Fearless?

Fearless” is a perplexing title for photographer Jeff Sheng’s exhibition now on display in front of Whitmans’ in Paresky. His work displays out, queer athletes from colleges and high schools across the nation. Certainly these athletes were brave in their bold declarations of their sexuality, despite potential threats from their peers, particularly their teammates. They took great risks to come out in an environment that is not known for its acceptance of homosexuality. But looking at the pictures and ignoring the labels and artist descriptions, it’s hard to tell what is special about these people. Our stereotypes about gay people – and athletes, for that matter – don’t apply in this exhibit. Perhaps things are not always as clear-cut as they seem.

The “Fearless” photos attempt to shatter assumptions in surprising fashion. They show that there are no inherent or insurmountable obstacles between being gay and being an athlete. They also illustrate that when it comes to a group, there is all too often more than meets the eye. Gay people, they say, can be good at sports. Nonetheless, the photos do bring up memories of times in my life when athletes – and people in general – haven’t been so open-minded and were, in fact, openly hostile.

Growing up, a chill went down my spine every time the word “gay” was used. Hearing that word meant the possibility that someone had figured out something very secret about me – a possibility that was absolutely terrifying.

Sport was the most hostile territory, as it simultaneously engaged in each one of my darkest fears. Not only would my secret sexuality have been fatal if exposed, but also my remarkable unathleticism left me a wide-open target for mockery.

However, as I reached college, people were more open and no one – openly, at least – acted nearly as threatening as people had at home. As I found out more about myself, I began to realize that the link between my two fears – sexuality and unathleticism – was not all that strong. I was surrounded by a culture that, while placing a great value on athletics, didn’t seem to demand anything from me. If I didn’t want to watch the Yankees game or go play pickup basketball, that was fine. It made no bearing on my character in the ways it had in the past. But this openness, though well-intentioned and much better than what I’d had before, led to some unexpected dilemmas born out of stereotypes that I didn’t think I would ever have to face.

Stereotypes, it seems, can confront us even when we identify ourselves in a completely different manner. I was once telling a friend that I felt uncomfortable at Queer Bash and that, at the time, I felt confronted by the event. Instead of asking me more about how I felt, however, my friend, rather appalled at what I had suggested, told me that it didn’t seem that I could understand how important “safe spaces” are for gay people and how exciting it could be for a person to explore sexuality for the first time. As a “straight male,” she said, it just didn’t seem that I knew how important the event was for gay people. Never had I dreamt that I would actually be faced with such a dilemma, but it happened as I stood facing someone criticizing me for being “straight” or, maybe, for not being “gay enough.”

My friend was well-meaning, but she was almost too much so. She didn’t realize that there aren’t necessarily right or wrong answers when it comes to these situations. The identity of a gay person isn’t the same across the spectrum for all gay people and, at the same time, the identity of an athlete isn’t the same for all those playing sports. In hopes of being polite and correct, she assumed a lot about me and where my feelings had come from.

The “Fearless” exhibit is not asking for politeness or for the “right” answer to all the problems of homosexuality in athletics and the world-at-large. What it is asking, though, is that thought come before assumptions, listening before a jump to conclusions – whether one is gay, straight, queer, athletic, clumsy or somewhere in between, the truth about a person might be surprising. The whole point of acceptance and diversity is not to find new ways to stereotype, but to accept difference as precisely what it says it is: difference. The way someone looks may not fit into who they are, and vice versa. We shouldn’t have to look at posters to realize this; just look around.

Christopher Holland ’11 is an American studies major from Cullman, Ala.