Just over a week ago, Jason Collins became the first openly gay player to participate in an N.B.A. game. While the New York Times heralded the “very act of Collin’s suiting up and stepping onto the court,” as an historic moment, Collins simply wanted to do his job.  He told reporters that he was merely “focused on trying to learn the plays,” and that he didn’t “have time to really think about history.”  While clearly a big moment for gay athletes, and the gay community as a whole, Collins was less focused on being a figure of change, and more on being a good basketball player.
This got me wondering, what constitutes an act of resistance? Does it need to be a grand battle or a carefully crafted action, or can resistance be as simple as refusing to cave in the face of adversity and continuing to do what you do?
In his book, Gay New York, George Chauncey brings up the “myth of internalization,” or the idea that gay men before the liberation movement of the mid to late twentieth century, adopted society’s view of them as sick and immoral. This notion stems from the fact that there seemed to be no largely visible campaign for change taking place during this period. Chauncey argues that to make this assumption is to “construe resistance in the narrowest of terms-as the organization of formal political groups and petitions.”  Instead, the men of Pre-World War II New York found every day strategies to cope with discrimination, forming a culture and support systems of their own. It was through these small acts that they found a way to be themselves within an overwhelming culture of non-acceptance.
While small attempts to retain self-respect and dignity are admirable, they often do not bring about great change. Jonathan Katz and David C. Ward’s essay in the catalog accompanying the National Portrait Gallery’s Hide/Seek exhibition contrasts the violent uprisings of the Stonewall riots to the less threatening “sip-ins” of the Mattachine Society.  While the sip-ins sought tolerance for gays in a small way by making them a presence in New York bars, Katz and Ward argue that it was ultimately the sudden and spontaneous outcry of anger at the Stonewall Inn that eventually propelled the movement forward. Perhaps Chauncey is right to suggest that the idea of resistance should not be limited to large movements, but these day to day acts must eventually lead to something much bigger in order to make a real difference.
Though Collins seemed to downplay his contribution to reporters, the act of speaking out about his homosexuality as a member of a sports league known for its intolerance was a risk in itself. He could have merely omitted this personal fact and continued to play basketball with no threat to his career. Instead, he put himself out there, ready to receive the consequences. And in fact, after his announcement last April, Collins found himself without a new contract and was not invited by any team to join them for training camp. Instead he worked out at home, waiting, until this February when the Nets called. Collin’s words of wisdom to other gay athletes are far from a rallying cry. “Just be yourself,” he said, “Be your true, authentic self and never be afraid or ashamed or have any fear to be your true authentic self.” While the advice seems simple, it gets to the heart of resistance. After all, aren’t all acts of resistance, big or small, inspired by the desire to be accepted – whether by yourself or others?
- Andrew Keh, “Jason Collins, First Openly Gay N.B.A. Player, Signs with Nets and Appears in Game,” New York Times, February 23, 2014.
- George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World 1890-1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1994), 4-5.
- Jonathan D. Katz and David C. Ward, Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 2010).
- Andrew Keh, “Jason Collins, First Openly Gay N.B.A. Player, ….”