NBA player's coming out shows how far nation's come
NBA center Jason Collins came out in an eloquent first-person piece in Sports Illustrated on Monday. This makes him the first openly gay player in a major American sport.
Though Collins’ actions were courageous and significant, it is important to remember it never would have been possible without the many athletes in minor sports who came out in less supportive climates and were met with less fanfare.
For that matter, it never could have happened without the millions of everyday Americans who have lived honestly and openly, risking more than a declining athletic career.
Collins has been called a hero. Perhaps rightfully so, but those Americans throughout the nation’s history whose courage hasn’t graced the cover of magazines and those who currently live openly despite the continuing threat of rejection and violence deserve that label just as much.
Collins himself recognized the important role this legacy played in his own decision to come out. In his piece, he references being inspired by friends’ ability to openly organize in support of equality, and he explained his choice of jersey number 98 was in honor of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man brutally murdered in 1998.
Collins said he never sought the spotlight but that someone had to be a leader, and he was in the right place at the right time to stand up for equality and say, in his words, “Me, too.”
But this essential perspective does not diminish the powerful impact Collins’ choice could have not only on the sports world but on the nation.
When any high profile individual comes out as GLBTQ, it stands as a message to anyone struggling with their sexuality or gender expression that they are not alone.
And every openly GLBTQ person seen in one’s personal life or on TV is a reminder that things are getting better and acceptance is out there — particularly for young people.
In Collins’ case, it’s even more than that. He represents a kind of celebrity with both broad mass appeal and a connection to a traditional masculinity that is often cast in opposition to GLBTQ identities.
It’s especially significant as a black man that he chose to stand up and serve as a symbol to any young black people struggling to come to terms with their sexuality in communities that often have troubled relationships with GLBTQ issues.
Even if he isn’t the biggest name in sports right now, he is a veteran player in one of the most high profile sports leagues in the country. By proving gay players are no different than straight players, he is challenging some deeply ingrained stereotypes and doing so in a venue that will reach many not reached by political or social campaigns.
Collins is taking the message to where people are. And he may even prove the sports industry has evolved — a mark of the country’s progress — and is not the oppressive environment so many assume.
After all, whoever said being a man’s man meant being a bigot?
Collins is an aggressive, strong player who was no different than his teammates Sunday night. Though it’s early to make a strong judgment about the overall reaction, it would seem from the general messages of acceptance and support the sports world has mostly accepted he can still be all those things and also gay.