Jason Collins: Black, Gay and a Real Man

The NBA player has paved the way for all young gay men experiencing his same struggle for self-acceptance.

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Perhaps the culture of professional sports is partly to blame -- asking a kind of sacrifice that seems almost commonplace for gay youths -- by demanding silence and conformity. But there are millions who won't ever aspire to that level of fame, yet whose demons are still real, and whose nightmares come in the daytime. Fear of losing friends, being rejected by family or becoming the target of bullies -- from the classroom to the boardroom -- make many young men and women feel that they have no choice but to live a lie.

For Collins the journey to self-acceptance has begun, but his work of being a gay man within the NBA could well be coming to an end. ESPN analysts spent much of yesterday debating whether Collins' age, dwindling stats and the revelation of his sexual orientation could create a trifecta that makes it difficult for him to find a home on another team.

As a newly minted free agent seeking to enter his 13th season, he would already have found his options to be limited. Being gay could complicate matters, since locker room morale would be a consideration in contract negotiations. However, most analysts agreed that there is a shortage of men with Collins' size and experience -- as such, there will always be a need for a 7-foot center.

Pro athletes like the NBA's John Amaechi and NFL's Esera Tuaolo both came out after their careers had ended. What makes Collins' journey special, therefore, is the possibility that he may still don an NBA jersey and score before screaming crowds. That would make him the true game changer.

But what must not be lost in celebrating Collins' historic announcement is the fact that there remains an epidemic of LBGT people for whom the misery and pain have not gone away. According to California State University research (pdf), gay youths who have experienced bullying or rejection from family and peers were eight times more likely than heterosexual youths to attempt suicide. They were six times more likely to suffer from depression, three times more likely to use illegal drugs and at higher risk for HIV and other STDs by the time they reached their early 20s.

The Suicide Prevention Resource Center estimates (pdf) that between 30 percent and 40 percent of the nation's LGBT youths have attempted suicide. And research conducted at Rutgers University found that young gay African-American males were particularly challenged in coming out because they were forced to navigate the intersecting oppressions of racism, homophobia and sexism.

There is no doubt that American society is evolving -- increasingly becoming a safer place in which to live and love out loud. Having gay and straight allies from the Oval Office to the NBA stadium will help change perceptions and, in time, public policy. Yet the struggle continues and activists are needed -- especially for minorities -- so that other young black men won't feel constrained to wait and speak after 34 years of fear and doubt. "I knew that I was choosing the road less traveled," Collins wrote yesterday, "But I'm not alone."

And that's the real lesson: He is not alone.

Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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