The professional sports world has been waiting for a Jason Collins momenta gay athlete currently playing in a major league to come out publicly. What you may not know is that the subtext is that it was hoped the moment would star an African-American male.
The African-American community, not to mention 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 seven-foot-tall center for the Washington Wizards and a former Boston Celtic, 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 an 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 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 messages reaches and resonates within only 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 alone 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 LGBTQs 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.")
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"not a lesbian, but certainly a weak and non-aggressive player. Tennis phenoms the Williams 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, is a 6-foot-8, three-time All-America center and was the number-one pick in the WNBA draft. She announced she was a lesbian, and it wasn't considered a big news story.
In 1997, a pregnant Sheryl Swoopesthree-time Olympic gold medalist and three-time MVP of the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA)was promoted as 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 it was also a big story in 2005, when Swoopes came out as a lesbianbecoming the second in the WNBAand 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 during 1997-2007. 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, they saw Swoopes as the prodigal daughter who had finally found her way home to Jesus.
One of my heterosexual African-American brothers, Chris Unclesho, the man Swoopes was then engaged to marry, was the MAN! He was seen as 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 not only sponsor endorsements but also attempted to kill her spirit in playing the game.
With the sports world celebrating Collins news, Navratilova has joined in voicing her joy in an op-ed she wrote for SI.com .
"Collins has led the way to freedom. Yes, freedombecause 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.
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.