The professional sports world has been waiting for a Jason Collins moment— a gay athlete currently playing in a major league to come out publicly. What you may not know is the subtext is that it was hoped the moment would star an African American male.
The African American community, let alone the sports world, desperately needed an openly gay current male professional player.
Collins, who deliberately wore the jersey number, "98," to honor slain gay student Matthew Shepard during the 2012 - 13 NBA season, is a 7' 0" center for the Washington Wizards, a former Boston Celtics, and is also African American. Closeted for all of his professional playing life, 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."
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.
In what will now hopefully become the last closet where LGBTQ hide their sexual orientation, thanks to Collins, the sports world's hyper-masculine and testosterone-driven milieu might actually begin to loosen its homophobic hold, especially among black athletes.
Doc Rivers, coach of the Boston Celtics and African American, is revered among black athletes.
Having coached Collins for 32 games before Collins was traded to the Washington Wizard, Doc Rivers' remarks help spread a message of 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 you come out personally, timing is everything. So, too, in coming out professionally.
The statement, “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay” by Collins in the May 6 issue of Sports Illustrated is as momentous as when renown comedienne Ellen DeGeneres' quote "Yep, I’m Gay" appeared on the cover of the April 14, 1997 issue of Time Magazine.
Although the time span between the two statements is 16 years, and many more advances and civil rights have been afforded to us lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) Americans, we now see we're still a nation grappling with the issue.
While both Collins and DeGeneres give a public face and personal testimonies of their struggle of being closeted about their sexual orientation, their message resonates only within certain pockets of the American population and not others. And within those pockets of the American populace, the reprisal and applause they also 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 praises from the LGBTQ community and our allies. But "her career puttered and stalled out for the three years following her coming out," and her impact did little for both the world of sports and for many -- straight and LGBTQ -- in the African American community in understanding the deleterious effects of homophobia. (It was still being argued, as now, in many African American communities that homosexuality is a "white disease" and not a civil rights issue.)
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-girly;” 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.
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, also an African American like Collins — a 6-foot-8, three-time All-America center and the number one pick in the WNBA draft — announced she was a lesbian. It wasn’t considered a big news story.
In 1997, a pregnant Sheryl Swoopes — three-time Olympic gold medalist and three-time MVP of the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) — promoting a heterosexual face for the WNBA was the cover-girl 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 so too in 2005, when Swoopes came out as a lesbian, becoming the second in the WNBA, and endorsed the lesbian travel company "Olivia." She was at the time partnered with Alisa Scott, an assistant coach for the Houston Comets that Sheryl played for from 1997 to 2007. And in 2011, it was another big new story because she was with a male.
To incurable homophobes, especially of the fundamentalist Christian variety type, who pedal their "nurture vs. nature" rhetoric that homosexuality is curable with reparative therapies, they saw Swoopes as 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 out 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 also not bringing femininity and beauty to her game. Her muscular physique and supposedly masculine appearance killed sponsor endorsements.
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.
Truth be told, Collins is not the first professional gay or black athlete to come out. He’s not even the first professional athlete to come out while playing.
But in a sports world that has become overwhelming shaped by African American male players and masculinity, Collins' coming out celebration has everything to do with timing, gender, race and many more straight brothers embracing their gay brethren.
Rev. Irene Monroe
Wednesday, 1 May 2013