With 10 words, Jason Collins crashed through one of the last lavender ceilings in American life. The NBA center used a column in Sports Illustrated to become the first male professional athlete to come out of the closet. That he is African American in a sport blacks claim as their own and is one of the totems of masculinity is a powerful rebuke to those with homophobic and stereotypical notions of what it means to be black, gay and an athlete. Still, there is something gloriously unremarkable about what Collins has done.
Harvey Milk asked gay men and lesbians to do something revolutionary in 1978. He called on them to come out of the closet. “As difficult as it is, you must tell your immediate family. You must tell your relatives. You must tell your friends, if indeed they are your friends. You must tell your neighbors. You must tell the people you work with. You must tell the people in the stores you shop in,” the openly gay member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors said in a speech celebrating the defeat of a proposed ban on gay teachers in public schools. “Once they realize that we are indeed their children, that we are indeed everywhere, every myth, every lie, every innuendo will be destroyed once and for all.”
The result has been a phenomenal sea change in public opinion. So much so that folks of late have been clamoring for a male professional athlete to do what actors, politicians and people at all rungs of the business ladder have been doing for years. Heck, even the military allows gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the armed forces. When former Baltimore Ravens player Brendon Ayanbadejo said last month that up to four professional football players were getting set to come out, the reaction was almost giddy with excitement. And yet when Collins spoke his truth, the response has been a reassuring, “What took you so long?!”
We all know what took so long. Fear is a great motivator for anyone to keep the closet doors locked. For professional athletes, coming out takes on a whole new dimension. Female athletes have been coming out for decades now. Collins hailed tennis great Martina Navratilova as “my role model” during an interview with George Stephanopoulos. She came out in 1981 with minimal impact on her bottom line.
But what happened to tennis legend Billie Jean King that same year no doubt lingers in the minds of other pro athletes. “She returned to her hotel room one day to find messages covering the door, and knew in that instant she had been outed and her life wouldn’t be the same,” The Post’s Sally Jenkins wrote yesterday. “In the space of 24 hours she lost every endorsement she had, an estimated $2 million worth, and never recovered financially.” Whether another team will sign Collins to play ball for a 13th season remains to be seen. If one doesn’t, it won’t be because he’s gay.
Sure, folks still get fired from their jobs because of their sexual orientation. But the stigma that once shrouded anyone who decided to live their lives openly and honestly just isn’t what it once was. Think about it. On April 27, 1953, President Eisenhower issued an executive order that used a “sexual perversion” clause to purge gays from federal employment. Sixty years and two days after that horrendous act, President Obama called Jason Collins to lend his support and to tell him he was “impressed by his courage.”
That’s the same courage demonstrated by millions of gay men and lesbians ever since Milk’s revolutionary call. The same courage honored by millions of loved ones, friends and neighbors who made the coming out of a professional basketball player a routine rather than traumatic event.
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