A guest writer Gareth Davies challenges those who have been critical of Colin Jackson for not coming out sooner, and asks what exactly is a role model?
The news that Colin Jackson, one of Wales’ most successful athletes of the last 25 years is gay opened up a fascinating debate about the concept of role models in the social media world. Alongside the shrugs, the muted surprise and the warmth towards a talented and much loved athlete there was a meme that asked why he hadn’t come out sooner. It’s not an uncommon reaction especially when, as in Colin’s case, tabloid intrusion into their private lives means that they have less to tell us that than might otherwise be the case.
According to the ‘why didn’t he come out sooner’ school of thought Colin deprived other LGBTQ+ people of a role model by maintaining his privacy. It’s an argument I’ve come across before, that ‘successful’ LGBTQ+ people should publicly self identify in order to demonstrate to others who are LGBTQ+ that they too can achieve.
If you take that line of argument you have to start by recognizing that Jackson already is a successful role model. He is one of a generation of black Welsh athletes, along with the likes of Nigel Walker and Ryan Giggs, who shattered the glass ceiling that had previously stifled talents like Billy Boston or Danny Wilson. The difference of course is that the experience of blackness usually begins with the colour of your skin. You cannot refuse to disclose race in any meaningful way, (although many people faced with racism have tried) because racists make their assumptions irrespective of how you describe yourself. The very definition of racism is a refusal to see anything beneath the surface appearance.Sexuality isn’t written on your skin, even if how you look sometimes evidences something about your sexual identity. It’s an internal journey, and how you describe yourself depends emphatically upon where you are at that moment in your journey. Edward Lord’s personal blog about Pride and his queer journey is an exemplary account of the complexity of some of those journeys.
He is one of a generation of black Welsh athletes, along with the likes of Nigel Walker and Ryan Giggs, who shattered the glass ceiling that had previously stifled talents like Billy Boston or Danny Wilson
Let’s take a pause here, and think about the very idea of role models. We know some things about Colin Jackson. In the rarefied field of running between hurdles that you have to jump, he is an all time great, an astonishing athlete combining power, grace and flexibility. He’s also a very accomplished TV presenter, comfortable with microphone in hand.
We know a lot less about him as a person. He values privacy, he values family, and he is proud of his complex heritage. In the absence of anything more than that, is being good at running between hurdles that you have to jump enough to make you a role model?
In a very limited sense Jackson’s coming out as gay might be taken as proof that it’s possible to have sex with other men, and to run between things you have to jump quite quickly. Did anyone doubt that? When I was growing up the memes that to be gay was to be effete, or feminine, were commonplace, but that was a long time ago in a country that now seems far far away. A succession of LGBTQ+ athletes have dismantled those memes to the extent that the gay male archetype now is as likely to be a muscle bound gym warrior as a fey Oscar Wilde obsessed aesthete.
One of those athletes comes to mind. Martina Navratilova was a superb tennis player. Quite simply the best of her generation she brought a steely resolve to the sport. She was also, according to some of the people she shared her life with, not always the nicest person to be around. On achievements alone she qualifies as a role model; as a person to be around, let’s just say it’s sometimes been complicated.
That’s the problem with the very idea of role models. It’s a two dimensional view of the world. It’s a model of leadership that says outcomes are all that matters. Did you win? You’re a role model then.Leadership is more complicated than that. Outcomes based leadership might be one way of defining a leader (‘follow me because I’m winning’) but other models are available. Values based leadership, for instance. Some leaders consciously set out to say, these are my values, I will seek to make sure all my behaviours are congruent with them, and I’ll listen to feedback about that. I suspect Edward Lord might recognise that definition of leadership.
Jackson’s coming out as gay might be taken as proof that it’s possible to have sex with other men, and to run between things you have to jump quite quickly. Did anyone doubt that?
One of the strengths of that style of leadership is that it defies categories, and sets values at its heart. I’ve used the LGBTQ+ abbreviation a few times; it’s a set of categories. There is no such thing, so far as I can tell, as a set of all encompassing LGBTQ+ values. I’m not persuaded categories are helpful, not just as a way of defining sexuality, but in the world of work and intellectual life generally. Here’s how I try to explain that view to people. When I went to university as a mature student the first thing that was explained to you on the library tour was the Dewey decimal system. Dewey started out by assuming all knowledge could be classified, and gave each class a three digit number. He wasn’t inflexible; additional numbers after the decimal point enabled sub classes, and each sub class could have a sub class, and so on ad infinitum.
That’s the problem with the very idea of role models. It’s a two dimensional view of the world
At the same time as I was learning the Dewey system, the world wide web was coming along, and we were learning to search for knowledge not by the Dewey system, but using keywords. Gopher and Mosaic reduced Dewey to just a way of arranging books on shelves, ending its claim to classify knowledge, not by classifying knowledge better, but by enabling us to look for analogues and congruence, not classes. If I’m looking at how to define role models, or mentors, or leaders, I don’t start with classifications, or achievements. I start with values, and the way you explore that is not through a CV or an individual’s palmares, but through listening and observing.
For those who say Colin Jackson should have come out sooner, rather than deprive the LGBTQ+ community of a role model, that’s a challenging approach. I respect their view, that public self identification is an act of solidarity, but I see solidarity as a practice, not a gesture, just as sexuality is a journey, not a momentary event. For me being a leader is about behaviour and values, not achievements or statistics, so it is with being a role model. Instead of looking for people who fit in the right class of person to look up to, isn’t it preferable to look for someone who is congruent with who we want to be?
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