As I sit here, fully intending to write about NBA player Jason Collins’ decision to come out as gay (making him the first active team player in any of the four major American sports to do so*,) I’m sort of at a loss for something to say. I know I want to say something, but I’m not quite sure what it is. It could be one of a million things . However, for the sake of brevity (because this could very easily turn into a 5,000 word essay,) and also because I appreciate you all as readers and don’t want you to fall asleep, I won’t do the writing equivalent of busting a piñata (my brain) open and letting all the candy (my thoughts) fall where it may.
One thing that immediately comes to mind is that this is a milestone event. Anytime anyone’s the first person to do anything *, it’s a milestone event. A lot of folks are downplaying Collins’ announcement, saying that it’s not a big deal to be gay anymore. To that, I ask “really?” Are you not aware of the stories of gay (or bisexual) youth who commit suicide every year? Are you not aware that by basis of sexual orientation, may men and women aren’t allowed the same rights as their straight brothers and sisters? Granted, things have changed greatly since I was a teenager, but all the Ellens and NPHs of the world can’t make up for the fact that anti-gay sentiment and reluctance to be openly gay or bisexual (especially among men) is still a fairly common thing. As recently as ten years ago, you could make a record with virulently homophobic content and win Grammys-hi, Marshall. To be a public figure, especially an athlete, and to out yourself is courageous and brave. Remember how much shit Dennis Rodman took in the Nineties for merely suggesting that he might potentially be interested in having a bisexual experience? We’re making progress, but we haven’t made that much progress yet.
Regardless of what led Collins to his decision (and obviously there’s much media speculation as to how calculated his decision was,) the dude has balls the size of tree trunks for stepping out the way he has—and without being forced, either. Whenever he plays again (if he plays again,) there’ll be murmurs and whispers (if not outright taunts) inside and outside of the locker room. Although we live in a more enlightened world now than we did in 1991, there will be players who voice their opinions about playing with or against him the same way guys like Karl Malone were reticent to play against Magic Johnson following his HIV diagnosis (apples and oranges, but still.) Undoubtedly, Jason Collins’ story will cause some people to revisit their thinking on homosexuality. It will certainly affect at least a handful of kids who might be confused or afraid of their sexuality who’ll now have someone to look at as a role model, and what a great role model Jason appears to be. Articulate, charming, and not a walking, talking stereotype. Someone who’ll challenge the average bigot/homophobe’s idea of what “gay” sounds, looks and acts like. Any time a public figure puts his or herself in a position like this for the greater good, it should be applauded.
Obviously, there are other aspects that come into play-the biggest one being his race. How many openly gay or bisexual famous black men are there? Frank Ocean, Don Lemon…and that’s it. Both men have only come out within the past year. Homophobia still runs rampant in the black community. The combination of religious teachings, a hyper-macho culture, AIDS and the down-low phenomenon combined to make gay and bi men public enemy #1 in urban culture. Any athlete in a team sport coming out would be a big deal. The fact that the athlete in question is a black one (playing the “blackest” of team sports) is gargantuan.
Over the past couple of days, I’ve followed some of the commentary on social media about his announcement.Of course I would-this story is interesting to me. I’m black. I’m gay. I’m a basketball fan, and I play basketball (badly) from time to time (and most of the guys I play with know I’m gay and couldn’t care less.) Most of it has been supportive, but there have also been a few comments that have been almost laughably ignorant and/or downright hurtful. Of course, this is a free country, and everyone has the right to his or her opinion. Folks like ESPN’s Chris Broussard are well within their rights to condemn Jason’s decision the same way I’m well within my rights to call Broussard an idiot (and kudos to ESPN for apologizing on his behalf.) Some folks get caught in the crossfire-like Miami Dolphins player Mike Wallace, who tweeted something to the effect of “why would someone be gay when there are so many beautiful women in this world?” That question isn’t so much offensive as it is ignorant. I’m sure plenty of folks out there still believe that things like homosexuality and bisexuality are life decisions-lifestyle choices, if you will. While I’ll grant you that this may indeed be the case for some, I can also pretty much confirm that it’s not the case for most. Others have used Collins’ announcement to fuel their own agenda-the folks who claimed some kind of poetic justice in Tim Tebow getting released from the Jets on the same day that Collins’ sexuality was made public. While I generally frown on kicking dudes when they’re down, this seemed especially egregious considering that I don’t recall Tebow ever saying or doing anything that could be perceived as homophobic. In this case, it seems like Tebow’s crime is simply being Christian. I guess you can thank nutjobs like the Phelps family for creating an image of Christians as sanctimonious, hateful homophobes, but I’m fortunate enough to know a handful of Christians who are non-judgmental, welcoming, and believe that God loves all His children. One tweet that also kind of rang my bell took the opportunity to point out that several WNBA players came out long before Collins did the male equivalent, conveniently forgetting the fact that gay and bisexual women receive barely any of the scorn and disdain that many folks still are more than happy to dish out to gay and bisexual men.
Soon, there will be a day when an announcement like Collins’ won’t even be news, and I won’t have to write things like this anymore (and if I do, it’ll seem like serious overkill.) That’s not something I could’ve said, say, 20 years ago, when I was scared shitless of revealing my own sexual orientation to others, or even 10 years ago, when I’d been in and out of the closet so many times that someone should’ve installed a revolving door there. Being openly gay or bisexual is still a huge fucking deal, and it’s even more of a huge fucking deal if you are a) already a cultural minority b) not in a place with a supportive community and/or c) your “gayness” isn’t readily apparent to the average person (just for the record, I say this not to be insulting but to express the disconnect that many gay and bi men feel with what seems to be the traditional idea of what a gay or bi man should act/look like.) Until that day, we have to keep applauding people like Jason Collins, and hope that other athletes (and if you think there aren’t others, you’re living in La La Land) follow suit.
*Technically, he’s not an active NBA player. His season is over, and he’ll be a free agent this summer.