When Jason Collins came out of the closet in Sports Illustrated to become the first active, openly gay player in a major team sport, there were two basic reactions.
The first was overwhelming praise for the longtime journeyman center from fellow players and fans. Collins received support from everyone from President Barack Obama to Laker great Kobe Bryant and former Knick legend Bernard King.
Some compared him to Jackie Robinson – though David Zirin, in a perceptive column, called that a stretch. Robinson’s breaking of the Major League color line predated the civil rights movement by nearly a decade, while Collins’ coming out appears to be the culmination of a very active and successful gay-rights movement.
The other major response was a bit of a surprise – i.e., that for many, his being gay was no big deal.
To be sure, there was a degree of hateful nonsense. You had former Knick Larry Johnson questioning whether a gay man should be in a male locker room, which really says more about LJ than it does about Collins or gay men more generally.
And there was Chris Broussard, ESPN’s house evangelist, who denounced Collins as un-Christian and offered a back-handed compliment. Collins, he said, showed bravery coming out, though he is a sinner who should not be praised.
The response to Johnson, Broussard and their ilk was swift. They were savaged on social media and essentially marginalized. But the fact that, aside from the conservative fringe, Collins’ announcement was met either with praise or a positive indifference says a lot about how far we have come as a culture on the issue of gay rights.
When Collins was drafted by 18th in the 2001 NBA draft by the Houston Rockets, there were few openly gay or lesbian athletes or major celebrities. Ellen DeGeneres had come out of the closet just four years earlier, only to see her sitcom fade in the ratings and be cancelled. Rosie O’Donnell had yet to come out publicly and many others opted to stay in the closet to protect their careers.
On the political front, George W. Bush had just won the White House after eight years in which a supposedly gay-friendly Democrat, Bill Clinton, did little to actually advance gay rights, imposing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell on the military and acquiescing in the passage of the Defense of Marriage Act.
Three years later, Bush rode a series of anti-gay-marriage ballot initiatives – which increased conservative turnout in states he needed – to re-election. The atmosphere for gay Americans did not seem to be all that hospitable.
And yet, the activist community pushed on, doing the hard work at the local and state level that has led to a major shift in public opinion that led several states to legislatively legalize same-sex marriage and for voters in two states – Maryland and Washington – to endorse marriage equality at the polls and a third (Minnesota) to defeat an anti-gay referendum.
A key element of the Maryland referendum was the support of athletes – especially those playing for the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens. Sports culture has been a bastion of hyper-masculine behavior, so having heterosexual athletes come out in support of their gay neighbors and friends does send a message, as does the public shift in the attitude of other major athletes.
This is the cultural backdrop for the Collins announcement. Collins deserves all of the praise he is getting and a lot more. What he did took a lot of courage and proves what people have always said about him as a player – that he is a standup player, someone concerned not only for himself but for the guys with whom he shares the court and the locker room.
He made history, not just for the NBA, but hopefully for the NFL, Major League Baseball and the NHL.
But it is important, as well, to understand the context and to praise all of the activists and organizations who have been working to change the culture, to ensure that the entire LGBT community is no longer viewed as outliers or oddities, but as just our neighbors and friends and, yes, teammates.
In that respect, the folks who reacted to the Collins announcement with a shrug may give us the most hope of all.
Hank Kalet is a poet and journalist in New Jersey. Email email@example.com; blog, kaletblog.com; Twitter, @newspoet41; Facebook.com/hank.kalet.
From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2013
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