By SEAN JAMES
So what makes a small town boy turned professional athlete who has spent the first 20 odd years of his life steeped in football culture ready to enter the New York fashion and modeling scene? Absolutely nothing!
Being in a country as large as ours can still be very isolating. Outside the big city streets are many small towns where diversity is still not a norm. Unfortunately from big cities like New York where we have a little bit of everything (and I do mean everything), to the small farm towns of Middle America, prejudice still exists. Much of it however, is rooted in ignorance. People are afraid of what they do not know, and what they do not understand.
Moreover, others are so unaware of their own ignorance that their prejudice is truly unintentional. Growing up in a small town in Kansas, even I fell victim to my ignorance. It was not until I moved to New York that I knowingly had any contact with a many minorities. Jewish people and gays (who now comprise a large portion of my peers) were completely foreign to me. Not only had I never met any, but I didn’t know anything about them either. That disassociation made it easy for me to throw around words like “faggot” with my friends.
I wasn’t intentionally making an anti-gay remark, in my mind I was simply calling out an insult to a friend or teammate no different than calling him an idiot. I never stopped to think about what the word “faggot” actually meant, or why it was used derogatorily. There was no one in my circle of peers or adults to guide me, talk to me, or educate me about what lay outside the borders of our town and our own experiences. By remaining ignorant about the diverse groups that comprise our nation, I was guilty, as are so many others of allowing myself to remain prejudiced.
Becoming a professional athlete was my end goal for as long as I could remember, and it was something that I strived to achieve through hard work and discipline for the majority of my life. Becoming a Ford model for one of the top agencies in the world on the other hand, kind of fell into my lap when I moved to New York. I had no experience with the modeling world, and no knowledge of how it worked or whom I would encounter. Spending time in the fashion world of New York introduced me to a world of new people, including photographers, designers and stylists, not to mention other models. Suddenly, I was immersed in a game that had new rules and new players.
In the NFL, the players were predictable (at least off the field), and so were the rules. It was a game of strength, machismo and competition. Every player knew their role in a locker room as much as they knew their role in a game. Be tough, talk shit, joke around — but get shit done. Some of that joking around came at the expense of the LGBT community. It didn’t occur to us that we were being offensive, let alone that there may have been a gay man on our team, in that locker room with us, or worse yet, laughing at those jokes out of fear. That was my conditioning, my everyday. Then I became a Ford model, and let’s just say the locker room looked very different. I was the minority in almost every sense of the word. I was a minority as a black man, I was a minority as a muscular man with an 18-inch neck, and I was a minority as a straight man.
Everything that made me one of the boys in football now made me an outsider. So I had a choice: I could stride into this new world as the same running back who strode into stadiums, or I could do what my daddy taught me and put my head down, stay in my lane and listen. I chose to do the latter. I listened and I watched. I paid attention to how people spoke, how they interacted with each other. I also began to see how gay men responded to me, especially the gay men who were in a position to advance my career.
I am not suggesting that every gay man in the industry hit on me, or that every gay agent, designer, etc. had a casting couch. What I am saying, however, is that there were some, and that was a reality that I had never seen before, and one to which I had to quickly acclimate. The more people I met, the more I gained a window into the gay world, and as my window widened, the stereotypes I had grown up listening to began to break down. The most significant example of this for me was the introduction I was given to the New York Times best-selling author, and my friend, E. Lynn Harris.
I was introduced to E. Lynn through Lloyd Boston who thought I’d be the perfect choice for one of E. Lynn’s book covers. The result of that introduction was much more than a booking, it was the beginning of one of the closest and most significant friendships of my life. From the time I met him until his death, E. Lynn taught me many valuable lessons. As a gay man himself, E. Lynn shattered whatever stereotypes of gay men that I may have had lingering from my adolescence. From the way he lived his life, to the way he spoke to me, to the way he crafted his novels, E. Lynn turned the “typical” idea of a gay man on its head.
He explained to me the way he grew up in the South and how he was taught that being gay was a choice and was wrong, and how that mentality led him to perceive himself as a sinner. He explained that he was in the closet through high school, but becoming a writer freed him and allowed him to be himself. Being himself meant many things to E. Lynn. It meant being a huge football fan, being the first black male cheerleader at the University of Arkansas, being masculine and liking men who were masculine too (“If I liked girls, I’d fuck girls”, he would always say). It meant being a best-selling author who could engage and captivate readers whether they were male or female, gay or straight.
Still in all, for E. Lynn being himself also meant that even though he was “out”, he was still afraid of being perceived as a queen. This was a sentiment that was surprisingly easy for me to understand. As a professional athlete, I was always well aware of the perceptions people had of me. I was always conscience of avoiding the “dumb jock” presumption when meeting new people. The fear of how others would perceive me had absolutely no baring on the pride I took in being an athlete, just as E. Lynn’s fears had no bearing in the pride that he took in being gay. However, our pride was never able to mask the realities we knew existed all around us.
Looking back at my experiences both as an NFL player and a Ford model, I see how impactful perceptions can be, but more importantly how inaccurate perceptions can affect a person or a group of people. Over the past 50 years, this country has made great strides toward breaking down the stereotypes and negative perceptions many of us held about various minority groups. President Barack Obama serves as a testament to those strides. Progress, however, does not exist in a vacuum, and the dream of equality has expanded to meet the ever-changing portrait of the American people. During the Civil Rights Movement, African Americans fought for their constitutional rights. The assertion that the color of skin with which you were born does not change your rights as a citizen of this nation stood at the foundation of that fight.
Today, sexual orientation, just like skin color, is something of which to be proud, and yet, something in which you have no hand. I am grateful that I was able to encounter strong, incredible individuals along my journey from professional athlete, to model, to the business man I am today that were able to positively mold my perception of the gay community. This is why I continue to support the LGBT community and those who are working to afford it the rights and perceptions that it deserves.
Sean James is a sports agent, Ford model and former running back for the Minnesota Vikings. Reach him via seanlewisjames.com.