The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Carl Nassib’s presence is a symbol of progress — and a reminder of the perils facing gay men

Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib announced June 21 on Instagram that he is gay, making him the first active NFL player to come out. (Video: Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

Just a few days ago, The Washington Post reported that the U.S. Senate has emerged as a wall to a piece of legislation named simply and aptly the Equality Act. The legislation would expand the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other laws that protect people from being discriminated against based on their race, color, religion and national origin.

The Equality Act, passed by the House in February, would amend those other acts of humanity to protect us from being discriminated against because of sexual orientation and gender identity. And, as The Post reported, amid a backdrop of “a new Republican push to target LGBTQ rights,” the act is foundering in the Senate, without bipartisan support.

This was an overlooked context to what happened later in the week: NFL defensive lineman Carl Nassib, who last season had 28 tackles and 2.5 sacks in 14 games for the Las Vegas Raiders, revealed to the world on Instagram that he is gay.

The coverage of Nassib’s revelation seemed like yet another parsed report about a man existing as an apparent contradiction in the toxically masculine sport that is America’s pastime. What’s the big deal? It’s 2021! We’ve done this already, right?

The impact of Carl Nassib’s message is profound, but the normalcy was striking, LGBTQ advocates say

“Carl Nassib becomes first active NFL player to come out as gay,” The Post headlined the story, as did virtually every news outlet. “Active,” of course, was the key word, the one that showed why this was still such a notable moment, years after you might reasonably have expected such a headline. “Active” was juxtaposed to Michael Sam, who in 2014 became the NFL’s first openly gay draft pick but never played a regular season game. And to more than a dozen other gay men who didn’t disclose they were gay or bisexual until after their NFL playing days or tryouts were over, such as running back Dave Kopay, who was coached by Vince Lombardi with the Washington Football Team and was the first former NFL player to come out as gay — a full 46 years ago.

But Nassib’s disclosure wasn’t just about sports or football in particular, though it underscored yet again that we have awarded sports an unsubstantiated reputation as a leader in social change. Truth is, it is a laggard. Nassib, 28, added Monday that he was donating $100,000 to the Trevor Project to help fund suicide prevention programs for LGBTQ youth. The NFL on Tuesday said it would match his gift. The Trevor Project has been around for almost a quarter-century.

The context of Nassib’s disclosure was a reminder that the more things appeared to have changed for, in this case, gay men, the LGBTQ community remains at danger — socially, economically, even physically. They — no, we — need the Equality Act. Indeed, despite the number of openly gay men in authority — such as Pete Buttigieg as the first openly gay person confirmed to a Cabinet seat by the Senate or Tim Cook as the first CEO of a Fortune 500 company to publicly come out as gay — we seem suddenly to be living in an era rife with attacks against gay men in rule and in rage.

More than 250 bills have been introduced in state legislatures this year that organizations such as GLAAD and the Human Rights Campaign consider anti-LGBTQ legislation, including many directly affecting gay men by allowing the declaration of a religious belief to serve as justification for refusing services to others.

Nassib’s “profile will help shine a light on these anti-LGBTQ bills,” GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis predicted to me in a Tuesday phone call.

And frighteningly on top of it all, the FBI in November reported it counted in 2019 the highest number of hate crimes in the country in over a decade. About 20 percent of the victims were targeted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. And among cases in which people were attacked because of their sexual orientation, 62.2 percent of the offenses were against men.

“The violence, the hate, the discrimination,” Ellis lamented, “takes such a huge toll on our community. That’s why [Nassib’s] such a big story.”

Nassib obviously doesn’t fear possible consequences like so many athletes before him who were gay. He is comfortable in plain sight. And on his platform, he can inspire others like him, allies too, and stand as a warning to those who would oppose them.

He is who we were waiting for.

Washington’s Jerry Smith among those who paved the way for Carl Nassib’s coming out as gay

“It’s enormous, the cultural change this could have, because we haven’t seen someone active in the NFL,” Ellis said. “You can name one right now.”

You certainly can’t ignore him at 6-foot-7 and 275 pounds, with a Lombardi Award on his résumé as college football’s top lineman in 2015, when he led the nation in sacks and forced fumbles for Penn State.He captured attention last season playing for the NFL team that long had the reputation as the meanest around and whose fans, no matter that the Raiders relocated from gritty Oakland to glitzy Las Vegas, wear their team’s old regard like a medal. He was even a star of the HBO reality series “Hard Knocks.” Nassib can’t be othered.

Listening to Ellis and reading and hearing others in the gay and lesbian community react to Nassib’s revelation reminded me of a response in the Jewish community to the emergence from its ranks of baseball slugger Hank Greenberg. “Here was this Jewish fella, walking into the synagogue,” a fan named Bert Gordon recalled in the award-winning documentary “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” by Washington’s Aviva Kempner. “Six feet four! My God, nobody had never seen a Jew that big!”

“We have been defined for so long by media representation who we are,” Ellis said. “But we know as a community who we are as LGBTQ people. Carl breaks those stereotypes, even though we know those are just stereotypes.”

Ellis explained that increased visibility can also be dangerous because it can create a backlash. But something tells me that the klieg lights of sports can help keep the reactionaries at bay.

Story had it that after one game in which Greenberg was pelted with slurs from the opposing dugout, he strode into its clubhouse and dared whatever man was so bold from afar to be the same face-to-face. No one owned up.

Nassib isn’t shying away from who he is, either. His presence is a reminder of the perils still facing gay men and hopefully another step toward equal treatment.