Jason Collins is Gay: NBA Veteran Comes Out, Makes History

Jason Collins made NBA history, as the first openly gay NBA player, when he came out publicly via a candid and moving essay in Sports Illustrated magazine, and this is a Very Big Deal. While some male professional athletes, like the MLB’s “Billy Bean,” have come out during their retirements, Collins is the first player from one of the big four U.S. sports leagues (NBA, NFL, NHL, and MLB) to make his announcement while still playing his sport. I found out about the news when Twitter exploded, and even as a person who isn’t very invested in professional sports, I let out an audible shriek because a professional athlete just raised his hand and said, “I’m a 34-year old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.” Welcome to the beginning of the future.

Jason Paul Collins is a 7-foot, 12-year NBA veteran who played as 98 with the Washington Wizards for the 2012-2013 season — he reports that he wears 98 in honor of the year Matthew Shepard was killed. He attended Stanford University and was an All-American athlete in 2000-2001. He’s played on six different professional teams over the course of his career and jokes that anyone in the league can play Three Degrees of Jason Collins. “If you’re in the league, and I haven’t been your teammate, I surely have been one of your teammates’ teammates. Or one of your teammates’ teammates’ teammates,” he wrote in his coming out essay. He’s not an excellent basketball player: In 2012-13, Collins averaged 1.1 PPG, 1.60 RPG and 0.2 APG. He is, however, good enough to play in the NBA, and well-known enough that his coming out is a historical milestone. Also he has been in two state high school championships, the NCAA Final Four and the Elite Eight, and nine playoffs in 12 NBA seasons. He has a twin brother who is also in the NBA, a gay uncle, and he’s single. He first appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated on March 15, 2000.

He appears on the cover of Sports Illustrated again now, for the May 6, 2013 issue, with a large image of his face next to the headline: “EXCLUSIVE: The Gay Athlete.” Under the title reads a summary of Collins’ decision to come out now, and in such a high-profile way:

“I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete in a major American team sport. But since I am, I’m happy to start the conversation.”

via sportsillustrated.com

via sportsillustrated.com

The quote continues off the cover in the body of the article:

“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, which is why I’m raising my hand.”

I need to say this again just so we’re all clear: This is a huge deal.

Sports is a language that many Americans speak, and it reaches communities that don’t necessarily see narratives about gay athletes, or gay people at all, most of the time. Jason Collins, a high-profile long-term professional athlete coming out as gay is important. People look up to professional athletes. Kids look up to them, certainly, but grown ups do too. Have you ever seen grown ass adults paint their face, put on their lucky underoos, and stand in a crowd for hours over and over again cheering on anyone other than a professional athlete? Nope. Sports do something to people. The exhilaration of the win, the hope that a losing team will somehow turn it all around, the camaraderie of feeling like you are a part of something bigger than yourself. People really like that stuff. So when a person who has had a big role in the world of professional basketball comes forward, with no real precedent whatsoever, and says, “Hey, I’m gay,” it’s undoubtedly going to have a big effect on public consciousness.

Whether you’re a sports fan or not, it’s worth it to check out Collins’ entire essay, because it is everything you might hope it would be. It’s heartfelt, honest, brave, and best of all, matter of fact. My favorite part is when Collins speaks about when he realized it was time for him to come out, and how it felt to come out to himself, too.

Imagine you’re in the oven, baking. Some of us know and accept our sexuality right away and some need more time to cook. I should know — I baked for 33 years.

When I was younger I dated women. I even got engaged. I thought I had to live a certain way. I thought I needed to marry a woman and raise kids with her. I kept telling myself the sky was red, but I always knew it was blue.

I realized I needed to go public when Joe Kennedy, my old roommate at Stanford and now a Massachusetts congressman, told me he had just marched in Boston’s 2012 Gay Pride Parade. I’m seldom jealous of others, but hearing what Joe had done filled me with envy. I was proud of him for participating but angry that as a closeted gay man I couldn’t even cheer my straight friend on as a spectator. If I’d been questioned, I would have concocted half truths. What a shame to have to lie at a celebration of pride. I want to do the right thing and not hide anymore. I want to march for tolerance, acceptance and understanding. I want to take a stand and say, “Me, too.”

Jason Collins coming out is really important if only because other active players haven’t yet, and now maybe more people will, and visibility matters, and we’re still working on getting to a place where it doesn’t. Maybe it always will. I don’t know.

For today, and the coming weeks, basketball fans are going to be talking about the fact that there is a gay player in the NBA. Some big names are praising Collins and offering support, including Chelsea Clinton, former president Bill Clinton, President Barack Obama, The Washington Wizards, Kobe Bryant, and NBA commissioner David Stern. Some kids are going to see that you can be gay and still follow your dreams and succeed. Some homophobic assholes are going to have to consider reevaluating their thoughts on gay people, and some of them will succeed in doing so.

And today Jason Collins gets to be out and open and honest on his own terms. Welcome to the beginning of the future. Because this is, as Collins himself said, only the start of the conversation.

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Vanessa is a queer feminist writer, NYU grad, crush monster, and Jewish Grandma In Training. She has a radical brain, a mushy heart, and a million floral print dresses. She's currently on a big adventure but she'll be back one day, pinky swear. In the meantime, she can sometimes be found on twitter and instagram.

Vanessa has written 198 articles for us.

31 Comments

  1. Thumb up 5

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    This is such a great and historic moment. Even more so because the NBA is one of the big-four (MLB, NHL, NFL). His twitter handle is @jasoncollins34 and I’m sure he would appreciate any support!!

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    “What a shame to have to lie at a celebration of pride. I want to do the right thing and not hide anymore. I want to march for tolerance, acceptance and understanding. I want to take a stand and say, ‘Me, too.'”

    Yes. Yes. Yes. And yes. This is incredible and so happy-making.

  3. Thumb up 7

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    Really awesome news! What a great thing to wake up to!

    One quibble Vanessa, you start out saying “the very first professional athlete to come out publicly” when it should say the first male professional athlete, because as we all know several women already have.

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      GOOD SAVE THANK YOU.

      i may not be a big sports person (as i said in the article!) but thanks to working here at AS of course i knew there have been quite a few professional women athletes to come out publicly! i’m sorry for the mistake guys — in my zeal to write up this news i left that off (the freaking opening sentence!) so i appreciate you pointing it out so i could go back and fix it.

      you win VIP commenter of the day!

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      I heard him interviewed on a sports podcast, and he said that his role model was Martina Navratilova, which I thought was really cool.

  4. Thumb up 2

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    I feel like anything I have to say will be no where near as touching as his own words, but I know how much this would have meant to me when I was still in high school and trying to come to terms with myself.

    In some ways sports could be so empowering – the anxiety of life sort of drained away when I stepped onto a field. I knew my body, my strengths and weaknesses, and my own skill level. But once you stepped off the field… locker rooms and athletic organizations are a hard place to be a queer kid. There’s not a lot of role models or people to identify with, and you wind up hiding your heart.

    I can only imagine how great this will be for some young kid out there. A little less lonely. This guy has done something really fantastic.

  5. Thumb up 5

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    “very first professional athlete to come out publicly”

    Should probably qualify that as *first actively playing male pro athlete to come out publicly in a major American team sport

    I’m thinking mostly of Robbie Rogers since, unfortunately, soccer is not a major American team sport yet.

    Anyway, 4 for you Jason Collins, you go Jason Collins.

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      yes, another good save, you also win VIP commenter of the day — apologies that i didn’t make that point clear, and i’m gonna change the post to reflect that, too.

      you’re all superstar all-stars, just like jason collins :)

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      I thought I had already posted but it doesn’t seem to have appeared so if this is duplicate, I apologies..but Robbie Rogers wasn’t an active player. He announced his retirement at the same time. And I do think that is a key distinction.

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        He didn’t quite retire, he just said he was stepping back from the game. It is key though that Collins remains in the NBA where he’ll be visible and facing other players.

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        And there’s Gareth Thomas (professional rugby player) who came out in like 2009 while still actively playing. I just assumed you meant he was the first active player to announce they’re gay in a Sports Illustrated article.

        I’m pretty sure if you add a qualifier about the big four sports (NBA, NFL, NHL, MLB) you’ll be good :D

  6. Thumb up 6

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    Short sidebar: Collins isn’t a superstar but he’s up there as far as NBA successr, I mean he was a starter for 5 years. The Nets made it to back-to-back NBA finals – once in his rookie year and the following year when he became the starting center. The fact that he’s still playing after 12 years with the league is amazing considering most NBA careers last around 4 to 5 seasons.

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      thank you for this additional info! my girlfriend affectionately calls me an “indoor kid” and that’s pretty accurate, so like i said this was the first time i’d heard of collins — i think anyone in the nba is pretty fucking fantastic, but when i was doing research for this article a few sources brought up the fact that collins isn’t like, the best player of all time, so i thought it was important to point out because EVEN if he’s not the #1 player, this is still huge news. but seriously, thanks for the extra info — maybe covering this story will be my gateway into becoming a sports person! WHO KNOWS THIS IS THE FUTURE, YA KNOW?!

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          Well, Foist, while Collins did give them great minutes and solid defense, I think more credit goes to that really fun J Kidd-Kenyon Martin combo. I miss those teams.

          Sorry, /Basketball Nerd.

          When I started following the WNBA, I kinda got into the sport as a whole. The men’s game is a bit too based on sheer physicality for me, but it makes up for it with, and I know I am objectifying and it goes against my principals, Lakers Girls. I do not know what it is about those uniforms and pom poms… probably the same reason I love Santana. Maybe some residual stuff from not realizing I was crushing on a cheerleader hard until I finally realized I was gay at the end of high school?

  7. Thumb up 1

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    Ah, yes I was going to mention Gareth Thomas, who came out a couple of years before retiring, I realise Rugby isn’t a high profile sport in the states, but he one that did it all the same.

    As has English cricket player Steven Davies (again not a big sport in the U.S.) Also Puerto Rican professional boxer Orlando Cruz publicly came out.

    I do appreciate that the NBA is a huge deal over there though, hence the excitment and attention it’s gotten. But other examples aside it’s a hugely positive thing and I applaud the step he has taken.

  8. Thumb up 5

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    Going off of what Natalie said in the first comment, the reason why this is so huge in America is because it’s the first time an athlete has come out as being gay while still active in what is considered to be one of our country’s four major leagues (NBA, NHL, MLB and NFL). Unfortunately, most Americans aren’t as concerned with soccer and rugby, making this a huge deal in sports history.

    Also, Collins’ star quality shouldn’t affect the severity of this news. There was a gay kicker in this years NFL draft and sports fans were already talking about how he could be the first openly gay athlete in major American sports and he hadn’t even made a team yet. So all of this is a big freaking deal.

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    I’m not really a NBA fan and honestly, I don’t even watch it but I just remembered that a homophobic classmate from my college years was an avid Collins fan. So yay, hopefully this will make him (at least) think.

    Thanks for the info, Autostraddle, this is kinda huge, even if its *cough*only*cough* NBA :)

  10. Thumb up 2

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    This is a big fucking deal in the words of Joe Biden. Hearing it in his words, from his perspective, was so much more powerful than just having the journalist write an article about an interview with him.

    He’s a free agent currently so hopefully some team will pick him up in the offseason.

  11. Thumb up 5

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    When I saw this as the lead story on the front page of the newspaper this morning and I read what Collins had done, I burst into tears. I knew that for years the media had wondered when someone would stand up, raise their hand, and admit that they were different.

    And Collins had the courage to do that.

    I can guarantee you, he’ll never have to sit out a Pride parade again because he’ll be the one up front, leading the whole darn thing. We need more heroes like him.

  12. Thumb up 1

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    While reading his article out loud to the wife I choked up, his courage is so admirable. It’s phenomenal the collection of wonderful people standing behind this man, for the first time in a long time I’m very proud of the America that is supporting him.

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    I am so grateful that God make us all in his image and that im part of that all. Im a 51yr old black man who recently found that been gay is such a small part of who i am. Im many things in the eyes of others; but most of all im human. Jason ur a blessen from God.

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