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NFL

Carl Nassib’s Coming Out Isn’t A Beginning Or An End

Carl Nassib flexes and smiles
Ethan Miller/Getty

Whenever I’d tell people I was gay in high school, their first assumption would always be that I was joking. I’d say something offhand about a guy I liked, and they’d kind of look at me quizzically, waiting for me to crack a smile, and then they’d go, “I can’t tell if you’re being serious or not.” I’d assure them I was, in fact, being serious, and they’d still scan my face for a punchline. Typically, it’d take a couple of rounds back and forth to finally reach an understanding. Then they’d try to comprehend how I could be gay without seeming gay. I liked sports—a lot. I hung out with a bunch of straight dudes. I didn’t dress well (because I wasn’t into men’s fashion. Foreshadowing!). And I didn’t have a lisp. I was never one of the kids who was marked as queer and bullied for it, and, in the early 2010s in the suburban midwest, I was still a little on the young side to be correcting folks who assumed I had or wanted a girlfriend.

As a generally pretty clocky trans girl, I don’t have that invisibility anymore. I had mostly forgotten about it, even, before Carl Nassib came out while at his house in West Chester, PA on Monday. I won’t be so arrogant as to claim I can figure out what people think of me on sight, but I feel comfortable guaranteeing that most of them don’t see a cis straight man, what with the makeup and the curves and the long hair and all. (I dressed as masculine as I could to go vote under my deadname this week, and I still got gendered correctly by the guy behind me in line.) People still make plenty of assumptions—they very kindly if misguidedly want to make sure I’m being treated all right when they find out I work around sports. But unlike a lot of gays and lesbians, who have to navigate the risks of coming out every time a new person assumes they’re straight, my everyday appearance makes all those choices for me.

That’s why I didn’t really have much to say about Nassib’s big news, other than “Oh, cool!” Nassib, I imagine, was not all that unlike me as a teenager. If he played football well, kept his head down, and didn’t act too “flamboyant,” there’d be no reason at all for the idea that he was not straight to even cross anybody else’s mind. Stereotypes are powerful things in that way. Nassib would go on past high school to be an All-American at Penn State, a third-round choice in the draft, and a five-year NFL vet all without his sexuality becoming public knowledge. His decision to finally change that was a brave one, and I think particularly for many gays who don’t seem gay, there’s something very symbolically powerful in seeing Nassib correct everybody’s false assumptions with one innocuous sentence spoken into his phone camera. That he was met with universal praise for his act only adds to the reasons to be happy.

But Nassib’s coming out also illuminates an increasingly urgent stretch between the letters LGB and the letter T—or, at least, a stretch that the most cynical Americans are trying to create. And I think it’s my hyper-awareness of that growing divide that has mostly muted my response to what is for many fans a genuinely emotional bit of groundbreaking news. I by no means want to suggest that Nassib’s coming out was easy or simple—it was not—but contrasting the overwhelmingly positive reception to his Instagram video with all the fearmongering going around about trans people right now, particularly in the world of sports, makes this as important a time to consider the fights ahead as it is a time to celebrate major progress.

So much has changed for the better for gay men and women even just since I was in high school. A Gallup poll from this month shows that 70 percent of Americans support legal same-sex marriage, up from 27 percent in 1996 and 60 percent in 2015. That 84 percent of young people are supportive indicates that the number will only grow larger in the future. More intriguingly, there’s also bipartisan support for gay marriage for the first time ever, as 55 percent of Republicans said that they were in favor. That trend is in line with a clear strategic retreat from explicit homophobia by U.S. right-wingers, who in the Trump era sought to open their ranks to mostly white, wealthy cis gay men as part of their unrelentingly shameless attempt to hold on to power in a country where most people vote against them. Now that there is no longer any one single unifying hot-button issue that affects nearly everyone in the LGBT umbrella—not AIDS or Don’t Ask Don’t Tell or marriage—the gays whose politics align with the GOP have found it easier to justify their support.

But the conservative war on queer people didn’t wind down. It only got more specific. Since Obergefell v. Hodges decided the marriage question, Republican lawmakers have turned their attention more and more towards limiting the rights of trans people, while letting cis gays pretty much have their victory. Some of these attacks are about our right to health care, and some of these are about where people are allowed to pee—if I ever visit Tennessee I’ll have to hold it or risk being labelled a sex offender. But the most prominent and widespread new bills of late have been about forcing kids to play on gendered sports teams based solely on the genitals that they were born with. Obviously, these laws don’t just target trans girls. They put a bullseye on the back of any woman with any trait that someone might see as masculine, and they work to further reinforce the long-term conservative project of maintaining the government’s control over women’s bodies. But that doesn’t stop 62 percent of the country from agreeing with them.

None of the anxiety and wariness I feel about this is really directed anywhere near Nassib, who’s already used his newly prominent platform to send support towards The Trevor Project. But it’s the best I can do to explain my honest, complete reaction to this news, which is rooted in a fear of complacency, or satisfaction, or even just being left behind. I hope nobody out there thinks that Nassib is the start of a revolution, or worse, the end of one. Not only is that way too much to put on one defensive end, but it also misunderstands how the battlegrounds have shifted rather than disappeared. Whether or not a gay man could be trusted in the showers of a pro sports locker room has proven to be, in 2021, a relatively uncontroversial question. (Finally!) What remains, though, is a fiercely contested debate over whether or not trans people can exist in those same showers, and also, a question about who is going to take which sides of the issue.

In the meantime, I’ve tried to tap into that young, clueless, straight-passing gay boy I used to be, to see how much joy I could feel about Nassib’s announcement. But he was never really there. So instead, I’ve tried to feel empathy for the folks who are so excited about this, and for Nassib himself—how freedom and relief must be shooting through his body nonstop. And that all makes me smile. And it makes me proud. And it makes me pray that we’re all still going to fight together.