This is an excerpt from Outtakes, a Globe Opinion newsletter from columnist Renée Graham. Sign up to get this in your inbox a day early.
At Houston’s LGBTQ Pride parade in June, Dennis Rodman wore a plaid mini skirt — hardly breaking news about a man who donned a wedding dress to promote his memoir, “As Bad As I Wanna Be,” in 1996. Yet with gender expression and identity being vilified by far-right extremists and politicians, there were nasty comments left under an Instagram post on Rodman’s feed that showed him shaking hands with fellow Pride celebrants. He added the caption, “Love will Always Win.”
But the former NBA star also had defenders: “Dennis Rodman has been like this since the ‘90s,” one commenter wrote. “[I don’t know] why y’all are surprised, let the man live.”
Before Harry Styles bared his midriff in crop tops or Lil’ Nas X painted his fingernails, Dennis Rodman was blowing up the boundaries of gender expression and redefining what it means to dress like a man.
For a recent Sunday column, I had a great conversation with Mitchell S. Jackson about his new book, “Fly: The Big Book of Basketball Fashion.” In it, there’s a full-page photo of Russell Westbrook, the Los Angeles Clippers point guard, in an ivory cardigan, matching pleated ankle-length skirt, and black wingtip combat boots. The caption says the all-star “epitomizes the redefinition of masculinity.”
Which got me and Jackson talking about Rodman. At the peak of his career in the 1990s, Rodman grabbed headlines for his gender-bending style with the same dexterity that he grabbed rebounds. You don’t get to Westbrook’s ensemble without going through — and paying respect — to Rodman.
Barely out of his teens during Rodman’s heyday, Jackson related more to the young men in John Singleton’s 1991 classic “Boyz N The Hood,” about a group of Black friends coming of age in South Central Los Angeles. And in that scenario, “Dennis Rodman does not fit,” he said. “There’s no experimenting with gender, there’s no wearing skirts, there’s no half shirts or wearing make-up and wedding dresses. None of that is acceptable in that culture or context. He’s really too far ahead of the game in the reimagining of gender. Now he’s one of the guys, but back then he was the only guy. If we talked about Rodman at all, we talked about him on the court.”
There was always lots to say — good and bad — about Rodman on the court. But without his basketball prowess, everything else would have been a sideshow. He made himself into one of the game’s best defensive players ever, and was an integral part of five championship teams — three with the Chicago Bulls and two with the Detroit Pistons. In 2011, he was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame.
But how he dressed off the court was no less legendary or influential. From his body jewelry to a rainbow of hair colors to his sparkly belly-revealing camisoles, Rodman’s sartorial statements clashed with the “Be Like Mike” respectability of the Michael Jordan era, which was also stubbornly apolitical. Contrast that with Rodman who dyed a red ribbon, the universal symbol of AIDS awareness and solidarity for people living with the virus, into his then-platinum blonde hair.
An era unto himself, Rodman challenged the hypermasculinity of hip-hop, which became the centerpiece of late 1990s-early 2000s NBA style — what Jackson calls “The Iverson effect,” named for superstar Allen Iverson. And because he was straight, Rodman had greater latitude in expressing himself, something an out gay athlete dressing in a similar manner never would have been afforded.
Was Rodman’s attire attention-seeking? Of course. No man wearing a skirt with thigh-high slit and chest-bearing shirt knotted at his navel is trying to blend into the crowd. But Rodman, who said he began cross-dressing as a child, also provoked discussions about gender and self-expression that are still being explored today, even as Republicans are working overtime to quash them.
But there’s no quashing Rodman, who’s never gotten the credit he deserves as a longtime LGBTQ ally. As outrageous as he could be, he used his platform and embodied what many of us still need the world to recognize — that expressing who you are and rejecting the narrow ideas about who you should be or how you should look isn’t just a political statement, it’s also a lifesaving act.