I am so looking forward to the end of firsts.
We live in an era of firsts, which is a good thing. The first female Secret Service director. The first African-American president. Most recently, the first openly gay man in a major professional sport.
Sometimes, the first barrier is broken and the feeling is joy. No matter your political persuasion, it made you feel good about America and its capacity to transcend its stained history to watch Barack Obama take the oath of office, his hand on Abraham Lincoln’s Bible. Sometimes, the barrier is broken and the feeling is joy leavened by puzzlement: “Really? What took so long?”
Don’t get me wrong. It’s great that Washington Wizards center Jason Collins felt free, finally, to come out of the closet. If you are gay, or know someone who is gay — which is to say, pretty much all of us — it has been quite the year. But when politicians who once squirmed at questions about same-sex marriage are now elbowing their way to microphones to pledge their support for it, how weird is it that the openly gay male athlete barrier took so long to fall?
After all, the notion of the lesbian athlete has long been a big yawn. But boys being boys, the idea that you couldn’t be a jock and be gay was harder to dislodge. As Collins wrote in Sports Illustrated, “I wish I wasn’t the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, ‘I’m different.’ If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand.”
But the list of firsts is dwindling, and the era of firsts is drawing to a close. Twenty or 30 years ago, the first barriers were falling rapidly. Now, it’s like a bag of microwave popcorn that is almost finished. Seconds elapse between the popping kernels.
A long time coming
The firsts are entering the realm of history, and firsts past are, for the most part, different than firsts present. What once was fought now is celebrated. Witness “42,” the movie about Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball. Robinson had to endure the vilest taunts simply to play the game.
Collins received a phone call from President Obama and supportive tweets and statements from first lady Michelle Obama and former President Bill Clinton. No doubt there will be some homophobic slurs and juvenile behavior. But you can’t imagine Collins’ teammates signing a petition demanding not to have to play with him, as did some of Robinson’s fellow Dodgers.
Yet Collins’ “first-ness” isn’t the only surprisingly tardy, tiresomely retro recent example. “60 Minutes” ran a piece Sunday night about jockey Rosie Napravnik, who will be the only woman racing in the Kentucky Derby this weekend. Napravnik described how, when she began racing, male jockeys “gave me a pretty hard time. … They would try to intimidate me in the races, put me in a tight spot up against the rail or in between two horses.”
Even now, she said, “There still are owners and trainers that don’t want to ride a female,” she said. Hecklers at the track will shout, “Go home and have a baby! Go home and stay in the kitchen!”
Seriously? In 2013? I’m not a racing fan, but I hope Napravnik wins the Derby, just so we can check that box and be done with it.
Which brings me back to the point: longing for the end of firsts, for the moment when the achievement of an African-American, or a woman, or a gay man will have become a matter of routine.
In this sense, the fifth woman to sit on the Supreme Court, or the third openly gay senator, or the second African-American president, will be as significant as the first. The critical mass of 20 women senators matters, a lot. On the flip side, so does the near-total absence of African-Americans (there are, briefly, two, neither elected to the post: Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina, and Democrat Mo Cowan of Massachusetts).
The goal should be to get to the point where what once seemed remarkable will have become no big deal. Because that, in itself, will be an awfully big deal.