Summer Boys, Summer Dreams . . .

tools of the trade

“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.”

Those are the words Jason Collins used two weeks ago when he became the first male gay athlete playing a major American team sport (baseball, basketball, football, and hockey) to publicly come out of the closet.

Even for sports aficionados, Collins is far from a household name. Seemingly well-liked and respected by teammates, he’s not a star by any means. He’s a journeyman who’s played for six different teams over his twelve year NBA career; and never having been in the limelight before, Collins seemed surprised to be the one breaking new ground.

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

Courageous as his announcement was, the most interesting thing to me was not that Collins came out. It’s some of the other things he mentioned in doing so.

“It takes an enormous amount of energy to guard such a big secret,” he said in making his announcement on the Sports Illustrated web site. “I’ve endured years of misery and gone to enormous lengths to live a lie. I was certain that my world would fall apart if anyone knew.”

Knowing how rampant homophobia has been in sports over the years, I guess that shouldn’t be surprising. But it’s worth reflecting on nonetheless, the horrendous internal costs associated with trying to remain closeted while playing a team sport; and that’s one of the central themes I set out to write about in Summer Boys, Summer Dreams.

Here’s another telling comment from Collins:

“By its nature, my double life has kept me from getting close to any of my teammates.”

I was pretty certain that was true as I was writing this story. The surprising thing is to hear someone like Collins articulate it so simply and clearly.

There are people who wonder whether it’s really news that gay people play professional sports; others who question why so much attention should be focused on Collins’ announcement. Without going into a lot of detail, I’ll just say this.

Pro sports, especially team sports like the four mentioned above, have long been perceived by Americans as bastions of masculinity. Somewhere along the line athleticism, manhood, and heterosexuality got conflated together into an American cultural paradigm that painted a false picture and left little room for the rest of us.

Even today gay men are still often seen as being effete, weak, uncoordinated, perhaps even girly. Some of us may be and there’s nothing wrong with that either.

What would the world be like if everyone was the same?

But not every gay man fits that stereotype. Nor are sports solely the special preserve of those who are straight. That’s why it’s important for adolescents and boys who are gay and like playing sports to have role models they can identify with and look up to.

So, yes, there have been other athletes who came out before Jason Collins; women like Billy Jean King and Martina Navratilova, men who played team sports who chose to come out after they retired. But in coming out as a still active player, Jason Collins broke new and important ground ground. He deserves our thanks and support.

His announcement is also a terrific backdrop for the story I begin posting tonight. Hopefully it will challenge a lot of conventional notions and encourage people to think.

Some people argue that our sexuality is just one of a thousand pieces of our identity and perhaps not even something all that important.

I disagree.

Our sexuality is critical in determining who we can love and how we make love; and it’s love or the possibility of love that keeps us going.

Until there are no more hate crimes, no more vicious bullying of those who are different, no more ugly slurs tossed around locker rooms in an effort to degrade and demean, it’s important to stand up and affirm who we are. In doing so, we can look to Jason Collins as a model and hope others will soon follow his example.

There are no guarantees, of course. People can become more tolerant if they want, but there will always be bigots. Like rats, some will lurk in the shadows and anonymously alter a Wikipedia page so that a blurb about Jason Collins coming out refers to him as a faggot.

Others, like Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, will mask their bigotry as the received wisdom of the ages and paint a portrait of a god as deformed and hateful as themselves.

In the end, much will depend on how welcoming ownership, management and teammates are. Who will come out, after all, if the only reward is to lose your job?

In any event, Chapter 1 is up. You can find it over at The Annex.

Let me know what you think, either by commenting immediately following the chapter or by sending me an e-mail.

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