Dennis the Menace

Article excerpt

Having broken down the barriers between male and female and gay and straight, basketball's biggest renegade star is finally wondering where his own gender conflicts are going to take him

Yes, basketball superstar Dennis Rodman has a penchant for wearing nail polish, makeup, and ladies' undies. And it's true that the athlete likes to hang out in gay bars and has made repeated disclosures about the various homosexual fantasies bouncing around his brain. Yet to see Rodman, a forward with the Chicago Bulls and a ten-year National Basketball Association veteran, as merely a drag dabbler or a coy closet case would be to ignore the far more significant role he is playing - both within the world of professional sports and in society at large.

Steadfastly refusing to compromise his individuality to fit into the NBA's - and America's - idea of what it means to be a male professional athlete, Rodman has consistently sought to enlarge our culture's often-constricting definitions of masculinity and sexuality. "In this country gays can do a lot of things," says Rodman, "but if you're gay and a sports figure, it's not accepted. They clash. But life shouldn't bog you down and tell you, 'Hey, you have to live a certain way.' Life should give you a dictionary of everything so that you can explore."

Admittedly, Rodman's fame, talent, and money allow him to "explore" the different facets of his sexuality without fear of retaliation motivated by homophobia. In other words, no one is going to fire Rodman from his job because he likes to wear sequined halter tops in public. Others are not nearly as lucky. Rodman's freedom to move across boundaries of gender and sexuality makes him a potent fantasy figure for the gay community - particularly gay men. Who among us doesn't imagine being able to explore the depths of both our masculine and feminine sides without fear of oppression? Wouldn't we all like to move as fluidly across the gender landscape as Rodman effortlessly does?

"I like what he's doing. Nobody's going to call him a sissy," says Olympic athlete Greg Louganis, who for years feared coming out of the closet because of the repercussions it may have had on his career. Louganis does not think Rodman's brand of flamboyance would be tolerated if the basketball player were openly gay, however. "The stuff he does," Louganis says, "definitely would have worked against me. People would have thought of it as an extension of the stereotype of what gay people are like." Still, many gay men, including Louganis, are glad to see Rodman representing a less brutish brand of masculinity in the world of professional sports. "I like the way he's redefining gender," says the champion diver.

Motivated perhaps by both self-promotional narcissism and genuine political conviction, Rodman has paraded his cross-dressing, homo-loving proclivities on the basketball court, at awards shows, on talk shows, and at book signings. Indeed, Rodman brought public narcissism - and gender bending - to new heights when he showed up at a book signing for his best-selling autobiography, Bad As I Wanna Be, in August in a wedding dress with the intention of marrying himself. Was this Rodman's way of showing support for gay marriage? More likely, Rodman was merely giving in to a long-held desire to know what it feels like to walk down the aisle as a beatific bride.

Some of Rodman's critics - including his former flame Madonna - have implied that Rodman's adventurousness is more a manifestation of pathological sexual confusion than a liberating devotion to his true self. No question, Rodman comes off as somewhat bewildered by his amorphous sexual identity in this interview. The athlete was obviously greatly affected by the lack of a father figure growing up in the Oak Hill projects of Dallas. Brought up in a house of women (his mother and two sisters), Rodman says he thought he was gay when he was a teenager and that he was a self-proclaimed late bloomer when it came to heterosexual sex. …