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Sean James: From NFL running back to elite model

Career transition opened my world to new people, ideas

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Sean James, gay news, Washington Blade

By SEAN JAMES

Sean James, gay news, Washington Blade

Sean James (Photo courtesy of 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.

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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.

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Opinion | U.S. senators: It’s time to act against anti-LGBTQ discrimination

Draw your inspiration from past bipartisan consensus

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(Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Georgia has had the eyes of the nation on it for some time now. It’s just over five years since people across Georgia braced themselves as lawmakers sent sweeping anti-LGBTQ legislation to the desk of then-Gov. Nathan Deal. The LGBTQ community feared for the potential harms that the broad “license to discriminate” bill could bring. Business leaders feared billions of dollars being drained from the state’s economy as major players from Hollywood, the business sector, and even the NFL threatened to pull investments. 

But after thousands of calls, meetings, and letters, Gov. Deal, a Republican and devout Evangelical Christian, ultimately did the right thing. He vetoed the bill, saying, “We do not have a belief in my way of looking at religion that says we have to discriminate against anybody.”

At the time Gov. Deal’s veto was heralded as a radical move for a Republican leader. But the truth is that Republican lawmakers faced with bills targeting LGBTQ people frequently take action against these measures. We saw it last month in Arkansas as Gov. Asa Hutchinson vetoed a draconian anti-transgender healthcare bill. Earlier this year, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox teared up while condemning an anti-trans bill, saying, “These kids are just trying to stay alive.” Prominent Republican leaders in South Dakota, Texas, South Carolina, and Arizona have vetoed or moved to block anti-LGBTQ bills. Stalwart Republican senators from Alabama and Iowa have passionately supported open military service for transgender people. 

There are plenty of examples of Republicans supporting LGBTQ people, but they’ve often been lost in the headlines stoking the so-called left-versus-right “culture wars.”

In my home state of Georgia, Gov. Deal’s action inspired further evolution on LGBTQ issues. In the five legislative sessions since Gov. Deal’s veto, Georgia’s legislature has not passed a single anti-LGBTQ bill. Republicans and Democrats alike have defended LGBTQ Georgians from discriminatory measures. And so many Georgians across the political spectrum – within families, friend groups, and workforces – have had conversations about what dignity for LGBTQ people looks like.

Now it’s time for the members of the United States Senate to build on that consensus by taking the most important and critical step yet for LGBTQ Americans. It’s time for senators on both sides of the aisle to come together and enact equality legislation that would establish concrete, enduring nondiscrimination protections for all LGBTQ people in areas like housing and public spaces, including restaurants, stores, and hospitals. LGBTQ people in too many states – 29 nationwide – remain vulnerable because of a lack of explicit nondiscrimination laws at the state and federal levels.

Polling consistently shows that a wide majority of Americans of both political parties strongly supports protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination. More than eight in 10 Americans support LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination laws, including 62% of Republicans. We cannot let the loudest voices of a fringe minority hold our country back from delivering the promise of liberty, security, and equality for all people, no matter where they live. 

Because really, we are so close to passing federal LGBTQ protections – closer than ever before. Nearly 50 years after its first introduction in Congress, the Equality Act passed with bipartisan support in the House, and received its first-ever Senate hearing. Republican senators in the Senate Judiciary Committee voiced empathy for the harms that discrimination has caused LGBTQ people. They also expressed a willingness to finding a path to protect us. And there is more than one bill proposed to address the inequity that LGBTQ people are subjected to. The Senate judiciary committee opened a door to the long overdue conversation.

Now it’s on us to hold that door open and guide all of our senators through. Democratic senators must reach out to their Republican colleagues and address concerns. Republicans must draw on the many recent examples of conservative leaders working to protect LGBTQ people. 

We can’t afford another 50 years of federal inaction on our protections. We can’t afford for the two parties to keep butting heads in a bitter stalemate. For the first time in history, we have a real opportunity to secure protections for LGBTQ Americans.

We must seize this opportunity, seek common ground and find a solution that works for everyone. It’s essential that right, left, and center come together, reach consensus, and do the right thing. At last.

Jeff Graham is executive director of Georgia Equality. Reach him at [email protected].

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Opinion | Why LGBTQ people should fear new Texas abortion law

Slippery slope measure turns private citizens into enforcers

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Texas State Capitol (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

I worry about everything from climate change to violence against transgender people to racism to reproductive freedom for women. But, until recently, I didn’t have to worry that a “$10,000 bounty” could be collected from me if I helped a woman to have an abortion.

Yet, this is now a terrifying concern for abortion providers, advocates of women’s reproductive rights and those who value civil liberties. Especially, for people in Texas.

If you value the right to privacy and are LGBTQ or a queer ally, you should be terrified.

Here’s why everyone with a sense of decency should feel the hair standing up on the back of their necks: It’s no secret, that the Supreme Court, more conservative since the court of the 1930s, is likely eyeing the chance to overthrow or gut Roe V. Wade.

In May, the Supreme Court said that, in its next term (beginning in October 2021), it would consider an abortion case involving a Mississippi law that would prohibit most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy (about two months earlier than permitted by Roe v. Wade).

The Court’s decision to consider this case gives hope to anti-abortion activists seeking the overthrow of Roe v. Wade.   

States with Republican-controlled legislatures, aware of the make-up of the Supreme Court (with its conservative 6 to 3 majority), have acted quickly to severely weaken abortion rights. This has been especially true this year.

“More abortion restrictions — 90 — have already been enacted in 2021 than in any year since the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down in 1973,” according to a Guttmacher Institute report.

On May 19, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas signed a draconian abortion bill into law. This measure, known as a “heartbeat law,” bans abortion after six weeks of pregnancy.

Many women, at the six-week point, have no idea that they’re pregnant.

This is bad enough. Other states, including Ohio, Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri, Alabama, Kentucky and South Carolina have passed “heartbeat” laws banning abortion (when a fetal heartbeat can be detected).

But the legislation signed into law this spring by Gov. Abbott is even more insidious.

The legislation, scheduled to take effect in September 2021, gives private citizens the right to sue doctors and abortion clinic employees.

It doesn’t stop there. The new law permits a private citizen (from a pastor to an Uber driver to a friend, family member or perfect stranger) to sue anyone who performs or helps anyone to get an abortion. Even private citizens not living in Texas could sue people performing or helping someone to get an abortion.

Each private citizen could potentially be awarded $10,000 for every illegal abortion.

The law doesn’t allow for abortion in the case of rape or incest. Though it would permit abortions in rare medical instances. Thankfully, on July 13, a coalition of abortion rights and civil liberties advocates, including abortion clinics, doctors, clergy, filed a federal lawsuit to challenge this new law.

Six-week abortion bans passed by other states have been successfully challenged because abortion rights advocates sued government officials.

But Texas’s new law prohibits state officials from enforcing it. It’s set up to be enforced by private citizens.

“We had to devise a unique strategy to fight this subversive law,” Nancy Northup, president and chief executive of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement. “We will pursue every legal avenue we can to block this pernicious law.”

This new law sets up a dangerous slippery slope for LGBTQ folk.

If a private citizen is allowed to sue anyone assisting a woman having an abortion, what, for example, would prevent anyone (from a minister to a friend to a cab driver) who helps a queer couple to adopt a child? Or suing anyone helping a transgender person to get health care.

Let’s do all we can to support the effort to block this dangerous law.

Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.

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Opinion | LGBTQ victories are largely legal, not legislative

Leading lobbying groups ineffective as we face hostile Supreme Court

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anti-discrimination laws, gay news, Washington Blade
(Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

The recent conclusion of last month’s Pride month celebrations marked an annual milestone in both the history and advancements of rights for the LGBTQ community. The progress for LGBTQ rights over the last two decades has been groundbreaking – oftentimes described as an exemplary movement obtaining rights for a marginalized community. It was less than 20 years ago the United States Supreme Court struck down the country’s first real gay rights test in Lawrence v. Texas, decriminalizing “homosexual conduct” among consenting adults. 

Even in the most recent years, we all recognize how major achievements like marriage equality to the protection of gay adoption – to the recent action ensuring a fully inclusive military with transgender service – have benefited the community. But with new attacks arising daily in state capitals around the nation, like transgender sports becoming the new “bathroom bill,” LGBTQ future generations are counting on the leading LGBTQ rights and legal organizations to secure more equality.

Almost unanimously, these groundbreaking rights – while being achieved at almost lightning speed (although not fast enough for the millions of LGBTQ Americans whose lives have been, and still being impacted) – have been won in American courtrooms, not the halls of Congress. 

While the first federal LGBTQ rights bill was introduced in Congress in 1975 by former Rep. Bella Abzug (D-N.Y.) making it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, it was simply referred to the Judiciary Committee and died. Forty-six years later barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, part of today’s Equality Act, has still not been passed into law by the LGBTQ lobbying organizations – and faces a similar fate this year in the U.S. Senate. 

The Equality Act, the chief legislative target for Washington, D.C.’s LGBTQ lobbying organizations is dead in Congress despite the ripest political environment with a Democratic House, Senate and White House. The Senate’s filibuster and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are major structural problems for the legislation, but there is not even serious discussion or demands from the LGBTQ lobbying community to insist on passage through filibuster reform.  

Must we automatically presume the LGBTQ community is so low a priority we are essentially beholden to prejudice of the minority in the Senate? When, therefore, can we ever expect any action? If not now, then when will gay lobbying succeed?

As an LGBTQ researcher at the University of Sydney in preparation for a new academic piece, I wanted to find out how groundbreaking LGBTQ rights could be won in courtrooms while lingering in Congress for half a century. The central question this research tried to answer was, “what factors contribute to LGBTQ lobbyist and advocate perceptions of movement success by LGBTQ organizations?”  The answer became pretty clear when surveying the top LGBTQ lobbying and government affairs professionals, the ones with the most intimate, front-line view of congressional outreach. 

Overwhelmingly, the research concludes the leading mainstream legal organizations have been primarily responsible for the community’s progress – not the LGBTQ organization’s lobbying efforts. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the wealthiest LGBTQ organization with a $48 million a year budget based in Washington, D.C. and founded 41 years ago, was ranked 10th most effective out of 17 organizations ranked. Since 2018, HRC has fallen six additional positions since the original research was published. In contrast, Lambda Legal, the LGBTQ community’s foremost legal rights organization, followed by the legal powerhouse, the ACLU, have moved ahead of them ranking as the most effective LGBTQ organizations.

The research clearly demonstrates the ineffectiveness of the LGBTQ lobby, which has largely focused on gaining access to power structures instead of winning legislative victories.  Fundraising models of these organizations, built largely around monetizing their access to power, has left little evidence of their effectiveness and in turn, has strengthened systems of oppression against an overwhelming number of LGBTQ people of color, transgender individuals and lower-income members of the community. The “access to power” model of LGBTQ lobbying has essentially commercialized gayness (white, cisgender, English-speaking, middle and upper class gayness) as a consumable product that most often benefits those in power. It’s a “scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours” system of lobbying that shuts the door on the most marginalized LGBTQ people – those most in need of legislative victories to protect their lives.

Today, regardless of all of the progress in LGBTQ legal victories over the last two decades, the community is in the most dangerous place it has been in 25 years. LGBTQ lobbying does not work, and LGBTQ legal avenues have catastrophically changed. The 6-3 Supreme Court is poised to undermine Roe, which some say undermines Lawrence, which undermines Obergefell (the groundbreaking 2015 marriage equality decision). A house of very successful, but delicate legal cards, may begin to fall. The LGBTQ community is holding its collective breath against an anti-LGBTQ Supreme Court majority, and the spotlight is now shining brightly on the LGBTQ lobby and their ability to produce legislative success. 

Unfortunately, the organizations responsible for shaping the community’s relationship with states and the federal government are largely seen as ineffective and oftentimes harmful to progress. This ineffectiveness leaves the LGBTQ community in a dangerous and perilous moment in the movement’s history.  

To be successful, a radical transformation of the movement’s lobbying must happen immediately by shifting to a much more state-based movement, where anti-LGBTQ opponents are already attacking the identity and existence of transgender people with the introduction of more than 100 bills aimed to curb the rights of transgender people nationwide. Secondly, the danger to the lives of LGBTQ people from these legislative harms must be amplified and ready to be fought against. And lastly, a new model of investment is required that prioritizes the lives of transgender individuals and people of color and embraces an intersectional approach to lobbying. 

The LGBTQ movement is about to face darker days ahead. Leaders in Washington’s premier gay rights groups, including their lobbyists, must figure out how to protect our children, protect the poor, and lift up the marginalized or face disastrous consequences in the next few years in legislative bodies from city halls to the U.S. Capitol. Otherwise our hopes to tackle issues like transgender sports and equality will rest solely on the LGBTQ legal apparatus.

Christopher Pepin-Neff, Ph.D., a senior lecturer in Public Policy in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, is the author of ‘LGBTQ Lobbying in the United States.’

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