— Up-and-coming recording artist Caushun (pronounced "caution") has a forthcoming album entitled Proceed With Caushun, but he is not afraid to say what he is: the first openly gay rapper in hip-hop.
The 25-year-old Brooklyn, N.Y., native, who was born Jason Herndon, hopes he'll be a rap revolutionary with his openness about his sexual identity. "I feel blessed that I'm in a position to be opening doors to other venues for the gay community," he said. "We're already here in hip-hop. We just need to get to the point where we're seen as equals."
But Caushun is just one of several gay groundbreakers trying to tear down barriers and stereotypes in traditionally macho professions.
The nation's only openly gay police chief came out of the closet six months ago in Suisun City, Calif. And former professional baseball and football players have admitted their sexual orientation in recent years, exposing homophobia and intolerance in some of the nation's favorite sports.
But despite some progress for gays in sports and law enforcement — and the promise of a breakthrough in hip-hop — there is still a long road ahead.
Longtime Police Chief Confirms Rumors
Ron Forsythe was aware of gossip surrounding his sexuality during 10 years as Suisun City police chief and 26 years on the force. He knew he could not live a secret life much longer last December when he learned a local paper was planning to "out" him.
That's when Forsythe, 52, decided to he had admit his sexuality to his community on his own terms.
"It was time for me to do it," Forsythe said. "I had made a decision that when I committed to someone in my life, I would do it because I wanted him to share in some of the things that were special to me in my life, whether it be the police chief dinners or various city functions. … I had committed to someone and I wasn't going to let anyone make me feel ashamed of it."
Forsythe said he has received some hate mail since his public outing. But overall, the response from his community — and his peers — has been overwhelmingly positive.
That Forsythe kept his secret for so long may be partially responsible for the acceptance. His community respected him as a good law enforcement official before they knew he was gay — which could have been an obstacle if he had been forthcoming before his tenure as police chief.
"It helped him actually," said Ken Lutz, president of the Golden State Police Officers Association, or GSPOA. "If people had known that he was gay, that would have been just another component that people would have been thinking of."
Debunking Myths and Stereotypes
Gay and lesbian officers are nothing new in law enforcement. Organizations like GSPOA and the Gay Officers Action League have been successful since the 1980s in changing the perception of gays among law enforcement.
"Among the leadership in law enforcement, I have found incredible support," Forsythe said. "To those officers who are in the line of duty who are in the closet and may be pondering whether to let their superiors know about their sexual orientation, I would encourage them to let them know. By staying in the closet, we are actually helping perpetuate the myths and stereotypes surrounding gay police officers."
However, some argue there is still a double standard. Lesbian officers may be more readily accepted because of an archaic perception of female police officers as overweight and masculine looking. And some gay officers may avoid outing themselves out of fear of damaging their careers.
Despite some progress, tolerance training for officers, some argue, should be expanded to put more emphasis on sexual orientation. Most training sessions focus primarily on race and religion.
In addition, some gay officers complain that they are not treated as equals because their partners are not entitled to the same benefits afforded their heterosexual colleagues.
"If I had a life partner, and I was killed in the line of duty, he would not be entitled to the same benefits as the wife of a police officer," said Detective Michael Carney, president of the New England chapter of the Gay Officers Action League. "If something was to happen to my partner, I wouldn't be entitled to bereavement pay. They seem to be willing to accept us but are not willing to give us equal benefits. Why not give us the same benefits as everyone else?"
Ball Player Goes to the Opposite Field
Like Forsythe, Billy Bean, 39, was constantly frustrated by his having to live a lie in front of colleagues — but in Bean's case it was his Major League Baseball teammates.
As detailed in his book Going the Other Way, Bean, who played six seasons with the Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres, seemed to be the prototypical All-American athlete. Women flirted with him and he heard all the locker room gay jokes.
All the while, Bean had to live with the secret that he was gay. He so feared that his teammates might find out — and perhaps his family through media leaks — that he was unable to attend the funeral of a lover who died from AIDS.
When Bean retired from baseball, he says he was finally able to find a happiness that had eluded him. He revealed his orientation to the world in 1999. However, Bean ultimately found he didn't publicly come out of the closet just for himself.
"You sort of become a role model," Bean said. "When I became associated with the Human Rights Campaign [the Washington, D.C.-based gay rights advocate organization], I really became aware of how I could help kids out there who are going through with the same experiences I have dealt with."
Yet no active baseball, football, basketball or hockey player has ever come out of the closet before the media. Last year, former NFL defensive end Esera Tuaolo admitted he was gay. And even earlier, former NFL players David Kopay and Roy Simmons admitted their sexual orientation in 1975 and 1992, respectively — but only after their playing days were over.
Some believe gay professional athletes hide their personal lives to avoid controversy and an invasion of privacy.
"There are active openly gay baseball and football players. They're out of the closet with their partners and maybe a few of their closest friends but they just haven't revealed themselves to their teammates and to the media," said Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of outsports.com.
Added Zeigler: "Will there ever be one [admittedly openly gay active football, baseball or basketball player]? 'Ever' is a long time to think about and I'd like to think there will be. We've made some tremendous progress so far. Just five years ago, we wouldn't be having this conversation."
Ready for a Revolution
For Caushun, perhaps dialogue is the best sign of progress in the once traditionally macho worlds of law enforcement, football, baseball and now hip-hop. And that's what the recording artist, backed by Baby Phat Records — operated by Kimora Lee Simmons, the wife of hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons — hopes to generate with his emergence on the scene.
It's easy to think that an openly gay rapper would not have a place in — or would be imperiled in — an industry that has taken pride in its machismo, "hard" gangsta image, and that has seen some of its biggest stars — Eminem perhaps the most noted — attacked for anti-gay lyrics.
But Caushun said he has been received with open arms by both the audience and his contemporaries. He believes the world of hip-hop is ready for him.
"Surprisingly, it [his reception] has been overwhelming with love," he said. "I haven't had any experience where they [fans] have been just hating on me. … There's been a lot of love from the straight community, a lot of love from the gay community."
Becoming Pioneers and Role Models
But how many albums Caushun will sell and how much airplay he will get on radio stations remains to be seen. He has generated attention, however, making appearances on MTV, BET, and being interviewed by Vibe magazine and The New York Times.
Caushun believes his openness will win the respect of listeners and perhaps open the door to other aspiring gay rappers or others within the industry who have stayed in the closet.
"I'm not saying the industry will embrace a whole load of gay rappers coming out on the scene," he said. "But if a few of us can make some noise, then that's history. … If I act like someone else, then it's like I'm letting society make me feel like I'm ashamed of who I am."
And for those who may feel ashamed of their sexual orientation, having a voice within a group or industry they had felt they could never be a part of can prove vital.
"Gay teens are by far the group of teens that commit suicide the most. They don't know how to deal with it." said GOAL New England's Mike Carney. "I am constantly dealing with cases where teens are attacked, beaten up just because they're perceived to be gay. It's not that they're gay, they're perceived to be gay. … We [gays and lesbians] really need to get out there in the front and center and really act as a role model for these kids."