24 Jun DENNIS RODMAN: A QUEER ICON TO REMEMBER
Content warning: This article contains discussion of suicidal thoughts that may be triggering for some readers. If you or anyone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
This year, starved for the return of sports and normalcy, I discovered a new love for revisiting past basketball games, especially the Chicago Bulls 1995/1996 season. I found hundreds of games on YouTube and began to watch religiously, despite the grainy video quality and outdated ads. One of the main figures that drew me to watching these games was Dennis Rodman. Obviously, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were the two primary stars of that Chicago Bulls team, but with every game I watched, I was captivated by Dennis Rodman, and not only because of his colourful hair. For those who aren’t middle-aged dads or sports dorks, I’ll give you a bit of backstory on Rodman and why he is an important figure in both basketball history as well as queer history.
Rodman was born in 1961 in Trenton, New Jersey. When he was 18 years old, he was kicked out of his home due to his academic performance and forced to live on the streets, causing him to jump from house to house crashing on friend’s couches. At that time, Rodman started going to the community centre and playing basketball every day. In his biography, Bad as I Wanna Be, Rodman stated that he felt uncomfortable in his own body from a young age, and even more so when he underwent an intense growth spurt, growing from 5 ft 11” to 6 ft 7” over the course of two years. Eventually he attended South Eastern Oklahoma University, an NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) school. In 1986 Dennis Rodman was drafted by the Detroit Pistons, where he was chosen as the third pick of the second round.
Rodman played with the Pistons for about 6 years, during which they claimed two NBA championship titles.
Rodman distinguished himself as a powerful defensive player; during the 1991/1992 season, he averaged 18.7 rebounds per game and 1,530 rebounds for the whole season – a record that has never been beaten since. In interviews, as well as in Michael Jordan’s documentary The Last Dance, Rodman claims that while playing for the Pistons he began to feel as if he didn’t belong with the team. Around 1993, Rodman began to feel unmotivated and lost, as he was unable to properly express himself both on and off the court, which caused him to ponder taking his own life. In his biography, he claimed that during that time he “killed” the person he didn’t want to be and started embracing his true identity. The media coverage on his situation did not help his mental state, as he became labeled as “chaotic” and “unhinged.” In fact, his own teammates failed to support him during this time of self-discovery. Rodman demanded a trade, no longer wanting to play for the Pistons after his coach (and father figure) Chuck Daly, resigned.
In 1993 Rodman was traded to the San Antonio Spurs. He changed his hair, opting for a striking blonde faux hawk. It was during his time in San Antonio that he started using fashion and colour to express his identity. He often changed the colour and style of his hair, opting for bold patterns and images, and painting his nails bold colours as well. Rodman was also adorned with dozens of tattoos and piercings, making him stand out from the other players on the court. This received a lot of confusion and criticism from the media as this level of expression on the basketball court was completely new. Sports commentators and referees also treated Rodman with a higher level of criticism compared to other players. In every game, commentators made a point of mentioning his hair and tattoos and making snide comments about his personal life.
Gender expectations in the 1990s were different than they are today, and men were expected to conform to the mold created by society and the media. Rodman rejected this ideal image by instead aiming to shock the media as much as possible in order to defy this mould. While playing for San Antonio, Dennis Rodman gained attention from iconic pop-star, Madonna. According to friends of Rodman, Madonna helped inspire him to express himself and not let society or the media dictate his appearance and actions. Dennis Rodman would also occasionally dress up in drag and even did so during his marriage to himself, which helped normalize drag during a time when it was not well received.
After playing with the Spurs, Rodman was traded to the Chicago Bulls, the team management was initially hesitant to sign him due to stigma around his life off the court; however, after the Bulls’ loss of the powerful defensive player Horace Grant, they needed a rebounder. Once Rodman became a part of the Bulls, the trifecta of Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan, and Dennis Rodman was formed. During his time with the Bulls, Rodman gained his fifth, sixth, and seventh consecutive rebounding titles, as well as winning three NBA championships with them. Even though Rodman had a great deal of success with the Bulls and helped them to win three championships, he continued to receive heavy criticism from the media and was not given as much respect or admiration as his teammates despite his role in their multiple victories.
While Rodman has never openly stated his sexuality, he has been pressured during many interviews to disclose that information. During an interview with Oprah Winfrey in 1996, she repeatedly asked him if he was bisexual and when he refused to answer he was heckled by the audience. In a later interview by the San Francisco Chronicle, Rodman disclosed: “I like bringing out the feminine side of Dennis Rodman… I can’t say I haven’t experimented with other men but I guess it depends on what you mean by experimenting.” Thus, while Rodman has embraced queer culture and hinted at his sexuality, he has kept the details private, refusing to label himself.
Dennis Rodman’s story acts as proof that self-expression will not always be met with understanding or positivity; however, he is responsible for encouraging creativity and diversity on and off the court. Watching a basketball game today is very different from watching one in the 90s as today many players now have tattoos, piercings, and are expressing themselves publicly.
As a society, we have grown more accepting and inclusive of diversity and people who look or dress differently than the expectations of the masses. Rodman’s reputation is far from pristine, but it’s important to understand that much of the stigma surrounding him came from a place of confusion and fear. In the 90s, the public was not accustomed to public figures, especially male athletes speaking about their sexuality or gender, so when Rodman would make statements about his sexual identity or partners, he was met with resentment. Thus, during pride month I think it is important to appreciate those who paved the way for our society today, as although we still have a long way to go, it is pioneers such as Dennis Rodman who helped normalize and celebrate queer culture.
HEADER IMAGE SOURCE: PHOTOGRAPHY BY GEORGE LANGE