Jason Collins, a backup center for the Washington Wizards, has become the first active male player in a major sport in the United States to come out of the closet as a gay man. He did so in an article in Sports Illustrated, which begins simply enough:
I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.
I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. But since I am, I’m happy to start the conversation. I wish I wasn’t the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, “I’m different.” If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand…
The first relative I came out to was my aunt Teri, a superior court judge in San Francisco. Her reaction surprised me. “I’ve known you were gay for years,” she said. From that moment on I was comfortable in my own skin. In her presence I ignored my censor button for the first time. She gave me support. The relief I felt was a sweet release. 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.
When I was younger I dated women. I even got engaged. I thought I had to live a certain way. I thought I needed to marry a woman and raise kids with her. I kept telling myself the sky was red, but I always knew it was blue.
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 was proud of him for participating but angry that as a closeted gay man I couldn’t even cheer my straight friend on as a spectator. If I’d been questioned, I would have concocted half truths. What a shame to have to lie at a celebration of pride. I want to do the right thing and not hide anymore. I want to march for tolerance, acceptance and understanding. I want to take a stand and say, “Me, too.”
Good for him. And good for society, too. These things matter and they matter a lot. I truly believe that Ellen Degeneres coming out of the closet was hugely important in pushing society to accept gay people as “normal.” Ellen is likable and is adored by many, especially by the kind of middle-class, suburban folks who were most likely to harbor a soft bigotry that easily faded away once they realized that they do know gay people and they like them and view them as similar and familiar.
I think Collins can do the same thing in sports, and I have no doubt that his example will lead others to do the same. It’s never easy being the first one through the door, but once they open it others are sure to follow. There are earlier reports that four NFL players are considering coming out together and very publicly. I think that just became more likely.
Also encouraging is the public reaction of other athletes so far. Kobe Bryant tweeted this:
— Kobe Bryant (@kobebryant) April 29, 2013
“As Adam Silver and I said to Jason, we have known the Collins family since Jason and Jarron joined the NBA in 2001 and they have been exemplary members of the NBA family. Jason has been a widely respected player and teammate throughout his career and we are proud he has assumed the leadership mantle on this very important issue.”
The NBA Players Association said:
“As Jason wrote, pro basketball is a family, and he has and always will be our brother. The NBPA is dedicated to fighting for the best interests of and uniting all players regardless of race, creed, color, age, national origin, or sexual orientation. Today is another example that we are intent on continuing that work.
“We congratulate Jason for having the courage to ‘raise his hand,’ as he wrote in his story, and start the conversation.”
The White House also expressed support and President Obama even called Collins personally and former President Bill Clinton put out this statement:
“Jason’s announcement today is an important moment for professional sports and in the history of the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] community,” he said in a statement. “It is also the straightforward statement of a good man who wants no more than what so many of us seek: to be able to be who we are; to do our work; to build families and to contribute to our communities.
“For so many members of the LGBT community, these simple goals remain elusive. I hope that everyone, particularly Jason’s colleagues in the NBA, the media and his many fans extend to him their support and the respect he has earned.”
And there was a lot of other support as well:
Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld issued a statement on behalf of the team:
“We are extremely proud of Jason and support his decision to live his life proudly and openly. He has been a leader on and off the court and an outstanding teammate throughout his NBA career. Those qualities will continue to serve him both as a player and as a positive role model for others of all sexual orientation.”
Celtics coach Doc Rivers said in a statement that he was “extremely happy and proud” of Collins.
“He is the consummate professional and he is one of my favorite ‘team’ players I have ever coached. If you have learned anything from Jackie Robinson, it is that teammates are always the first to accept. It will be society who has to learn tolerance. One of my favorite sayings is, ‘I am who I am, are whom we are, can be what I want to be, its not up to you, it’s just me being me,’ ” Rivers said.
Collins has an endorsement deal with Nike, which issued a statement of support.
“We admire Jason’s courage and are proud that he is a Nike athlete. Nike believes in a level playing field where an athlete’s sexual orientation is not a consideration,” it read.
This is a sign of how far we’ve already come as a society. That it’s happening in the world of sports, which is viewed as the epitome of masculinity, is both remarkable and welcome. Bravo, Jason Collins. You did a good thing.