I can't remember who I looked up to when I was a kid. Probably the usual –– parents, teachers, the pastor at church, or its choir director, otherwise known as minister of music. Their power, though, diminished as I got older and started to see their flaws. Celebrities didn't figure into it at all, since my Southern Baptist mother didn't let us watch more than half an hour of the idiot box per day, and our exposure to music was pretty limited, though somehow, my older sister Kim ended up a Kiss fan.
So I guess I'd have to say God was my role model, along with his mild-mannered son with the empty blue eyes that I got to know as my personal savior. If I have a strange and messianic take on things you can blame them, or the Protestants for letting me read the Bible on my own from the time I could sound out the words.
I'm probably an exception. Even 20 years ago, most kids discovered the world filtered through their TV sets. MTV, which started in 1981, was why all the guys in high school went around with the sleeves of their blazers rolled up. And why girls started wearing their clothes inside out. By the time Madonna did her live performance at the MTV Video Music Awards in '84, she and Cyndi Lauper had already made us understand that clothes were only costumes, after all. A form of play and power. You could be femme in the morning, all butch in the afternoon, something else entirely at night.
And then there was Michael Jordan hawking his Air Jordan shoes so every kid in the world could dream of flying as high. And of being as stinking rich.
We aspire to be what we see. Every public figure is a potential role model. We all are, I guess, just on different scales. Step into the limelight, you're defining what's possible. You're shaping lives. Chris Kluwe, the straight Vikings kicker, deserves props for using his juice for his witty takedowns of homophobic bigots, though I'd like to give most of my kudos to WNBA Minnesota Lynx star Seimone Augustus. In the last couple of months she's raised her dyke profile to fight an impending gay marriage ban in her adopted state.
Hero of the month, though, is Puerto Rican boxer Orlando Cruz, who announced he was gay two weeks ago, then won his next bout just a couple days ago. Now, the 31-year-old former Olympian is the one and only openly gay pro boxer active in one of the most macho sports of all.
He was graceful and grateful as he bounded out of the closet. He admitted it took some time to make his peace with it, including a few years in therapy. And when he was asked about romantic prospects, candidly explained he planned on staying single for a while so he could focus on the world championship. “The title belt is my new boyfriend,” he joked.
His prospects are good. At least in the stats. He's got a 19-2-1 record with nine KOs. And a thick enough skin to ignore the guys at the gym in San Juan where he works out who have started to whisper they won't take a shower if he's in the locker room. He apparently scares them stiff. I mean limp. What's the risk of death or a concussion compared to getting scoped out by a fag?
Orlando Cruz’s coming out was good news at a moment when the sports page was shocked and awed at Lance Armstrong's years of doping, and there were loud lamentations from the likes of the New York Times' William C. Rhoden, who declared, “In light of the dramatic falls of Michael Vick, Marion Jones, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Tiger Woods, and now Lance Armstrong, we need to either recalibrate our definition of the sports hero or scrap it altogether.”
His conclusion –– sports heroes, in particular, deserve an exemption. It's apparently too much to bear the burden of sports excellence along with the illusions of fans and the requirements of civilized behavior. In fact, the reverse might be true, he argued: “Will all the good that Paterno accomplished be buried with him, overshadowed by the scandal?”
With apologists like Rhoden dismissing all those raped and molested boys as nothing more than a “scandal,” no wonder so many athletes behave like pigs. They aren't held to a higher standard. On the contrary, they have to sink pretty low to be held accountable at all.
Now I think it's more than homophobia keeping gay athletes in the closet, but also our complicity in telling them they don't owe nobody nuthin’. Which means that every gay athlete who decides to honor the truth and come out deserves a thousand parades from the public at large and a lifetime supply of tickertape.