SPORTSTALK

Identity Politics

The bravery of LeRoy Butler

Gay flag painted on the face of a man. Man is looking at camera and has a serious expression
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LeRoy Butler is as local as Famous Amos, the Pecan Park Flea Market and sclerotic traffic on I-95 North. The Lee High School grad had a standout career as a defensive back at Florida State University, then went on to play a complete career helming the strong safety spot with the Green Bay Packers.

Like former Packers defensive player (and long-deceased) Reggie White, Butler is a committed Christian. Getting beyond that, though, there are certain differences in the way they approach witnessing for the Lord.

One such difference has to do with the Packers' respective understandings of homosexuality, and how it factors into the Christian life. White opposed gays' civil rights struggles. During a 1998 address before the Wisconsin Legislature, White rejected comparisons of the gay rights movement to the civil rights movement, saying, "Homosexuality is a decision. It's not a race."

White's position is not an unfamiliar one, especially to those of us who have spent significant time in places where the culture is determined by evangelical Christian churches. The old "God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve" canard — if you took a drink every time you heard that, you'd be pickled by noon.

In the 15 years since White courted controversy and endeared himself to a moralistic swath of the Christian right, we have a much greater understanding of sexual orientation, as well as an understanding that sexual identity is not a matter of conscious choice on the level of "I'd rather go to Carrabba's than Olive Garden."

Butler was booked by a Wisconsin church to speak to a youth group on the subject of bullying and was to receive $8,500 for his efforts. All would have been fine had he avoided tweeting about Jason Collins' decision to become the first openly gay male athlete currently in American major team sports.

The tweet was an innocuous message of congratulations; the firestorm that followed, ironically, is far more instructive, in that it shows the parameters of the current "debate" on whether someone has the right to be gay in American sports — and if someone has the right to support one's decision to go public.

"[T]his is what bothers me the most," Butler told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. "They said, ‘If you ask for forgiveness and remove the tweet and you say something to the effect that you don't congratulate [Collins], then we'll let you do the engagement and get the speaker's fee,' and I said, ‘I'm not doing that.' "

It's clear Butler won't be bullied by the unidentified church.

"Every gay and lesbian person will say, ‘You know, LeRoy doesn't speak up for the weak or the silenced. He doesn't stand for anything as a man, and he did it for money.' Why would you ask me to reduce my integrity like that?"

Let's ruminate on that question a minute. When churches extend speaking fees, there are expectations — one of which is that the "official" position of the pastor will be shared by the speaker. This is what has gotten local hero Tim Tebow into trouble with the occasional speaking engagement at a controversial church. One might wonder if Butler really understood the nature of the church that had booked him before agreeing to speak. That aside, for Butler, there was a salient reason not to rescind his congratulatory tweet. As he said recently on "Anderson Cooper 360," "Some 16-year-old kid is somewhere in a closet with his father's gun that he found, and he's thinking about putting it to his head because he's been tormented in school every single day because they might have found out he is gay, or they suspected he's gay. He doesn't have a voice right now. You're asking me to take all that back, so he doesn't have a voice. I won't do that.

"That's taking my dignity, my respect away. I want that young man to come out of the closet, put the gun down, and you're a part of society. When did we get to this, starting to judge who gets to be a part of what society? It just bothers me. And I told the pastor to blame it on my mom, because my mom brought me up to love everybody."

On May 4, the Journal-Sentinel reported that another Wisconsin church invited Butler to speak to a youth group about bullying. St. Dunstan's Episcopal Church in Madison announced Butler would be there on June 16, church rector Miranda Hassett told the newspaper. The church is seeking sponsors to cover Butler's speaking fee.

Kudos to LeRoy Butler for standing up 
for all who have been castigated for not fitting society's convenient molds of sexual identity. Not all pro athletes make great role models, but this man's character, however, is beyond dispute. o

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