Hearing the news made me feel like I’d accidentally walked into a wind tunnel. For as long as I had written about this issue and as many times as I had said in recent years that “this will happen in a matter of months if not weeks,” it still hit me like a triple-shot of espresso cut with a teaspoon of Adderall. Thanks to the courage of 34-year-old NBA veteran Jason Collins, we can no longer repeat endlessly that no active male athlete in North America has ever come out of the closet. Instead we’re now able to say that we were there when our most influential cultural citadel of homophobia—the men’s locker room—was forever breached and finally received a rainbow makeover on its unforgiving grey walls. But we didn’t only get the act of coming out. We also got, courtesy of Mr. Collins and Sports Illustrated writer Franz Lidz, about as beautiful a coming-out statement as has ever been put to paper.
As Collins wrote, “No one wants to live in fear. I’ve always been scared of saying the wrong thing. I don’t sleep well. I never have. But each time I tell another person, I feel stronger and sleep a little more soundly. It takes an enormous amount of energy to guard such a big secret. I’ve endured years of misery and gone to enormous lengths to live a lie. I was certain that my world would fall apart if anyone knew. And yet when I acknowledged my sexuality I felt whole for the first time.”
The significance of this moment cannot be overstated. Homophobia becomes eroded when straight people actually have a family member or friend come out of the closet and then have to confront their own prejudice. Now in the NBA we have Jason Collins saying, “Pro basketball is a family. And pretty much every family I know has a brother, sister or cousin who’s gay. In the brotherhood of the NBA, I just happen to be the one who’s out.”
The piece also demonstrates that Jason Collins gets the impact he could have on the way sports both defines and polices our conceptions of masculinity. The 7-foot, 255-pound bruiser writes wryly, “I go against the gay stereotype, which is why I think a lot of players will be shocked: That guy is gay? But I’ve always been an aggressive player, even in high school. Am I so physical to prove that being gay doesn’t make you soft? Who knows? That’s something for a psychologist to unravel.”
Before we sing more hymns to Jason Collins, let’s also be clear about a few facts. First, this did not take place in a vacuum. A rising tide of LGBT advocacy, demonstrations and public demonstrations of power in the face of bigotry laid the groundwork. Collins understands this and writes that he was motivated not only by the movement but by those seeking to perpetuate second-class citizenship for LGBT people. “The strain of hiding my sexuality became almost unbearable in March, when the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments for and against same-sex marriage,” he writes, “Less then three miles from my apartment, nine jurists argued about my happiness and my future. Here was my chance to be heard, and I couldn’t say a thing.”
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Collins felt compelled to speak out and in the sports world he has considerable company. In the NFL, players like Brendon Ayanbadejo, Chris Kluwe and Scott Fujita have become active and public participants in the movement for full marriage equality and equal rights. We’ve also seen former George Washington University basketball player Kye Allums become the first trans athlete to be public and proud. In just the last two weeks, the National Hockey League adopted an entire program in conjunction with the You Can Play organization aimed at making the locker room a “safe space” for players thinking about coming out of the closet. Then Brittney Griner, arguably the greatest women’s hoops player to ever put on high tops, came out so casually, and it made us all wonder if she was ever actually in.
Now we have Jason Collins and in our compressed, fevered media environment, we’ve already gotten a crash course in the probable highs and lows for anyone who wants to follow his path. The highs were seen in an outpouring of support from the sports world. It started immediately with former All-Star Baron Davis who tweeted, “I am so proud of my bro @jasoncollins34 for being real. #FTheHaters”. That opened the floodgates, as numerous players from my boyhood hero Bernard King to the great Kobe Bryant pledged their solidarity and support. Even the Boston Red Sox got into it, inviting Collins to throw out the first pitch at a game.
The day also saw that Baron Davis was prescient that “haters” would need to be told to “eff off.” ESPN, perhaps feeling shut out of the biggest story in eons, took the day to give a platform on their crown jewel program Outside the Lines to NBA reporter Chris Broussard so he could opine that Collins was “a sinner” engaged in “an open rebellion to God.” His words were ugly. The fact that he was provided a forum by ESPN to deliver them on this celebratory day was perhaps even worse. But if it was a crude effort by a flatfooted ESPN to make the story about them, then it was a success as social media was then flooded with first anger and then support for Broussard’s “free speech.” Beyond Broussard, fortunately, the backlash was comprised of the typical barrage of twitter trollage.
There was a great deal of hate and an even greater amount of love. But to read Jason Collins’s own words about why he was coming out, you get the feeling that he could not care less what the Chris Broussards of the world may think. As he writes in my favorite passage, “Imagine you’re in the oven, baking. Some of us know and accept our sexuality right away and some need more time to cook. I should know—I baked for 33 years.”