Much has already been written about former Stanford basketball star and current NBA free agent Jason Collins ‘01’s coming-out party – and justifiably so.
It’s a historic moment for the sporting world; with yesterday’s announcement, Collins becomes the first male athlete in a major American professional team sport to come out as gay while still an active player. Collins’s decision will provide a positive role model for young athletes struggling to come out to teammates, parents and friends; his aggressive, physical style of play should help debunk the malicious myth that homosexuality makes you weak and unathletic.
Observers from the sports world to the heights of the punditocracy have rushed the court of public opinion like fans after a major win. “We are proud he has assumed the leadership mantle on this very important issue,” wrote NBA commissioner David Stern. “The time has come. Maximum respect,” tweeted Steve Nash. And former President Bill Clinton, whose daughter Chelsea graduated from Stanford alongside Collins in 2001, issued a statement declaring that “Jason’s announcement today is an important moment for professional sports and in the history of the LGBT community.”
In short, this is a pretty big deal. But what most struck me about Collins’ story – a story that, it seems to me, mirrors the larger dynamics at work in the national struggle for marriage equality – is that he doesn’t think it should be.
Collins wants everyone to know that he’s a basketball player first, and everything else, including a gay African-American man, second. “I don’t let my race define me,” wrote Collins in his eloquent coming-out article in Sports Illustrated, “any more than I want my sexual orientation to. I don’t want to be labeled, and I can’t let someone else’s label define me.” When he looks in the mirror, he doesn’t see anybody else’s blinkered vision of what society thinks a gay man should be; he sees a “7-foot, 255-pound body” who led the NBA in personal fouls during the 2004-05 season, who’s “not afraid to take on any opponent,” who loves “playing against the best,” who “once fouled a player so hard that he had to leave the arena on a stretcher.” With wry understatement, Collins notes, “I go against the gay stereotype.” His is a world in which how much you score during the game matters a great deal more than who you score with after it. There is no gay basketball or straight basketball; there are only wins and losses. (Asked how they would react to the coming-out of a player on their favorite team, 73 percent of Sports Illustrated readers responded that it “would have no impact.”)
And Collins would be more than happy if he got none of the attention the press has given him for a coming-out he wishes weren’t necessary. “I wish I wasn’t the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, ‘I’m different.’ If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has,” he explains, “which is why I’m raising my hand.”
Collins’ inspirational story may grab the biggest headlines, and preoccupy the most talking heads, of any coming-out this year. It probably should.
But it many respects, it’s also the exact same story we’ve been hearing all year: a story played out in city halls across the country, at emotional demonstrations in front of the Supreme Court, in living rooms and at kitchen tables and in all the quiet places the cameras never capture and about which ink is rarely, if ever, spilled.
I’m straight, so I don’t pretend to fully understand the inner dynamics of a gay community of which I have never been a part. All I know is what I see, through a looking glass darkly. And what I see are people who want nothing more than to be treated as normal, to peacefully enter the mainstream of American life and to be recognized for what they do, not who they are born to be.
The fight against Prop 8 and DOMA is a fight for the greatest normalizing and stabilizing force in American life: a (hopefully) lifelong marriage between two people who care for each other. A victory for marriage equality doesn’t look like the Armageddon of conservative nightmare, with naked orgies rampaging through the streets while owners marry their dogs and children wander about parentless over the cursed terrain of a vast moral wasteland. It doesn’t look like special treatment, identity politics or the demise of traditional Christian ethics (“I take the teachings of Jesus seriously,” notes Collins, “particularly the ones that touch on tolerance and understanding.”)
It looks like wedding dresses and black tuxes. It looks like kids drinking orange juice and hurriedly spooning Golden Grahams before rushing off to school. It looks like a seven-foot-tall basketball player getting sent off the court for a brutal foul. It looks like nothing more, and nothing less, than the healthy expression of this American life.
Cheers to Jason Collins for taking one more step on the road to nowhere new and nothing special – a place we should have gotten to a long, long time ago.
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