Which athletes and entertainers choose to come out of the closet?

Here is one not inaccurate description of the professional status of Jason Collins:

Collins’s announcement in a thoughtful, first-person Sports Illustrated story has created a conundrum for the NBA, which does not want to appear intolerant but whose teams could wind up passing on Collins this offseason. While he would represent a relatively inexpensive option for a team in need of a physical defender at the veteran minimum salary of roughly $1.35 million, Collins will turn 35 in December and is at a stage in his career when declining, low-impact players are generally pushed aside.

I would put it this way.  It is good news that he “came out” and he is to be applauded for his courage.  Still, I am discomforted by the fact that only a male athlete on the down side of his career would be the one doing this.

Female athletes are more likely to identify as lesbian or bisexual than male athletes will identify as gay or bisexual.  I suspect this does not involve a comparable fear of loss of endorsement income or mass appeal.

Could it also be that women are more open in this regard?  Martina Navratilova came out in 1981 at the age of 24 and at or near the peak or her career.

Hollywood is ostensibly a more “gay tolerant” culture than is professional athletics, yet how many leading movie actors have come out as gay or bisexual?  I can’t think of many.  Here is one list of openly gay actors and I have not heard of most of them.  The number one guy on that list is identified as “Actor, Starship Troopers.”  As for the others on the list, Ricky Martin is famous but mostly a singer and Rupert Everett very often plays gay or possibly-gay characters, so his coming out presumably involved much less career risk.

Presumably if an up-and-coming actor comes out, it is hardly for that actor to get roles as a romantic lead and perhaps as an action lead in a “buddy movie” as well.  If you look at this list, it seems well-known female celebrities find it easier to mix coming out with continued career success.  Ellen, Rachel Maddow, Rosie O’Donnell, and Jodie Foster do not seem to have obvious male counterparts, again outside of music and figures such as Ricky Martin, Elton John, and David Bowie, and even Bowie has sent some mixed signals over the years.

For all the talk about the macho culture of professional sports, I wonder how much the problem is in fact the viewing public and the “least common denominator” imperatives of some forms of commercialized entertainment, especially when funded by advertisements.  The commercial upside for male coming out is usually smaller than the downside, at least for sports and movies with built-in mass audiences, again with connections to image-conscious mainstream advertisers.  If male “coming out” is easier in the world of music, it is perhaps because the product is directly financed by consumers, which implies more of a niche audience and a willingness to forgo some classes of consumers altogether.  Alex and I discuss related mechanisms in our paper on avant-garde vs. popular culture (pdf).

I am happy to read about Collins.  But we will be seeing much more progress when up-and-coming handsome actors, shooting for big Hollywood roles, also come out as gay.  That to me still seems far away.


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