Jason Collins & The Ever Present Gender Policing

Last Monday Jason Collins became the first active male athlete in American team sports to come out as a gay man. On the same day, MTV announced that it was launching a show called Guy Court where men who violated the “guy code” would be punished. In this piece Nathan Palmer explains how these two events are connected by homophobia and discusses the sociological concept of gender policing.

Jason Collins

Last Monday Jason Collins published an essay in Sports Illustrated that announced to the world that he was a gay man. This was noteworthy because Collins was the first active male athlete in the big four of American male team sports (i.e. football, baseball, basketball, hockey) to come out. Collins is by no means the first athlete to come out. Many other athletes have come out. In fact, a couple of days before Collins’s announcement Brittney Griner signed an endorsement with Nike to become the first out-and-proud athlete to do so with the company. All that said, it was a big deal. It took a lot of courage on his part.

So the question we should be asking as sociologists is, why? Why was it such a tough decision? Why did it take so long for any active male athlete in major American team sports to come out? The answer is obvious: homophobia, prejudice, and discrimination.

The other question we should be asking is, what does Collins coming out mean for the prevalence of homophobia in the United States? Many commentators on the cable news channels have argued that Collins’s announcement along with the pro-marriage equality victories during the last election cycle signal that open bigotry toward the LGBT community is on a rapid decline. So are they right? Are we about to enter a whole new era of acceptance, respect, and equality? To answer that question, we first need to explore the deep connection between masculinity and homophobia.

Masculinity, especially in the United States is often defined by it’s opposition to femininity. This is the main argument that Sociologist Michael Kimmel makes in his essay, Masculinity as Homophobia[1]. That is, to be a “real man” is to avoid being feminine in any way. If it’s feminine to cry, show fear, or care about the way you look, then any man who does that is seen as “unmanly” and likely to have their “man card” pulled. All of this results in narrowing the definition of masculinity. Put another way, we create this ever shrinking box that all men are expected to conform to or they’ll be punished.

When someone is punished for not displaying their gender in ways that fit our narrow definitions we call this “gender policing”. Your friends, family, coworkers, and even strangers on the street become gender cops ready to make a snide remark, shoot you a dirty look, or simply point and laugh the moment you step outside the narrow definition. Gender policing also frequently involves violence, threats, and intimidation. It’s an awful thing, especially at its most extreme, so why is MTV making gender policing into a show?

On the very same day that the news broke about Jason Collins, news surfaced that MTV would be creating a show called “Guy Court” where, “the laws of manhood will be upheld as some familiar MTV2 faces will determine the guilt or innocence of a variety of cases in accordance with Guy Code.” That’s right, no longer is the concept of “gender policing” an abstract idea. Now you can tune in weekly to watch as men are punished for not conforming with the dominant masculine norms.

These two news events point to the complexity of modern homophobia. They suggest that as we take steps forward we also take steps back. Jason Collins’s announcement may have changed things forever, but MTV’s announcement is as much a sign of the times as his. The homophobia that keeps athletes closeted is the same homophobia that empowers gender policing. Perhaps last Monday’s news doesn’t so much signal an age of equality as it demonstrates the two steps forward, one step back path that many social issues are forced to travel.

Dig Deeper:

  1. How have you experienced gender policing?
  2. Do you think that males and females experience gender policing in different ways? Gives some examples of situations where each is policed.
  3. Watch this video. Where do men and women get the messages about masculinity and what makes a “real man”?
  4. What are some of the negative consequences that result from forcing men and women into narrow definitions of gender?