Collins’ coming out may get the ball rolling
The gauntlet has been thrown down. Or in this case, the jock has been dropped.
I never pick up the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, or any other issue as a general rule. But the May 6 issue will be an item that I add to my hope chest along with my grandmother’s wedding silver and the skinny jeans with the size 28 waist. We have our first male athlete in a major sport to join Team Out. With the simple statement “I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay,” Jason Collins has made history. The black potion of this declaration wasn’t so much a revelation but the gay part has made history.
To my knowledge, there were no rumors about Collins and he didn’t show up on any of the Web sites that seem to thrive on outing celebrities such as Gawker or Radar Online. He is an NBA player with no real claim to fame. By that, I mean no disrespect; it’s just that he’s not a household name like LeBron or Kobe. On the other hand, he has enjoyed a 12-year career that has been scandal-free. If we were going to write up his job performance review, it would be something to the effect that he is a solid team player with a skill set that will contribute significantly to a middle management position. Pretty benign, right?
Since it doesn’t appear that he was pushed out of the closet, I think we can just assume that Collins has done the LGBTQ community a solid. In his interview with Sports Illustrated, he mentions that he is proud to wear the number 98 on his jersey in honor of Matthew Shepherd who became the first national LGBTQ in 1998 when he died as the result of a hate crime in Wyoming. I admire Collins for his candid discussion of his struggle as a young man and athlete who knew that he was gay but felt the typical societal pressures to live as a heterosexual. Who among us has not dealt with this same issue? I still remember my father giving me power tools one Christmas when I was in high school. They remained in mint condition while I went on to win awards at drama festival for makeup and costume design. No red flags there, right?
I don’t know the full impact this will have on the world of professional sports. What I do know is that Collins is not alone in his sexual identity. He has just chosen to become a very important standard-bearer. The impact would have been significantly less if a member of the WNBA had come out. Before you beat me up for that statement, just accept the premise on which it was made. We live in a world where people are still stereotyped and when somebody suddenly no longer fits the mold, it makes the news.
Those of you who are in my generation may remember back to 1981 when another top-earning professional athlete opened the closet door and proudly made the same proclamation. Yes indeed, that was the year that Martina Navratilova chose to self-identify. While the news didn’t cause shockwaves based on the current stereotypes of that time period, the act of coming out was extremely bold for that time. In an interview with NPR, Navratilova said that while she was still able to play the sport she loved, that she did lose endorsement deals to the squeaky clean golden girl of that era, Chris Evert-Lloyd. That seems reasonable. I mean, which one would prompt you to pick up a Ladies Home Journal? This was also in the period before Home Depot’s ubiquity, so Navratilova’s sponsor deals were limited.
Navratilova also weighed in on the Jason Collins story. She was asked by SI to write a piece about coming out as a professional athlete before the story broke. At that time, she had no idea who the headliner would be. With her typical gracious manner, she praised Collins as a “game-changer.” She believes his actions will save lives. I am inclined to agree. In a world where gay kids have had the support of groups such as It Gets Better and Ben Cohen’s Stand Up Foundation, which are aimed at preventing bullying, they now have a role model. Collins is concrete proof that all of the platitudes we have heard up until this point can become reality.
With this paradigm shift, I certainly hope more athletes will come forward. We know they exist. I disagree with the theories that the NHL, NFL or Major League Baseball are not ready for openly gay players yet because the locker room atmosphere is too testosterone-charged. I’m not even sure what that’s supposed to mean.
After years of attending mandatory sporting events from the Carolina Panthers to the L.A. Lakers, if there’s any message in all of the hugging, ass-slapping and other random male bonding it’s that a team should be about people working together regardless of demographics. It’s wasn’t that long ago that locker rooms and leagues were segregated. In retrospect, we all realize the idiocy of those regulations.
The Jason Collins news is a good thing. It reminds me of the old joke: What do you call 12 members of the Westboro Baptist Church chained together at the bottom of the ocean? A good beginning.
OUT & ABOUT
In this space, we usually tell you about upcoming events of import to the local LGBTQ community, but this week we’ve got a shout out, rather than an Out & About, from Careteam in response to April 27’s Dining with Friends event, which you read about in this column: “CareTeam would like to thank all of the very generous participants in this year's Dining with Friends event. To date, contributions have raised $18,000 towards the purchase of a van to be used for mobile HIV testing. Special thanks go to Steve Gamble and Terry Livingston whose event raised the most money this year.”
Have a thought, comment or Out & About event? Send Drew Levy-Neal an e-mail to Drew.Levy.Neal@gmail.com. You can also follow him on Twitter: @Drew_Levy_Neal.