The professional sports world has been waiting for a Jason Collins moment: a gay athlete currently playing in a major league who comes out publicly. What you may not know is that many had hoped that the moment would star an African-American male. The African-American community, not to mention the sports world, desperately needed an openly gay, male professional athlete.
Collins (who, during the 2012-13 NBA season, deliberately wore the number “98” on his jersey to honor Matthew Shepard, the gay University of Wyoming student who was slain in an anti-gay hate crime in 1998) is a 7-foot-0 center for the Washington Wizards and a former Boston Celtic, and he is also African-American. Closeted for his entire professional career until now, Collins told “Sports Illustrated” why he finally came out:
I realized I needed to go public when Joe Kennedy, my old roommate at Stanford and now a Massachusetts congressman, told me he had just marched in Boston’s 2012 Gay Pride Parade. I’m seldom jealous of others, but hearing what Joe had done filled me with envy. … I want to do the right thing and not hide anymore.
Closeted lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) athletes must constantly monitor how they are being perceived by teammates, coaches, endorsers and the media in order to avoid suspicion. They are expected to maintain a public silence and decorum so that their identity does not tarnish the rest of the team. But now, thanks to Collins, the hypermasculine and testosterone-driven sports world might actually begin to ease up on the homophobia, especially among black athletes.
Doc Rivers, the African-American coach of the Boston Celtics, is revered among black athletes. He coached Collins for 32 games before Collins was traded to the Washington Wizards, and his remarks on Collins’ coming out could help spread acceptance:
I’m really proud of Jason. He still can play. He’ll be active in our league, I hope, and we can get by this — get past this. I think it would be terrific for the league. More than anything, it would just be terrific for mankind, my gosh.
In terms of when and how one comes out personally, timing is everything. This is equally true in terms of coming out professionally.
The opening of Collins’ piece — “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.” — is as momentous as when renowned comedienne Ellen DeGeneres appeared on the cover of the April 14, 1997, issue of “Time” with the headline “Yep, I’m Gay.” Although 16 years have passed between those two statements, and many more advances and civil rights have been afforded to LGBTQ Americans, we now see that we’re still a nation grappling with the issue. Although both Collins and DeGeneres give a public face to the label “gay” and have a platform to share their personal testimonies of their struggles with being closeted about their sexual orientation, their messages reach and resonate with only certain pockets of the American population and not others. And within those pockets of the American populace, the support or the backlash that they receive for coming out still fracture along several fault lines, with profession being one of them.
When Ellen so boldly came out in 1997, she received a torrent of praise from the LGBTQ community and our allies, but, according to the Human Rights Campaign, “her career puttered and stalled out for the three years following her coming out,” and her coming out did little for the world of sports or the African-American community in terms of understanding the deleterious effects of homophobia. (It was still being argued in many African-American communities, as it is being argued now, that homosexuality is a “white disease” and not a matter of civil rights.)
In the sports world most women athletes, even today, are assumed to either be lesbians and/or unfeminine. For example, in many African-American communities Olympic basketball player Lisa Leslie was perceived to be a “girly girl” and therefore not a lesbian but certainly a weak and non-aggressive player. Tennis phenoms the William sisters are aggressive players but too muscular, especially Serena, to be seen as feminine. But LBT women in professional sports have come out of the closet while playing at least two decades before the Jason Collins watershed moment.
While race plays a factor in the African-American community coming to grips with its homophobia, especially in the world of sports, so too does gender. Case in point: Just last month Brittney Griner, a 6-foot-8, three-time All-American center, the number-one pick in the WNBA draft and, like Collins, an African American, announced that she is a lesbian. It wasn’t considered a big news story. In 1997, promoting a heterosexual face for the WNBA, a pregnant Sheryl Swoopes, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and a three-time MVP in the WNBA, was the covergirl for the premiere issue of Sports Illustrated Women. At the time Swoopes was married to her male high school sweetheart. That was considered a big news story. But it was also big news when Swoopes came out as a lesbian in 2005, becoming the second in the WNBA to do so, and endorsed the lesbian travel company Olivia. She was, at the time, partnered with Alisa Scott, an assistant coach for the Houston Comets, the team Sheryl played for from 1997 to 2007. And she generated news again in 2011, when she became engaged to a man.
To incurable homophobes, especially of the fundamentalist Christian variety, who pedal their “nurture vs. nature” rhetoric that homosexuality is curable with so-called “reparative therapy,” Swoopes was the prodigal daughter who had finally found her way home to Jesus. To many of my heterosexual African-American brothers, Chris Unclesho, the man Swoopes was then engaged to marry, was the man, a bona fide “dyke whisperer” who had turned Swoopes on to the sexual joys of what it is to be with a man.
But long before Swoopes, Griner and Collins, both tennis greats Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova came out in 1981. Martina was publicly taunted for not only being a lesbian but for not bringing femininity and beauty to her game. Her muscular physique and supposedly masculine appearance not only killed her sponsor endorsements but attempted to kill her spirit in playing the game.
With the sports world celebrating Collins’ news, Navratilova has joined in, voicing her joy in an op-ed she wrote for SI.com:
Now that Jason Collins has come out, he is the proverbial game-changer. One of the last bastions of homophobia has been challenged. How many LGBT kids, once closeted, are now more likely to pursue a team sport and won’t be scared away by a straight culture? Collins has led the way to freedom. Yes, freedom — because that closet is completely and utterly suffocating. It’s only when you come out that you can breathe properly.
Navratilova is correct in stating that Collins is a “game-changer,” because he stands on all the LGBTQ shoulders in sports before him. Collins is not the first professional black athlete to come out. He’s not even the first professional black athlete to come out while playing. But in a sports world that has become overwhelming shaped by African-American male players and their concept of masculinity, Collins’ coming-out celebration has everything to do with timing, gender, race and many more straight brothers embracing their gay brethren.