|Jason Collins, NY Times photo.|
Let me be blunt: Jason Collins coming out as a gay man is HUGE.
Collins, who started this season as a center with my beloved Boston Celtics, but now wears the Washington Wizards jersey, is the first male athlete, still active in professional team sports, to announce that he is a gay man. Up to now, men in competitive pro sports in this country did not reveal their sexual orientation... because they must be straight. They're athletes. Athletes are macho. Macho men are only gay if they're singing with The Village People.
In contrast, several prominent women professional athletes have announced they're lesbians: Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Sheryl Swoopes, Megan Rapinoe, Brittney Griner are just some of the list of names. But unlike men, women in sports often face the opposite issue: they must convince the fans they are NOT lesbians.
I was recently told that there is a softball team at one of the major universities where the women all put their hair up with a certain elastic tie. The significance of the color and the style of putting up their long hair is to indicate that they are straight. I have been told of other instances where the coaches of a women's sport have kept lesbians off the team. Many times, the reason for denying these talented... and lesbian... athletes a chance to excel in their sport is that there is a conflict with the religious values of the coach.
Some have used their theology to back up bigoted reaction to Jason Collins' coming out. Collins cited his belief in Christ as his reason for telling the world who he is in the Body of Christ. But ESPN Sportscaster Chris Broussard called Collins' revelation, "openly living in unrepentant sin." He went on to say, "I would not characterize that person as a Christian because I don't think the Bible characterizes them as a Christian." ESPN has stood by Broussard as having had a "respectful discussion of personal viewpoints." But, in fact, there is nothing respectful about saying that someone who has professed a belief in Jesus Christ is NOT a Christian just because they are gay. I will say this again and again... and probably again: a person's sexual orientation is NOT a sin, unrepentant or otherwise. Our sexual orientations, whatever they are, are a beautiful gift from God. It is how God has allowed us to experience intimacy and deeper relationship with another person which is, by extension, a tapping into a deeper relationship with Divine Love. How can anyone ask another person to repent a gift from God? That's lunacy.
So is the commentary of Miami Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace. Wallace doesn't understand homosexuality. As he put it, "All these beautiful women in the world and guys wanna mess with other guys..." Someone get this man to a PFLAG meeting, quickly!! I have had this same discussion with dads who are reeling at the news that their handsome, athletic son has said he's gay. "How can that be? He could have any girl he wants: how does he know he's gay?"
I gave a very simple answer to that one.
"Mister Dad: when you were 15, did you think girls were hot?"
"Oh, yeah. I was all into girls when I was 15."
"And so you knew you were straight, then, because you thought girls were hot."
"Well..... your 15 year-old son thinks guys are hot. And that's how he knows he's gay."
And a light is turned on where there had been darkness.
As much as some have been offering up the same tired bigoted statements about gay men during this news cycle of Collins' coming out, there are many more who have risen above the usual locker room nonsense. Within hours of his announcement, the Boston Red Sox contacted Collins via Twitter to congratulate him and offer that any time he'd like to come back to Boston and throw out the first pitch, they'd be happy to put him on the mound.
It made me proud of my "home town" team. Their response, and the efforts of pro football players Brendon Ayanbadejo and Chris Klewe as straight allies, not to mention the moves by the National Hockey League to institute anti-discrimination policies are signs that there is progress and acceptance happening in pro sports. Collins will still likely endure nastiness in some quarters. But his courage is a slam dunk for equality, and will serve as the starting point to more openness both on and off the court.