Carl Nassib
Carl Nassib (Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

When I was a freshman in college there was this guy I knew — I think he was the treasurer or secretary of our campus LGBTQ club — who used to insist that he was not gay, he was a homosexual. At the time, I didn’t understand the distinction. I had the vague impression that it had something to do with identity, and maybe gestured toward respectability politics, but I didn’t know him well enough to really get into it.

“You may be gay,” I remember him telling someone once, “but I am a homosexual.”

I thought about that moment earlier this week as I watched Carl Nassib’s coming out video. “I just wanna take a quick moment to say that I’m gay,” the Las Vegas Raiders defensive end said in a video posted to his Instagram account. The announcement made Nassib the first-ever currently active N.F.L. player to come out, and so far, he has received nothing but widespread support both in the media and from fellow players. His jersey is currently the top-selling item according to the league’s official e-commerce partner Fanatics.

Based on the video and his accompanying statement, Nassib seems happy to be coming out. He seems to want people to know and embrace this fact about him. He didn’t tiptoe out of the closet. He didn’t reveal himself by half measures as some celebrities have felt they’ve needed to do in the past. There’s no resentment in his tone when he says “I’m gay.” He says it with a smile and a $100,000 donation to The Trevor Project and a professed eagerness to learn more about and become a part of the broader LGBTQ+ community. All of which is great.

Except, somehow, Nassib’s use of the word “gay” just feels…incorrect. Or maybe imprecise is more like it. I may be gay, I thought, but you, Carl Nassib, are a homosexual.

Nassib is a 28-year old cisgender conventionally masculine man who, by his own admission, doesn’t seem to have much knowledge of or connection to LGBTQ+ culture. And then there’s the fact that he is a registered republican. On Tuesday, a photo began circulating of Nassib posing with a group of friends; one of them was wearing a Trump t-shirt. Another, Nassib’s cousin, who originally posted the photo on Instagram, has been vocal about his support of the former president on social media. By Wednesday, fact-checking site had verified that as recently as November 2020, Nassib was a registered Republican voter in Nevada.

But I’m not so much concerned with gatekeeping or maintaining ideological purity within the LGBTQ+ community. At this point, it should come as no shock that some cis white gays are Republicans. Voting against your own interests and those of your own community is practically an American pastime. What I’m more interested in thinking about is what exactly the word “gay” implies about a person, and whether it should remain a catch-all term for cis men who are attracted to other cis men.

Here is a list of things I am 100 percent, unequivocally not trying to do: define Carl Nassib’s sexuality for him; define Carl Nassib’s identity for him; exclude him from the LGBTQ+ community in any way; create a rigid definition of what it means to be a cisgender man who is attracted to other cisgender men — i.e. a homosexual man.

Nassib, a self-described “private person,” understandably didn’t offer up any details about his love life or sexual tastes. But when he told the world that he is gay, it is safe to assume that what he meant was that he is attracted, romantically and sexually, to other cisgender men. I would argue, however, that “gay” means something that I’m not sure is applicable to someone like Nassib. Or at least not to the person I infer him to be based on his public persona. As the queer theorist David M. Halperin argues in his 2012 book, How to Be Gay, “Gayness is not a state or condition. It’s a mode of perception, an attitude, an ethos: in short, it is a practice.” Put another way, it’s more than just who you sleep with. Way more, despite what a certain brand of ’90s LGBT activism would have us believe. Back then, the prevailing message was that gay people were just like straight people. We paid taxes and fell in love and wanted to get married and join the military and play football, just like everyone else. We weren’t threatening or scary, because there was nothing inherently different about us, except what we did in bed — or, rather, who we did it with.

But in recent years, thanks in large part to thinkers like Halperin and the prevalence of queer theory in academia, more and more LGBTQ people are losing interest in assimilation. We’re more willing to consider how growing up queer in a heterosexist society impacts our perception, how that differentiates us. We see the world differently because of how we’ve been treated, and we’ve created a culture of our own as a result. Gay culture, as we now understand it, is a thing to be celebrated: drag queens, leathermen, jockstraps, dance music, cruising, irony, camp sensibilities — all of it.

Carl Nassib has given no indication that he’s engaged with or even aware of any of this. And that’s fine. That’s his prerogative. There are many, many ways to be a man who loves men, and sexual desire doesn’t necessarily imply a specific identity or cultural affinity. So, when Carl Nassib tells us he’s “gay,” there will be plenty of people who will understand what he means: that he is attracted to men. And they will think nothing more of it.

But some of us who are and have been engaged with gay culture for most of our lives will pause. We’ll raise an eyebrow at this tall, brawny, conventionally attractive white boy without so much as a swish in his step and think, “Whatever, girl. I may be gay, but you are a homosexual.”