Jason Collins made some history last month by becoming the first male active in major American professional sports to come out as gay. The National Basketball Association center, who is currently a free agent, explained in a Sports Illustrated cover story, "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."
So far, that conversation is off to an encouraging start. According to an ABC News-Washington Post poll released today, 68 percent of Americans support Collins' decision to come out; just 23 percent oppose it. Even amongst those describing themselves as conservative, 54 percent support Collins.
Only those who describe themselves as "very conservative" see Collins' decision as a negative, and then only by two percentage points. Collins is supported by majorities of women, men, seniors, Democrats and Republicans, according to the poll.
This is an impressive sign of how far the discourse around gay rights has come in the U.S. Compare the reception Collins received to that endured by Martina Navratilova, who was the first active athlete to come out. As Sports Illustrated noted, after Navratilova made her announcement in 1981, "the fallout was considerable," making her life tabloid fodder and sponsors run the other way.
Now, though, it's those who would vilify Collins who are on the defensive. There was such significant backlash against ESPN's Chris Broussard, who said in the wake of Collins' announcement that homosexuality is "an open rebellion to God," that both the network and Broussard himself were forced to backpedal. "ESPN is fully committed to diversity and welcomes Jason Collins' announcement," the network said in a statement. The National Football League's Miami Dolphins, in the wake of a homophobic reaction to Collins by one of their players, also immediately apologized.
Another sign of the changing times is that Brittney Griner, the first pick in the Women's National Basketball Association draft this year, came out and the response was, well, mostly crickets. The National Hockey League recently announced professional sports' most wide-ranging lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgnder inclusiveness policy, and received nearly unanimous accolades. "The NHL and the [NHL Players' Association] are stepping up to ensure that the hockey community is welcoming – not begrudging, not tolerant – welcoming to LGBT players, coaches, management or fans," said Patrick Burke, founder of the You Can Play project.
Outside the sports world, Delaware this week became the 11th state to approve gay marriage, a move that is becoming so commonplace that it barely registered in the news headlines. A marriage equality bill is also marching forward in Minnesota.
There is, of course, still a very long way to go to achieve full equality for LGBT Americans. But the direction, at the moment, is the right one. And Jason Collins certainly played a key part in getting America to where it needs to be.