Tuesday, August 26, 2008

NBC Coverage of Out Gay Olympic Gold Medal Diver A Belly Flop

In a huge upset of the highly favored Chinese divers, Matthew Mitcham, the only publicly out gay man at the Beijing Olympics, won gold. Mitcham completed an almost perfect final dive to clinch the gold medal. Outsports, , GLAAD and others have taken NBC to task for their failure to note that Mitcham is gay during their coverage of the event.

The issue of whether or not to acknowledge an athlete’s sexual orientation is a complicated one. If the athlete is not publicly out, but is gay, I believe the media (and anyone else for that matter) has no right to out her or him. I am a firm believer that making one’s gay, lesbian or bisexual orientation public is a decision that should be in the hands of each person. Even if I am sometimes frustrated that more LGB athletes are not publicly out, it is not right to out them without their consent. There are many reasons why LGB people choose to keep their sexual orientation out of the public eye besides homophobia.

I do have exceptions to this guideline for hypocrites like Ted Haggart or Larry Craig who secretly engage in same-sex activities, but have a high profile anti-gay agenda opposing equal rights for LGBT people. I feel sorry for them, but I also abhor the damage these people do.

Coming out is not equally easy for all LGB people. Lesbian and gay parents sometimes are concerned about child custody battles. LGB people of color face both racism in the LGBT community and homophobia among heterosexual people of color. In a white dominant society, losing friends and family of color is a more complex risk than white LGB people face. Many LGB people cannot afford to lose their jobs or are living in a community where they face real threats of harassment or violence for being perceived as gay. Many LGB athletes are not prepared to face the media scrutiny or distractions being a pioneer often brings. Others fear losing sponsorships or the trust of teammates and coaches or even a place on the team.

All that said, this was not the case with Matthew Mitcham. He had come out publicly before the Games. His coming out was a compelling part of his incredible story at the Olympics. Information about his sexual orientation was freely available to the media and his partner was in Beijing with him and Matthew celebrated his gold medal by going into the stands and kissing him. He did a poolside interview with this mother on one side and his partner on the other. He kissed them both on TV.

NBC has responded with some pretty weak reasons for their silence. Does this mean NBC is homophobic? I do believe that silence is part of homophobia. Silence often goes hand in hand with discomfort about gay, lesbian and bisexual people. Most of us have grown up learning that LGBT topics are taboo or learning that talking about sexual orientation is equivalent to talking about someone’s sex life. Sports commentator feel completely comfortable talking about a heterosexual athlete’s significant other and their children or plans to have children. This happens often with heterosexual women athletes (the disparity between the coverage of heterosexual male and female athlete’s spouses and families is a topic for another day). Immediately after winning the gold in beach volleyball, with the sand still sticking to their exposed bellies, we learned in an NBC interview that both Misty May and Kerri Walsh are planning to make babies with their husbands now that the Olympics are over, for God’s sake. TMI, in my opinion. NBC also covered the search for and recovery of Kerri Walsh’s wedding ring which flew off in the sand during play. Don’t tell me the sexual orientation and personal relationships of heterosexual athletes are not covered. Don’t tell me there is no double standard when a publicly out gay athlete is effectively “ined” by NBC (as opposed to outed, that is.)

In the minds of some people, heterosexual people have spouses and families, lesbian, gay and bisexual people only have sex and that makes these folks uncomfortable. The spouses or dating partners of lesbian and gay people are not given the same status as those of heterosexual athletes. Their families are not seen as equivalent to the families of heterosexual athletes. For some people, gay men and lesbians only have sex partners, not life partners.

I also think there is some confusion on the part of media commentators about what is ok and what is not ok to say with regard to coverage of LGBT issues in sport. This is about ignorance. Even the most supportive people often need help, education, guidance about how to talk about LGBT issues. I’ve found this often in my classes at UMass and in working with coaches and athletes. It is not helpful to just pound them for getting it wrong. Let’s educate them so they can get it right next time: NBC, It is perfectly fine to acknowledge a publicly out LGB athlete’s sexual orientation, partner, or family. In fact, I believe it is a journalist failure not to. Being the only publicly out gay man competing at the Olympics is newsworthy. Winning a gold medal as the only openly gay male competitor is even more newsworthy. It’s not only ok to tell viewers Matthew Mitcham is gay, it is an omission not to. It doesn’t warrant special treatment, but it does warrant an on-air mention. It is a part of Matthew Mitcham’s story.

I am sure that Ted Rybka at the GLAAD Sports Desk is all over this. I have confidence that Ted will be contacting NBC to make some helpful suggestions about how to cover publicly out LGB athletes in the future. It is just a shame that such a wonderful opportunity to talk about a successful and openly gay athlete on the world stage was lost. Whether it was homophobia or ignorance or fear, it is still a shame.