Even in 2013, with all of the progress that the gay rights movement has made nationally and globally, it’s hard to believe that there had not been an openly gay professional male athlete in any of the major American professional sports leagues. In recent years, we’ve seen retired players come forward, proudly proclaiming their identity, after they’ve completed their careers and left the locker rooms, but until this week, there had been no active players who have come out.
Earlier this week, Jason Collins, an All-American basketball player and a 12-year veteran of the NBA* publicly came out. In doing so, he made history, but more importantly, he has taken on the role of advocate, and used his platform to encourage others in his position to take the same stand.
Collins’ courage to be publicly honest about his sexuality has already inspired a lot of people, including President Barack Obama and Kobe Bryant, to show their support. Surely, Collins is not the only gay athlete, so perhaps his announcement will encourage other gay athletes to speak up and serve as LGBT activists who can encourage our youth to pursue their dreams in sports, based on their ability and not their sexuality. Perhaps Collins’ announcement will give us an opportunity to change how we define what it means to be an athlete and a man, or at least have a conversation about it.
The fact that there have been openly gay women in professional sports for decades made me wonder: why is it so shocking that there are gay men in professional sports? I think it has a lot to do with the role of sports in how we define masculinity. For decades, the term “athlete” was synonymous with “masculine,” and the term “masculine” was synonymous with “straight.” If athletes openly admit that they are gay, what impact does this have on how we define masculinity? Collins’ recent announcement has opened the possibility of a paradigm shift in how we view the intersection of masculinity and professional athletes.
Recent years have brought us a wide variety of openly gay public figures, including members of the U.S. Congress, governors and celebrities. With each new revelation, we have an opportunity to widen our perspective to be more inclusive and grow as a society. It takes great courage to be the first, and I applaud Collins for his audacity to come out of the closet, and open the door to the court, field and stadium for others to do so as well.
Zing Shaw is vice president, diversity & inclusion at Edelman U.S.
Image by Mashable.