When Jason Collins revealed earlier this week that he is gay, it was widely hailed as the first time a male athlete who was still actively playing in one of the four major professional sports leagues had revealed his homosexuality. A watershed moment. And it is, if not quite the watershed as has been described.
Collins, 34, made his announcement in a Sports Illustrated article that appeared on the Internet after the season had ended for his team, the Washington Wizards. An athlete of modest talents and tremendous character, Collins is a free agent now, meaning he has no contract with any team and is free to sign with anyone who wants him. That creates an interesting scenario for next year in the NBA. Collins says he wants to keep playing basketball. Will some NBA team oblige? Will his open homosexuality be welcomed as an asset by some progressive team owner, along with his 7-foot height and "team player'' reputation, or will Collins be shunned and wind up, in effect, like other male athletes who have come out only when their careers were over?
Make no mistake, given the homophobia that dominates locker rooms in male sports, his simple declaration is at once matter-of-fact and bold. The overwhelmingly encouraging response to his statement, especially among his NBA peers and other pro athletes, attests to the respect with which Collins is perceived as well as to the fact that this country is, albeit slowly and tortuously, turning a corner on yet another moral issue. For those reasons, barring injury, I think Collins will wind up with a contract in the NBA next year and become the perfect role model he has been called in stories announcing his decision to stop living a life of lies.
But this is just the beginning of what is likely at times to be an ugly, hateful path to acceptance. The truth is, this "melting pot" of a country does not handle "different" well. Whether it be skin color, religion, nationality, language, country of origin, gender, age, sexual preference or even food choice, many Americans speak and act today as if liberty, justice and equality are rights granted solely to them and their ilk because, well, because they say so and that's all they need to know. So please, do not bother them with the facts and save your moralizing for your socialist, atheist friends. (Put political views on that list as well.)
I ascribe this harsh reaction to "different" to fear and ignorance, the bellwethers of the tea party faithful who have cowed the Republican Party into submission. Greed, too. Many people, I believe, are afraid that they are going to lose something they perceive as rightfully theirs if someone else of a different race or nationality or religious belief or country of origin or sexual orientation, or, in the case of many men, of a different gender, is afforded the same opportunities as them. Sharing is not an option, whatever their religion preaches. (Put economic status on the list, too.)
Despite our pumped-up national pride and high-minded ideals, we do not always practice what we preach. We have, in fact, become a nation in which angry, self-righteous, holier-than-thou and, sometimes, just plain dumb people dominate national debate because of the vehemence with which they express their views and the money they are willing to spend brow-beating the rest of us. Loud is good. Louder is better. Nasty is good. Insulting is better. Facts are bad. Phony TV ads are good. Compassion is for the weak. Guns are the answer.
The Jason Collins story is definitely a positive one about wider acceptance for people simply for who they are. He is 7 feet tall, black and gay. He went to Stanford and plays basketball. Young gay men who play sports, or not, may be more likely to follow their dreams because of him and less likely to be fearful, secretive and easily bullied. It's a start.
But this is not a simple feel-good story. Collins has a twin brother who also played in the NBA and who says he didn't know his brother was gay until the rest of the world found out. That's sad. And it's sad that Collins felt the need to hide his homosexuality even from himself for so long because a lot of people in this country are so busy minding everyone else's business and deciding what is right and wrong. I personally don't think they are a majority, but they are a persistent, aggressive minority.
That means those of us who disagree with them must shed the comfortability of our own, self-assured sense of enlightenment and do battle with the conveyors of hate and ignorance. That means speaking out against all forms of injustice and exploitation, insisting on laws that protect individual rights, not corporate profits, and electing representatives who will pass those laws. It means exposing bullies for what they are, punishing those who see violence as a means to their ends, insisting on helping the disadvantaged (as our duty, not their entitlement), and not letting fear or weariness prevent us from exposing fraud and simple prejudice.
It also means telling those who would tell others they see as "different" to get over it. Mind your own business. Live your own lives. A gay man in a locker room? They've been there for decades. Also in Army barracks. They just had to hide it because of institutional ignorance and bias. Again, this is changing, if slowly, in America. Tolerance is a tough task master. It requires one to simply accept another person for what he or she is, in toto, without insisting that person change or agree with one's particular set of "rules." It can be uncomfortable, but so long as the person represents no real (not perceived) danger to one's well-being, there should be only one rule to apply to everyone: "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." There's a reason it's called the Golden Rule.