Acts of Resistance, Big and Small

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. [1] 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.” [2] 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.” [3] 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. [4] 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.”[5] 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?

  1. Andrew Keh, “Jason Collins, First Openly Gay N.B.A. Player, Signs with Nets and Appears in Game,” New York Times, February 23, 2014.
  2. Ibid.
  3. 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.
  4. Jonathan D. Katz and David C. Ward, Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 2010).
  5. Andrew Keh, “Jason Collins, First Openly Gay N.B.A. Player, ….”

17 thoughts on “Acts of Resistance, Big and Small

  1. Interesting post! I think for some people, it can be just as difficult to live quietly and be oneself within one’s own family and friend circles as resisting inequality or hate or prejudice publicly. I think resistance starts with smaller acts, but maybe Katz and Ward were right; it takes a big act to put bigger changes in motion. But small victories are important too!

  2. Your post makes me think about why we have such a strong desire to label people. Jason Collins is a NBA basketball player who happens to be gay, yet to many he is seen foremost as gay and a basketball player secondly. I commend Jason on his desire to be taken seriously as a basketball player, and as you point out Britney, to resist being drawn into the drama and labels of being the NBA’s first openly gay player.

    1. You raise an interesting point, Michelle. I think we often look for models or leaders in struggles for freedoms. Even if Collins just wanted to play basketball, others had reasons to push his open expression of being gay because it helps set a precedent for other players. I think the key to successful resistance is knowing you’re not alone. When people like Collins make a stance, it’s easy to laud them as a great examples defined by one aspect of their character; even if they want to just have the freedom to live without being defined by one of their many identities.

      1. Emily, I think you hit it on the head, especially when it comes to athletes. Sports are such a hyper-masculine part of our culture, so I think it’s really important that athletes such as Jason Collins and, more recently, Michael Sam have come out as gay. At first, I think we’ll still hear team executives make ignorant claims about gay athletes. To paraphrase NFL executives after Michael Sam announced he was gay: ‘He’s going to be a distraction in the locker room.’ So, the guy who is a convicted rapist or killed someone because he was drunk driving isn’t a distraction?! Isn’t morally reprehensible?! The double standard in sports is absolutely ridiculous in my opinion. Hopefully, Collins, Sam, and the future athletes who will come out will reshape the “Boys Club” that is professional sports.

        Also, just wanted to mention one more thing: I recently retweeted a photo of Jason Collins presenting the jersey from his first game with the Brooklyn Nets to Matthew Shepard’s family. Collins chose the number 98 as a nod to 1998, the year that Matthew Shepard was murdered. I think this is a fantastic gesture–both his choice of number and engaging with the Shepard family–on Collins’ part.

        Thanks for the post, Britney!

      2. I think both Emily and Michelle made some interesting points. In response to Michelle, your post made me think about role models and what that means. I thought of young Disney stars who are held to higher standards because so many children look up to them, even though they are only children themselves. It’s a lot of pressure. And while Jason Collins may participating in some form of resistance by openly being gay while playing in the NBA, does he want the responsibility of being a public figure making history? Does he even have the choice? Does he feel connected to the larger movement or is he just being himself? But Emily made a good point that we do not want to feel alone. Is it a movement if only one person is doing it? Recognizing that there are others like you, no matter what it relates to, is encouraging and builds confidence. That way you know you’re not alone.

    2. I wonder how much our wanting to label people has to do with the rise of our digital lives. With the perceived loss of privacy in our personal lives maybe we feel like we have the right to know everything about everybody? On the other hand I think Emily has a really good point that people want role models so where does that leave the personal, public, and professional lives?

  3. It’s interesting to see how we perceive the major players in the current gay rights movement. Collins just wanted to play basketball, but his action to admit his true self was a major step for this kind of resistance. He didn’t have to get violent, as with Stonewall, nor did he have to put himself in physical danger (although I’m sure there’s always a risk of dangerous backlash when making that kind of announcement). Does that mean resistance is becoming less violent? Or is society just more ready to accept gay rights today than it was civil rights for African Americans? Or both?

    1. I think people today like to think of themselves as being “civilized.” “We don’t resort to violence, so we are more accepting of others.” However, I think the backlash comes in other forms. For example, Collins contract was not renewed. To be fair, I didn’t read any specific articles that discuss the rationale for the decision, so it may or may not be connected. But I think the backlash is still a very real threat, albeit perhaps not necessary physical violence.

    2. I think that society is currently more ready to accept gay rights because the Civil Rights movement is still within our recent cultural memory. I am not saying that current gay rights activism and the Civil Rights movement of the 60s are necessarily comparable or that activists of these two periods faced and still face similar types of resistance to their views. I am not knowledgeable enough to make such an assessment. I do think that the Civil Rights movement was responsible for a shift in our country’s perception of human equality, which is contributing to a reduction in the need for violent resistance for views to be voiced. I think that Patrick and Kahla both bring up good questions about how our current society initiates and evaluates human rights topics. It appears that the country is more open to discussing these issues now, but resistance to these rights has not gone away even if it has become less violent.

  4. The summer before last I had the opportunity to help cater a wedding for two men at Sagamore. Aside from being one of the most beautiful weddings I’ve been to or seen, I was struck by a comment the priest made twoards the end of the ceremony: “The grooms would like to thank everyone for attending, and remind you that this is not a gay wedding, but simply a wedding for two people in love.” While I didn’t know them personally and can’t speak to any particular family situation or anything like that, it occurred to me at the time that this was some form of resistance, of saying, “Look, you might not agree with this in theory, but it’s happening and you should at least be happy for us.” Anyway, it was a neat moment and an anecdote that I thought relevant.

    1. I really like that Drew. When we go to heterosexual weddings, we don’t think “wow, such a beautiful straight wedding.” Gay is just another sexual orientation that involves loving, living, and acting just the same as straight.

    2. I wonder if the Grooms, simply did not want to associate their special day with the label “Gay Wedding” because as Araya points out we don’t go to a straight wedding and say “wow, such a beautiful straight wedding.” Perhaps on their special day, the couple did not want any politics to be involved.

      1. We tend to use adjectives to describe functional differences in ceremonies. In this case, distinguishing between a Hindu wedding versus a Christian wedding, or a Korean wedding versus a Brazilian wedding makes sense because there are different rituals and actions involved. I’m assuming that the wedding at Sagamore was not functionally different from any other American Christian wedding. In this case, the only reason to make a distinction would be as a political or theological statement.

  5. I think Collins’ very being as an openly gay athlete in the NBA is resistance in itself. We need small acts like that to occur to give fuel to the bigger fight. The way I see it, Collins’ ‘coming out’ as the first gay athlete is the same as Rosa Park’s refusal to go to the back of the bus- both are exercising their right to be human and to do what they want without consequence. Park’s action was in response to the bigger fight for African American civil rights and resistance to segregation, just as Collins’ act gives fuel to the gay civil rights movement.

    1. Excellent point, Araya. It also reminds me… I thought I heard somewhere that Rosa Parks didn’t think her act of defiance would be such a huge catalyst to change in history. If I remember correctly, she said in an interview that she didn’t have big, history changing goals. She was just tired of standing up and decided to stay seated. Jason Collins and his attitude towards coming out seem to be along the same lines. Don’t make a big deal out of it, just let her sit where she wants. Don’t make a big deal out of it, just let him do his job.

    This discussion of gay athletes reminded me of when Michael Sam came out earlier this year. I think I tweeted this article, but I’m not sure. It discusses a Sports Illustrated article on the reaction from football coaches about Michael Sam. It really tears down the “man’s game” concept and attacks this popularized definition of masculinity.

    I don’t know if coming out is an act of resistance, or simply an act of self-affirmation and honesty. I can see how Collins would want to focus more on his basketball than on the attention he received for coming out.

  7. I think it is also important to note that Gay Pride Parades (an political act of resistance to the closet that have become a huge celebration of queer identity) also stem from the Stonewall Riots. On the one year anniversary of the riots, a group of people marched through Greenwich Village (peacefully this time) to call for equal rights. A gay man brought his mother to the march a few years after that and she was so inspired that she started PFLAG (parents and friends of lesbians and gays) a support group.

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