The Washington Nationals have one of the biggest gay fan bases of any professional sports team. Nationals Park is located in Washington, D.C., arguably the gayest city in America. The park has not one but two “nights OUT,” designed specifically for gay attendees. At the last one, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington sang the national anthem and openly lesbian Sen. Tammy Baldwin threw out the first pitch. There’s a falafel stand. It’s a pretty gay park.
In spite of the Nationals’ generally progressive vibe, however, one painfully heterosexist tradition continues: the kiss cam. Or more accurately, the straight kiss cam. Never in the entire history of the Nationals—and perhaps only once in the known history of professional sports in America—has a gay couple been intentionally featured on a kiss cam. At best, the kiss cam reinforces heterosexual norms and excludes gay people. At worst, it mocks same-sex affections and creates an atmosphere of homophobia. The time has come to include gay couples on the kiss cam—or to kill it altogether.
Straight-only-kiss-cam apologists fall into two camps. Some claim that the camera operators can’t readily distinguish between gay couples and same-sex friends. That’s plainly silly: A broader version of this argument could apply to any two humans. No, a kiss-cam operator can’t know the nature of two people’s relationship for certain, but they can (and do) monitor likely targets for open physical affection. Occasionally, the kiss cam unknowingly targets siblings or opposite-sex friends, and that’s not considered a gasp-worthy faux pas. So why would it be such an unpardonable blunder for two people of the same sex to be featured briefly on the cam? If the risk of zooming in on non-lovers is too much to handle, the kiss cam shouldn’t be confined to straight people. It should be banished.
Much more pernicious is the second camp of kiss-cam defenders, who fall back on the blatantly bigoted old plea to think of the children. That’s what happened in 2009, when Sheila Johnson, managing partner of the WNBA’s Washington Mystics, was asked about the lack of a kiss cam at their games. Johnson responded curtly, “We got a lot of kids here. We just don’t find it appropriate.”
As the Washington Post has noted, Johnson’s real fear is “understood”: That the Mystics have myriad lesbian fans, and that those lesbians might demand to be represented on a kiss cam. Rather than allow that “inappropriate” occurrence to happen—and potentially offend the Mystics’ other big fan base, fathers and daughters—Johnson has simply discontinued the tradition. Her decision pretty obviously arises out of homophobia, as does the now-fading practice of putting two male players from the visiting team on the kiss cam.* It’s almost unbelievable that this ever occurred: The joke—that two straight men might be forced to do something gross, like kiss—is a mocking, blatant product of gay panic that has no place in the more tolerant climate of 2013. It’s little surprise that gay fans across the country have called for its discontinuation.
Alarming as these instances of homophobia may be, the overall lack of gay representation on kiss cams probably arises not from intolerance but from ignorance and cowardice. Park managers and kiss-cam operators likely don’t understand why gay fans would feel excluded and don’t want to risk any backlash from conservatives. They don’t understand why something as seemingly trivial as a gay couple on a kiss cam could mean so much, especially when, as in Washington, the park sometimes specifically caters to gay fans.
But it is important. The great success of the LGBT movement has been to allow openly gay people a more active role in society and to demand the equal rights and dignity afforded to everybody else. After years of hidden struggle and repression, gay people can now finally be open about their identities in all arenas of life. But when we are forced into invisibility even by something as silly as a kiss cam, it hearkens back to a dark era of pain and intolerance. And for gay children at sporting events, the conspicuous absence of gay representation could further their sense of isolation and perpetuate confusion or even self-loathing.
The sports world already has enough problems with homophobia without adding this to the pile, and a remedy to the kiss-cam conundrum is easily found. Stadium managers must either buck up and include gay couples or simply kill the juvenile tradition altogether. Going into Sochi, America should be a beacon of acceptance. But instead, our stadiums and arenas remain a bastion of squeamish homophobia.
*Correction, Sept. 2, 2013: This piece originally suggested that kiss-cam operators sometimes put two male fans of the visiting team in the smooch spotlight as a “joke.” In fact, the practice usually involves players on the visiting team.