Come Out Fighting, Lennox Lewis
Lennox Lewis should concentrate on winning back his world heavyweight boxing crown and ignore the homophobic slurs
In the run up to tomorrow's (17 November 2001) world title fight with Hasim Rahman in Las Vegas, Lennox Lewis has been dogged by insinuations of homosexuality from rival boxers, managers and promoters.
Rahman, who snatched Lewis's world heavyweight crown a few months earlier, accused Lewis of a "gay move" over his legal action to force a rematch between the two fighters. When challenged, Rahman insisted that he "never intended to question his (Lewis's) sexuality".
Oh really? Perhaps Rahman could enlighten us on why it is "gay" for Lewis to go to court to get him to honour his contract? Since the term "gay move" does not figure in any Law Society textbook, it is not unreasonable to assume that Rahman used it with some other, probably dishonourable, intention.
Two days before the big fight, Rahman repeated his insinuations, highlighting that he was a family man and that at the age of 36 Lewis has no children.
Lewis has not helped things by rising to Rahman's bait, demanding that he "stop using that gay tag. If you think I am gay, bring your sister". This sexist jibe in response to a homophobic one doesn't do much for Lewis's "Mr Nice Guy" image.
The over-the-top denials by Lewis beg the question: why is he making such a fuss? Surely they just fuel the rumours and make people wonder why he has such a sore spot about his sexuality.
Lewis gave grist to the gossip-mongers when, in April 2001, he inadvertently outed himself in a Radio Times interview: "How can they call me gay? I'm 120 per cent a man's man". We know what he was trying to say but these misjudged words gave more ammunition to his accusers, who tried to suggest that Lewis's slip of the tongue revealed what he had been long denying.
In the same interview Lewis added: "I've realised if you're famous they always say you're gay, so let them. I'm no longer bothered". But, of course, he is very bothered indeed - hence his continuing, highly publicised insistence that he is not gay.
Realising that the sneers about his sexuality are affecting him, I wrote to Lewis in January 2001, warning that some of the tabloids were "digging for dirt" about his sexuality. Goaded by his ostentatious denials, they are convinced he has something to hide. I urged him not to feed their suspicions by making such a fuss, and to maintain his own dignity.
When confronted by these allegations, I advised: "Be evasive if you must, but please do not go down the road of denial. It will only demean your integrity".
I still stand by that view. Lewis's denials are demeaning. If someone accused him of being part-Jewish, he wouldn't turn it into a big issue. By denying he is gay over and over again, Lewis implies that being homosexual is something shameful. His attitude reinforces prejudice.
A far better way to respond to his accusers would be to ridicule them. Why are they so obsessed with his sexuality? Perhaps their obsession reveals something about their own screwed up sexual desires? People who make anti-gay jibes are small-minded bigots. They deserve to be treated with the same contempt as racists.
Lewis is a victim of double-standards. By not condemning the homophobic slurs against him, the boxing profession gives a green light to bigotry. But it would never tolerate comparable overt racism. Imagine the furore if a white opponent was taunting Lewis over his race. The sport's governing bodies would, quite rightly, take action. Why, then, are they allowing boxers, managers and promoters to stir up anti-gay prejudice? Their collusion with homophobia brings shame upon the sport. It makes boxing look nasty and cheap.
Right now, Lewis stands alone. He isn't getting the backing he deserves from his fellow boxers. He has to sort out this one for himself. My advice to Lewis is this: ignore the rumours and concentrate on winning back the heavyweight crown. Don't be so hyper-sensitive. Most of the public could not care less whether you are gay or not. They just want you to regain your world title and bring sporting glory to Britain. Achieve that and you'll be a hero. No one will care whether you are gay, straight, bisexual or celibate.
That brings me to the "what if" scenario. There is absolutely no evidence that Lewis is gay. But what if he was?
Staying in the closet puts sports stars under huge psychological pressure. It often has an adverse effect on their performance. In the early 1980s, I was friends with the black gay footballer, Justin Fashanu, who later killed himself. When we first met, Fashanu was still closeted about his homosexuality. The strain of keeping his gayness a secret was one of the factors that contributed to the downturn in Fash's football career.
There are, today, several top British sports stars who are gay. They worry constantly about being found out. They want to go to gay clubs and parties, but are scared they might be recognised. They lead lonely, miserable lives. Some go to absurd lengths to project a straight image, even to the extent of having phoney girlfriends.
If Lewis was gay and came out it would be amazing. An openly gay world class sportsman would be a first. No top athlete has ever come out at the peak of their career. Lewis would be a trail-blazer.
It is, of course, just a fantasy. But this does not stop me from wishing Lewis was gay. Leaving aside my qualms about boxing as a sport, my dream scenario would be for him to thrash the daylights out of Hasim Rahman in Las Vegas next week. I would love to see him put on his world champion belt, and then come out on live television. That would be an act of great courage and dignity. It would be the equivalent of Jesse Owens braving racist prejudice to win gold in Berlin in 1936. Lewis would become one of the all-time great sporting legends, on account of both his record in the ring and his guts in facing down the notorious homophobia of the boxing profession.
If Lewis was gay and came out, he would win huge respect. People admire honesty and courage. Lots of top pop stars have revealed their gayness, including George Michael, Elton John and Neil Tennant. It hasn't harmed their careers one iota.
The black gay community needs a positive role model. None of the major black celebrities are open about their homosexuality. There are no big-time out gay black actors, politicians, sportsmen or pop stars anywhere in the world. It would be a tremendous boost for black lesbians and gays to have a hero like Lewis. He could play a very important role in challenging intolerance and promoting understanding. Sadly, it is only a fantasy.
Guardian Unlimited website, 16 November 2001.
Copyright Peter Tatchell 2001. All rights reserved.
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