I did have a bit of a (friendly) debate with one internet pal who suggested Collins stands separate from athletes who came out before him. I’ve even read a few tweets which honored Collins as the Jackie Robinson of gay athletes. For me, the important thing is both men were and are courageous in their own ways, and both did and will affect people for years to come.
Think about it this way: do you wonder why Collins is the first? Why no Major Team Sport Male Athlete in North America™ came out before yesterday? Because it was too dangerous. There was no Branch Rickey for this person, no straight ally with true power who took the lead and ensured MTSMAiNA™ he would be safe, that he wouldn’t lose his job, his livelihood, his life.
Now think about Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King coming out in 1981. Women. Alone. No Twitter frenzy. No call from the White House. In 1981.
To suggest Collins’s actions represent a different quality of courage is to (1) marginalize those who came (out) before him and (2) set him up to be marginalized when the next famous sports figure comes out. “But he wasn’t a superstar. He never won a title. He wasn’t actually playing at the time. Football is more popular than basketball. He already made his millions. He’s not white. It’s just different.” And believe me, what Collins did yesterday is already being downplayed. Flipping through radio stations during my commute, I heard a DJ read a note from a listener that went something like this:
“Will this stop children from starving in Africa? Will it stop teens from dying because of drugs? NO! Then why does it matter what one guy does in his bedroom?!”
What the author of that email fails to realize is being gay isn’t about what happens in our bedrooms. And ultimately Jason Collins coming out isn’t about sports. It’s about being able to live honestly, freely, and equally. What Collins did will affect more than just athletes and sports fans, more than just gay people. It will show fans and players and restauranteurs and ditch diggers that all kinds of people are gay; we are your sisters and brothers and friends. We can live honestly, and still be happy, safe, and successful in anything that we choose to do. That’s why coming out matters.
There should be no qualifier for courage, no asterisk explaining why one person’s risk was easier than another. Every coming out story is important – Collins’, Rapinoe’s, King’s, mine, yours. Collins stands shoulder to shoulder with those who broke barriers before him, as he will stand with those who follow. As Collins himself tweeted, he is not walking alone. With every day, with every Collins and Griner and Rapinoe and Lindsey and Rogers, fewer and fewer of us will ever have to walk – or run, skate, hit, shoot, swing, check, catch or kick – alone again.