We have had gay members of Congress, one of whom was a powerful committee chairman and got married while still serving in office. We have a gay senator and even, for the first time, an openly bisexual member of the House. We have gay star newscasters, gay actors and actresses and, finally, openly gay members of the military. So is it really such a big, page-one deal that Washington Wizards center Jason Collins came out as a gay man?
Yes, it is. And Collins' brave disclosure, made in a first-person story in Sports Illustrated, goes a long way in advancing what should be a no-brainer acceptance of people's sexual orientation.
You'd think there's no need for bravery when you're seven feet tall, muscular and 255 pounds. But sports, particularly professional sports, is one of the last metaphorical arenas where being gay is still a stigma. Just listen to the homophobic comments made over the years by some players, not to mention the anti-gay slurs made by former Rutgers University basketball coach Mike Rice to his players. If you were a basketball player like Collins and had experienced or knew of Rice's rant, would you be upfront about your sexuality?
In sports, it's not just about the comfort level with working with someone who is not only different, but different on a level that is very threatening to some people. It's not even about sharing a locker room with someone who might be attracted to people of your gender. Female athletes have come out as gay, and it hasn't caused an uproar among their competitors.
So why has it been different for the men? Athletic acumen is often associated with general toughness, rightly so. But toughness has also been associated – erroneously – with maleness, and maleness, equally wrongly, with aggressive heterosexuality.
The whole media and cultural picture we have of the star athlete is one who is big, testosterone-loaded, with both an adoring girlfriend or wife and a team of barely-dressed female cheerleaders supporting him. There's a narrative attached to male athletes that goes way beyond the sport itself. Part of the appeal of being a star athlete is the idea that the starting high school quarterback always gets the girl. It upsets the fantasy if the ball player doesn't want the girl.
Collins' disclosure is an impressive personal step for the athlete, who no longer has to come to work every day effectively denying who he is. But he also has done a tremendous service to the whole field of sports and those of us who follow them. Can we just admire an athlete for how he (or she) dunks a ball, or speeds gracefully down a football field or flicks a puck past two defenders into a net?
Collins is an athlete; he is strong and competitive, and he is gay. He may not only change attitudes about gay professional athletes, but about how we view sports altogether.