, grace and acceptance.
But then, news broke yesterday of the hospitalization of “Empire” star Jussie Smollett. Early Tuesday morning, Smollett was attacked by two men in Chicago. He was beaten and throttled around the neck with a rope. His attackers poured bleach on his bare skin while calling him a “n——” and a “f-----t.”
There aren’t words to describe the feeling that gripped my gut as I read that news report the first time, the second time, the third and fourth and fifth. I wanted to puke. I wanted to scream. I wanted to cry. That’s the weird thing about homophobia — it makes you feel as if you’re split in two. It makes you want to curl into yourself and lash out, to go back into the closet and to pin rainbow patches to every single item you own. It makes you wish you weren’t gay. It makes you wish that everyone was gay.
Mostly, it reminds you that you’re different, you’re part of the “other” and that people hate you for your otherness. Still. Fifty years after Stonewall, four years after Obergefell v. Hodges. That hate burns on.
As a white, straight-passing woman, I know that there’s privilege in the extent of my fear. I know that I can hide behind my sorority sweatshirts and avoid the type of surface-level violence — both emotional and physical — that assaults queer-presenting people of color on a daily basis. I’m privileged because my sexuality is a non-issue with my friends and family, and because I’ve never been at physical risk due to my appearance.
My experiences with the isolation and shame of homophobia are a watered-down version of what many others face. And I’m aware that the attack on Smollett had as much to do with the color of his skin, that it was an intersectional hatred that led these two men to commit this crime. But this attack makes clear why it is vital for sports leagues to continue to advocate for the queer community.
Many people like to tell us that the gay rights movement is over, that things are better now, that there’s no more fighting to be done. That’s a lie. Just because we earned our marriage rights doesn’t mean that we aren’t at risk, that we aren’t struggling for our lives on a daily basis. Children are still sent to conversion camps. Trans people still can’t serve their country in the military. Queer people of every shape, size and color are still beaten and left to die.
The gay pride movement is not over. We have to fight like hell everywhere and that includes in sports. Some might say that a Pride Night is a political motion, or simply a public relations stunt. It’s neither of those things. More than any organized religion, sport is the most powerful faith in America. It is worshipped and cherished in every state, in every city. It is our common language. It defines how many of us see ourselves. And when teams take the time to lift up the queer community, to celebrate us, to love us, they slowly teach our country how to do the same.
It is beautiful that owners in the MLS, NHL and NBA understand this truth (I pray that soon the NFL will follow, although I recognize that might be a far-off pipe dream). Perhaps they don’t see the full depth, or see it only as a politically correct gesture. That doesn’t matter to me. Each Pride Night, from here on out, will help build a safer future for the queer community — a future where we will accept as fact that love is love and that people are people, all deserving of respect and safety, no matter their color or sexuality.