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Monday, January 28, 2013

Far From Gay

If you need your relationship to your sexuality expressed in a measurable distance, Manti Te'o is the cartographer for you.

Prior to Thursday, I had never really considered the need to plot my preferences on a map. But now I'm worried I'm behind the times. Is there a new, more highly-evolved gay-dar out there that identifies not only who is straight and who is gay, but also registers how straight or how gay someone is, and expresses that measurement in miles, minutes and turn signals?

Moreover, could someone please direct me to the national - or is it international? - rating agency that determines what constitutes solid gayness or 100% straightness, and then ranks the various shades of gray below those gold standards? Or is that kind of rubric something only nationally-ranked male athletes are given access to? I'm so overwhelmed.

Manti threw me this curveball during his sit-down with Katie Couric. The interview covered the many angles of his fake-dead-girlfriend catastrophe. As Katie tried to probe for some explanation as to how this young man could have been duped into believing a girl he'd never met both existed and was in a reciprocally loving relationship with him, she aired one theory that has been circulating:

That Manti created a fake girlfriend to cover up his homosexuality.

So, is he gay, she asked?

"No," Manti answered. For good measure, he added, "Far from it. Farrrrr from it."

The audience responded to his emphasis with a chuckle.

Beyond firmly planting Manti's flag in Straight Man's Land, the exchange raised at least three interesting and important considerations.

First, why did Katie ask the question in the first place? Considered in a vacuum, any person's sexuality is his or her business alone, its relevance diminishing with every step away from a direct relationship to that person. We, the general public, have no "right" to know, and no place to ask, about the sexual orientation of each other, even including the people we help make famous.

The line could begin to blur, though, when a person puts their sexuality at issue. Politicians do this when they take inflammatory or discriminatory positions against, for example, homosexuals, and then it comes to light that the politician is, in fact, also homosexual. The same has famously gone for members of the priesthood.

It is fair to argue that Manti put the question at issue by participating - knowingly or not - in a fake heterosexual relationship. The question of how he could have been so blind-sided, or why he would have concocted such a story, has spawned a cottage industry of educated guessers and uneducated speculators. Katie lobbed up questions related to almost all aspects of the controversy, so it is not entirely unfair or unreasonable for her to have given him a chance to respond to this aspect of the rumor-versus-truth mill as well.

Still, the troubling aspect of our fascination with sexuality, and our default presumption that someone is straight until proven gay, lurks in the background. Maybe we have more of a right to "care" when it comes to Manti, but does that relativity equate to being "owed' an answer? Is this line of inquiry okay, or far from okay?

Manti's answer itself actually underscores the worrisome aspect of the question. Not only is being gay a newsworthy angle, but actually being gay seems to be the worst label to be saddled with. At least, according to Manti.

He has essentially copped to lying, misleading, and being kind of dumb about this whole thing. But when it came to whether or not he prefers men to women, he seemed compelled not only to deny the rumor but to cast himself as the Heterosex-back of Notre Dame.

Again, context explains much of his response. He is the product of a Roman Catholic college that only recently (as in last month) authorized a gay student organization to be active on campus. He is also Mormon, raised in a church that teaches that same-sex relationships are "sinful." To top it off, he is Samoan, and homosexuality is illegal in that island nation. You can see why Manti might not be comfortable with even questions about his sexuality.

And then there's the fact that he is a star football player from a historic football instutition preparing to be drafted into the National Football League. One need only refer to Brent Musberger's "play calling" during the national title game between Alabama and, well, Notre Dame, for insight into how football culture views the trappings of a football player's life. The camera "happened" to land on Katherine Webb, former Miss Alabama and current girlfriend of Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron. Brent proceeded to essentially lose his mind, proclaiming Katherine's beauty, remarking that a girlfriend like that should motivate other Alabama boys to suit up and practice harder, and begrudging star quarterbacks of having "all the luck." The exchange quickly became more interesting than the game itself.

And the implications were both clear and stereotypical. Not only are glory and success and the spoils of wealth the luscious fruits and heady motivations of a skilled (male) athlete's world, but they get the shiny trophy (female) companions to boot. If those young men aren't indulging in the premiere bachelorhood afforded to them because of their first-string everything status, then what's the point; indeed, what's their point?

When Manti gets exposed as the faithful boyfriend to a girl he never laid a physical hand on, questions get asked. Manti scrambles to put them to rest. He is one interview away from insisting he's never seen a rainbow. We're one story closer to the realization that we aren't quite as highly evolved on the issue of non-discrimination as we might like to think, or allow ourselves to hope.

Which brings us to the audience's chuckling reaction to Manti's "far from gay" answer. It's unclear what part of that response prompted the laughter. That he felt the need for emphasis in the first place? That it's even conceivable a football player like him could be "suspected" to be gay? That Manti thinks there is such a thing as "far from gay"?

Or is it worse than those doors 1 through 3? Was the audience laughing because being gay is silly? Was there a note of condescension and/or derision in the chortles, directed not at Manti or even at Katie, but at the gay community writ large?

I don't know. I'm not sure I want to.

I do know that, on Thursday morning, I thought this "catfishing" trip had taken on every bizarre angle, complicated consideration, and head-scratching moment that a single story could. By Thursday afternoon, I learned that I was not right. Actually, I was far from right.

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  1. This poor kid. I've tried not to pay attention to this story not only because - like glazed donuts and the show Lost - it seems unhealthy, but also because - like 9/11 truthers and also the show Lost - it has always seemed like a lot of people picking over tiny details that don't add up to anything substantial. Maybe a better metaphor for me are those Whoppers malt candies that my mom likes and I hate: an inviting chocolate glaze covering a chunk of dusty nothingness. I don't understand malt and I never want to.

    I think he said the "far from it" thing because he's young and dumb and getting grilled by a famous person on live TV and because the fact that he's not gay might be the only thing he's sure of anymore. I think the audience laughed not because there was some ESP-shared conspiratorial homophobia but just they were nervous for the kid and because "far from it" it just sort of a funny thing to say, in that it forces active imaginations like mine to briefly (briefly!) conjure the image of him mid-intimacy with some co-ed with a big grin on his face and a thumbs-up saying "Man, I just REALLY enjoy this!"

    I dunno, I hate the way this has been covered in the media and I hate that it's 2013 and I have to have my eyes filled with this nothingness instead of important things like what malt is any why people could possibly like it.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Nick. You make great points and elevate healthy disagreement to an art form. Appreciate your input on every level.