Chris Kluwe Proves NFL Isn’t A Safe Place To Think Gay People Are Okay, Let Alone Actually Be Gay

It’s a strange day when one of the biggest sports stories that isn’t highlights or previews of an actual game is about a punter who hasn’t played in his league for a year. However, that’s the case today when former Vikings Punter Chris Kluwe wrote an article where he lays out the case for his argument that his stance in support of gay marriage was a big factor in him losing his job as an NFL player. Kluwe makes very good points in saying that, although he is the Vikings record holder in several punting categories and was having a year that was on pace with his career averages, he was still let go during the offseason. He also brings up several times when special teams coordinator Mike Priefer was openly antagonistic toward him and made aggressively homophobic remarks in response to Kluwe’s activism. While Kluwe says that his situation doesn’t speak to a larger problem in the NFL, recent trends show that that might not be true.

Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo via Zimbio

Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo via Zimbio

I remember when Kluwe first “came out” in favor of gay marriage. Fellow NFL player Brendon Ayanbadejo had recently voiced his support for the legalization of same-sex marriage and had been rebuffed by a Maryland state delegate. In response, Kluwe wrote an open letter to that delegate voicing his own support of same-sex marriage and calling out the delegate on his fear that if two men got married he would “magically turn… into a lustful cockmonster.” Kluwe and Ayanbadejo were, quite possibly, the two most prominent active NFL players who openly supported gay rights at the time. This was half a year before NBA player Jason Collins came out, and at the time I remember thinking that this was likely as close to a men’s major professional athlete coming out as gay as we would get in the next five or ten years. And so I was pretty happy with him. Even though I’m a hardcore femme, I’m also a pretty big football fan, so both of these players were already on my radar by the time they started speaking up. I had hoped to see Kluwe continue his career in the NFL, so that he could continue to advocate for same-sex marriage, lead pride parades and soften the ground for the first openly queer NFL player. Unfortunately, he was cut by the Vikings and to this date, no active NFL players have come out.

It was nice seeing Kluwe’s advocacy, but I always thought that a little bit too much of a fuss was made over the fact that he is an ally. If you take a look at women’s sports, professional athletes have not only been speaking in favor of gay rights, but also actually being openly gay for decades. It’s unfortunate that the society we live in values and pays attention to men’s sports to such a higher degree that a punter being in favor of gay marriage has remained a news story for a year and half, getting without a doubt far more coverage than any single story about an out women’s athlete. As long as the NFL and other men’s professional leagues, have atmospheres of such heightened, and fragile, masculinity, this is the way things are going to stay. If a couple of outspoken allies is all we can get out of the NFL, each time another pops up it’s going to make headline news.

Megan Rapinoe and Abby Wambach, two professional athletes who advocate for queer rights and are also, you know, queer. via redding.com

Megan Rapinoe and Abby Wambach, two professional athletes who advocate for queer rights who are also, you know, queer. via redding.com

It’s a strange thing, seeing a straight, cis man saying that he lost his job because (or partially because) he is an “ally.” For a lot of queer people, this is a regular thing. Currently, only 21 states have laws protecting LGBTQ workers. 38% of openly LGB workers say they have faced harassment at work and 78% of transgender people surveyed have said the same thing. Almost 10% of openly LGB workers have reported losing a job because they are queer and that number jumps to a shocking 47% for transgender workers. Kluwe might have felt like he was being attacked at his place of work for standing up for gay rights, but those attacks weren’t really aimed at him. For an ally to hear one of their bosses say “we should round up all the gays, send them to an island, and then nuke it until it glows” (as he alleges Priefer did) might disturb them and make them feel uncomfortable, but it’s not going to make them fear for their life. This anti-gay advocacy atmosphere didn’t just discourage Kluwe from continuing to speak out, more importantly, it is discouraging queer players from coming out.

Priefer has denied the allegations that he made the hateful comments Kluwe said he did. He claims that he is not a bigot and that Kluwe was fired for his performance, even though during the time they worked together, Priefer publicly clashed with Kluwe’s advocacy on several issues. The Vikings are also denying Kluwe’s claims, but say that they will “thoroughly review the matter.”

Although the reasons for Chris Kluwe losing his job may have to do with his speaking out, he still felt comfortable enough to do so. He still felt like the NFL was a place where he could voice his opinion and not be shunned by his teammates, his peers and his fans. While Kluwe might say that he doesn’t think the NFL has a problem with institutionalized homophobia, the fact remains that no NFL players are openly queer. There aren’t even very many who are as vocal about their support of LGBTQ people as Kluwe was. The fact remains that the NFL does not seem like a safe place for queer men to openly exist at all.

Katie Couric and Manti Te'o via Sports Illustrated

Katie Couric and Manti Te’o via Sports Illustrated

In addition to the small number of vocal LGBTQ allies in the NFL, the league’s relationship with masculinity and the gay community has been an extremely hot button issue in the past year. During the months leading up to last year’s NFL draft, several players had their sexuality questioned as a part of their pre-draft vetting process. The most famous of these was Manti Te’o, who claimed to have been the victim of a catfishing scheme where the person he thought was his long distance girlfriend was really a man posing as a woman online. Despite the fact that he went on national television and told Katie Couric “No. Far from it. Faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaar from it,” when asked if he was gay, several NFL teams were still factoring in his sexuality when they were deciding whether or not to draft him. Another college football player, tight end Nick Kasa was similarly asked the completely out-of-left-field question “Do you like girls?” during his interviews with several teams. While being gay has absolutely no effect on an athlete’s ability on the field, it’s apparently still enough of an issue that even rumors a player might be gay can hurt his draft prospects. According to an NFL spokesperson, “It is league policy to neither consider nor inquire about sexual orientation in the hiring process,” but that doesn’t seem to have stopped teams from trying.

This idea that the NFL locker room is a place for hypermasculine men who want nothing to do with homosexuality or anything considered unmanly reared its ugly head again this fall when offensive lineman Jonathan Martin abruptly left the Miami Dolphins due to racist bullying and an abusive atmosphere in the locker room. When Martin left the team, many news and gossip sites reported that he was being bullied because he was gay, despite there being no evidence that he actually is. What Martin is, is a Stanford educated man whose parents both attended Harvard and was considered by some teammates to be “not as black” as Richie Incognito, his white teammate who led the bullying and called Martin racial and homophobic slurs.

Not only did Martin have his sexuality and manhood questioned before he quit the team, but the attacks continued after the fact. Several Dolphins teammates quickly jumped to Incognito’s and the other bullies defense, even though transcripts and recordings of him shouting epithets and death threats towards Martin were made public and another player threatened to rape Martin’s sister. None of these claims were denied, the players just thought that Martin should have “manned up.” Former NFL great Lawrence Taylor added his opinion by saying that he would allow Incognito in his locker room before Martin and that “If you are that sensitive and weak-minded, then find another profession.” Others said that they thought the correct course of action would have been for Martin to physically fight Incognito if he had a problem with him. Perhaps these players would be more proud of Kluwe, who instead of asking for workplace protections, thus admitting he needs help and support, insulted his former employers and called for them to be punished. Kluwe took the more “manly” path, the path of revenge. How can we really talk about professional sports being a more welcoming place for queer athletes if we can’t even agree that openly antagonistic interpersonal relationships, even between straight people, are a bad thing?

Kluwe’s case is just the latest in a year where heteronormativity and masculinity have been huge issues for the NFL. Even Kluwe’s articles calling out homophobia have been exercises in manliness and masculinity. He makes sure that while he’s defending the right for same-sex couples to get married, he sounds as tough and aggressive as he can. Maybe these are some positive signs, though — if they can get us talking about the problem and questioning these long held attitudes. Another important thing to remember is that none of the people targeted for going against the NFL’s apparent strict “no homo” policy actually are openly gay. If they were, it’s likely that they never would have gotten to this point in their careers in the first place. At this point last year, both Kluwe and Ayanbedajo were still on NFL rosters, other players were being called out on their homophobic comments and things looked good that the first openly gay NFL player was just around the corner. However, with draft prospects being questioned on their sexuality, players potentially being cut for supporting gay rights, poisonous locker room cultures and even “allies” continuing to be examples of hypermasculinity and heteronormativity, perhaps we haven’t really come as far as we had thought.

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Mey is a lesbian, Latina trans woman living in Idaho. Her areas of expertise include comic books, trans* issues and pop culture. She has an English Degree, a cat named Sawyer, a tumblr that she uses a lot and a twitter that she only uses occasionally. She's a selfie princess and Nerdy Bruja Femme.

Mey has written 133 articles for us.

20 Comments

  1. Thumb up 6

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    Jesus. I have no particular interest in NFL, so I haven’t been following any of this at all, but now I feel like I should have been. The behaviour detailed here is shocking. I guess I just assumed that US sporting organisations were all kind of moving in the same direction, and that the NHL You Can Play initiative was the kind of thing they were all doing. Apparently, I was very wrong.

    I’m going to go watch interviews in which earnest hockey players criticise Russia’s human rights abuses now until I feel better.

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      I remember that and I was SO EXCITED! But at the same time I was wondering if he should be taking it upon himself to open up that door for them? I thought letting the world know to start expecting it might have scared those players. But then again I wondered if they wanted him to make that statement and once he did they noticed a lot of backlash or something……I was just coming up with ideas as to why it didn’t happen.

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    Thank you Mey! I have been waiting on an article about Kluwe and I appreciate the fact that you highlighted other problems in the NFL, sporting environments & workplace. Sports remain a huge part of my life and I feel like your article has touched on so many relevant issues!

    I have had to educate several people that an individual’s sexuality/gender identity does not protect them from being fired. I am shocked that they blatantly disagree with the facts, that not all states extend that protection to employees. I am so used to hearing “but the employer won’t fire them because they will be sued if they do” argument that it is laughable. That argument is bullshit!

    The Incognito scandal made me wonder if the environment is that much different in male sports or if based on (lack of) diversity my teams were less likely to challenge people based on who they were?
    I was around some problematic situations but I never witnessed anything to that extent…nothing even remotely close. The way we were challenged was more through positive vocab/language to pump each other up.
    What still bothers me is that people defend him and this type of attitude. How is that behavior motivating and how is it acceptable? In the end, no matter what level of athlete, you are going out there to play a game! How is it okay to say the moments leading up to/or after are safe places to just throw all rules of societal decency out the window and tear someone down?

    The most uncomfortable sports environment for me was in college. For a short time I was a thrower (track.) My sexuality was questioned or referenced multiple times. I only ever heard speculation about the female throwers…because ya know strong women are gay and strong men are straight. Though I never felt like my position would have been threatened if I came out I still found it strange that there was so much emphasis on my (our) orientation. Apparently at one of the meets the coaches were playing a game to try to decide which throwers were lesbians…I found this out when my coach later asked me if I was gay.

    One of the things that you discussed that really gets me fired up is the lack of coverage/respect that female sports and out female athletes get. It is incredibly sad and discouraging how women in sports are so overlooked and their voices are so often snuffed out. In general the sporting environment needs to get it together.

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    This is the best analysis I have read, and I am super impressed at the concise way you connect Kluwe’s situation to the marginalization of queer female athletes and female athletes in general, the way allies are highlighted over actual queer people, and the cult of “fragile masculinity.” Thank you!

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    “How can we really talk about professional sports being a more welcoming place for queer athletes if we can’t even agree that openly antagonistic interpersonal relationships, even between straight people, are a bad thing?”

    This is so important. There are so many toxic work environments out there.

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    Saw this article on Yahoo! last night and I wondered when it would be up here on AS. I’ve been hearing the whole thing with the NFL and gays etc for a while now and I think that like with any other job, your sexual orientation doesn’t have to do with squat with your abilities and profession.

    I think that it’s BS that guys have such MACHISMO that they go lengths not to have gay people on their team etc. Like my boss always said “men are retarded til they reach 45.”

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    As someone who couldn’t care less about football, I was surprised at how interesting I found your actual analysis to be, Mey.

    Thank you for drawing my attention to an issue I would have ignored on any other website.

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    I can’t believe this is going on in the NFL . I was totally oblivious of this.It makes me so angry that people are still so homophobic and for the draft to ask whether you like girls are guys to decide which team your on is just stupid

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    I actively try to avoid the big professional sports. This was very interesting to me though. I’m wondering how much of this is a direct correlation to the culture of breaking men/boys down to “motivate” them. As far as I know/remember it mainly consists of telling them they are “girls” or “homosexuals”. Ah, I dunno… It’s just so messed up.

    Also, not for nothing… the U.S. Women’s National Soccer team has consistently out-preformed the Men in pretty much every area of comparison. Since the inception of the Women’s team. Just sayin’.

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      As much as I admire the US women’s soccer team, the success is more attributed to their relatively weak competition. The most dominant nations for men’s soccer are notoriously sexist in their sports, so the competition fields are completely different for men’s and women’s soccer.

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    It’s disheartening to see how far LGBTQ folks still have to come in the sphere of sports, especially in the hyper-macho sport such as football. I’m still in shock that a player was verbally harrased and his family was threatened, but all most of his colleagues has to say was “toughen up.” Disgusting. Not only does a good portion of the NFL remain closed minded about LGBTQ people, they remain close-minded about general human feelings that aren’t harsh in nature.

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    You know, to me, one of the worst things is having to practically defend players like Kluwe to the guys at work. We’re all big football fans, and while I was proud to see these two players stand up for pain and simple equality, it really lowered my opinion of my co workers, and even made me feel silly, for a time, finding the need to try to have them open up their minds a bit.
    For some reason, they’re totally okay with MY bisexuality, but the idea that an NFL player might also think it’s OK, no something must be wrong with that guy.

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    The relative lack of attention paid to female queer athletes is certainly at least in part about the relative lack of attention to women’s sports in general, but I don’t think that’s all of it. There’s also this obnoxious perception that queer women, especially in arenas that are traditionally considered more masculine, don’t really face queerphobia (because a lot of cis straight guys think that two conventionally attractive cis women making out is hot rather than gross, so that means that queerphobia toward queer women is over, right? right?) and so their struggles – and the personal risks taken by out queer women athletes – are erased or dismissed as trivial.

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    Ah, Mey, this was very informative and really well-written … But I’m really glad I’m not interested in cishet male sports, as I’m sure I would be constantly disappointed. This (along with about a million other things) needs to change.

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