Column: Don’t kid yourself. Carl Nassib’s announcement is a huge deal in this America
Gerry Crane had only been a music teacher at Byron Center High School outside of Grand Rapids, Mich., for three years, but his impact on that western Michigan community was long-lasting.
Crane led the school’s band to a regional award, and in his last year-end performance evaluation, William Skilling, the school’s principal, said that Crane was a good role model and “one of our best teachers on staff.” That was June 1995.
A year later, Crane resigned. That’s because when news of his commitment ceremony with partner Randy Block began to circulate in the religious conservative community, hundreds of people showed up to school board meetings demanding “one of our best teachers on staff” be fired.
There were leaflets placed on cars in churches “warning” parishioners there was a gay teacher in their public school. Eventually the harassment not only forced Crane out of his career but contributed to his death. The forensic pathologist who conducted the autopsy said stress was likely a contributing factor to the heart attack that killed him in January 1997.
This was the community in which I started writing about LGBTQ equality back in 1998.
And this was where I received my first death threat for doing so — and the threats haven’t stopped.
So, when I saw Las Vegas Raider Carl Nassib’s coming out story being met by many people on social media with “who cares?,” I was triggered.
Not because for 23 years I have received a steady stream of reminders from the kind of people who do care. But because I remember that when I was interviewing for a job at the local newspaper, one of the editors said to me my being gay wouldn’t be a problem. He was referring to the newsroom, of course. But I didn’t live in the newsroom. I lived about 10 miles from where Crane used to teach, five miles from where his commitment ceremony was held and less than two miles from the hospital where he died.
Imagine that era: “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” was being boycotted, and President Clinton had pushed through the “don’t ask, don’t tell” Defense Department policy and signed the Defense of Marriage Act. Yet I was told my being gay wasn’t going to be an issue, as if working at the newspaper would insulate me from the rest of the world.
Now I get why many people say it. They want to express support. They want to be inclusive. This desire to be in his corner is how Nassib’s jersey quickly became a top seller in the league. But the truth is, saying “who cares” to Nassib’s disclosure in a year in which more than 250 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced across the country is not affirming, it’s insulting.
It’s a flippant attempt to display enlightenment when all it does is reveal the privilege the person forgot to leave behind on their way to LGBTQ allyship. Pride flags do not fly everywhere in June. There are still a lot of places in this country where you can lose your job for being LGBTQ, just as Crane did in 1996.
There are new laws banning trans youths from playing in sports, and the Supreme Court ruled in favor of discriminating against same-sex parents less than a week ago.
To try to frame Nassib’s or anyone’s coming out story without this context is like cramming an 8x10 photo into a 5x7 frame. To appreciate the impact, you have to recognize the conditions. Saying “who cares?” to someone coming out is the equivalent of saying “I don’t see color” while elected officials draw up voter restriction bills that disproportionately harm people of color.
Last year, the Trevor Project, a nonprofit youth crisis and suicide prevention organization, conducted a survey that revealed 40% of LGBTQ youth “seriously considered” suicide. Nassib said representation and visibility are crucial in his announcement and pledged $100,000 to the Trevor Project to help save lives.
Asking “who cares?” with that many LGBTQ young people considering suicide suggests some of these people have conflated indifference with allyship. Indifference asks, “who cares?” Allyship provides the answer.
I never had the chance to meet Gerry Crane, but I think about him a lot. The persecution. The pressure to remove him from his job despite being hailed as a great teacher. It’s heartbreaking.
In many ways, that part of the country has changed a lot in terms of attitudes and legal protections for the LGBTQ community. But when you consider one of the first things Betsy DeVos, who is also from western Michigan, did as secretary of Education was go after transgender students, you are reminded of what hasn’t changed.
You are reminded of what so many LGBTQ people — both young and old — fear about coming out. Being targeted. Dehumanized. Dying.
It does make one wonder how anyone could see Nassib as anything besides brave. Yes, as a rich, cisgender, white man in America, he has resources others do not. But that doesn’t mean coming out and being out is easy for him or anyone else.
How could it be when so many elected officials are still going after our rights and some of our allies are using “who cares?” as a misguided rallying cry?
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