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.

Jason Collins and Ioannis Bourousis of Emporio Armani Milano (Roberto Serra/Getty)

For lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youths and aspiring athletes, this is admittedly a watershed moment, and one that can lead to greater acceptance. It follows, of course, a positive and changing tide in Americans’ perceptions of gay people and gay rights. The U.S. military’s decision to allow gay soldiers to serve openly and President Obama’s support for marriage equality have brought these issues into the mainstream. Until now, professional male sports has remained the final bastion of a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” culture that is tacitly homophobic.

By any measure, therefore, Collins’ announcement is both a personal and collective triumph. But the sad truth underlying his story — despite the fanfare that it is deservedly receiving — is that there are far too many friends, siblings and colleagues among us who still suffer the suffocating darkness of the closet. Even in 2013.

Can you imagine living a life in which those closest to you didn’t even know you? The most touching revelation Collins shared was that his twin brother, Jarron, was “astounded” at his coming out. A brother with whom he has spent his entire life, and who followed him to Stanford and into the NBA, had no clue that his brother was gay. “It takes an enormous amount of energy to guard such a big secret,” Collins wrote. “I’ve endured years of misery.”

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.