And just like that, history is made. Just that quickly, a barrier becomes rubble. Just that fast, everything changes.
“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center,” writes Jason Collins in the May 6 edition of Sports Illustrated. “I’m black. And I’m gay.”
Chances are, you never heard of Collins before last week. He is no Kobe or LeBron, nor even a Jason Kidd or Ray Allen. No, he is a journeyman seven-footer who has bounced between six teams over 12 years, amassing a lifetime scoring average of 3.6 points a game. Yet, he just changed everything, becoming the first active male athlete in one of the big four professional sports to come out as gay.
And it seems only fitting that he makes this history while multiplexes are showing “42,” an earnest recounting of the hell Jackie Robinson went through as the first African-American player in Major League Baseball. Not that Collins, assuming he plays next season (he is a free agent), can expect anything close to the catcalls, curses and physical abuse Robinson endured.
To the contrary, Collins’ announcement has triggered supportive statements from the likes of President Obama, Spike Lee, Chelsea Clinton, Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade. The few dissenting voices (Mike Wallace of the Miami Dolphins, Chris Broussard of ESPN) have been largely shouted down.
While that paints an encouraging picture of the progress we’ve made, one need only glance into the darkness beyond the public stage to realize that picture is incomplete. Messages of hate for Collins are already piling up online, as is this telling question:
Some variation of that haunts pretty much any online forum you care to visit any time a public figure comes out. Let “AlecWest,” whose remarks appear on a New York Times Web page, stand in for the untold thousands who feel the same way. He wrote: “… (W)ho gives a rat’s patoot about the choice of someone’s sleeping partner(s)? I admit that I’ve never understood the ‘coming out’ phenomenon. … I swear, the next time I hear someone making a public big deal over being homosexual, I’ll have a T-shirt printed that reads, ‘I like to sleep with WOMEN!’ and wear it in public.”
There is something disingenuous about the question, something that seeks to trivialize, that pretends not to understand that it is of milestones like these that change is made.
False safety of hiding place
But of course, the people who ask the question do know. That’s the whole point.
To be lesbian or gay in this country is often — still — to be required to hide, silently and in plain sight, as homophobic slurs and gay-bashing laws rain down around you.
It takes a particular kind of courage to essentially raise your hand and voluntarily leave the safety — albeit the false safety — of your hiding place. Particularly if you are a man.
Not that it is a cakewalk to be a lesbian, but to be a homosexual man is to tread, inadvertently but emphatically, upon that fault line of masculinity, identity and sexual insecurity which so often characterizes straight men. Consider that, of 1,508 sexual orientation hate crimes in 2011, the FBI reports that 57.8 percent were anti-gay male, while only 11.1 percent were anti-lesbian.
So what Collins has done is brave and irreducible. He has given “gay male athlete” a face. He has stuck his chin out and dared somebody to hit it. He has lit the fuse on change.
This, one suspects, is what the AlecWests, Chris Broussards and Mike Wallaces fear. Because the essence of that change, the echo of the boom, is not found in this one obscure athlete holding up his hand and saying, “I am gay.”
No, the proof of the thing will be found when, because of this, the next man steps forward and says the words that seal the change in stone.