First, let me say that I am excited about the announcement this morning by NBA free-agent Jason Collins that he is gay. The 12-year basketball veteran came out in a Sports Illustrated story published today saying:
“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,” Collins wrote. “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 join the chorus in support of Collins for this move. I wish we didn’t have describe this as a brave act, but in 2013 we still do. Many athletes and fans took to twitter right away to voice their support, including Kobe Bryant (this may be a first in SCS history that I write something positive about Bryant). But not all reactions were positive. NFL players Mike Wallace and Alphonso Smith voiced objections (some since deleted). And already, ESPN sportscaster Chris Broussard condemned Collins as not acting like a Christian and going against God’s will.
All of this is important. Collins has launched what will no doubt be a spirited conversation about gays in professional sports. That visibility is important. It will be inspiring to countless LGBT and non-LGBT people everywhere to live your truth openly and without shame or fear. It will give hope to LGBT youth who feel alone. And that is very meaningful and to be commended.
Here’s my respectful but… Jason Collins is not the first openly gay professional athlete in American sports.
Heralding Jason Collins as the first openly gay professional athlete denies the contributions of and experiences of a handful of openly gay athletes who have come before him. Those athletes and their impact are being marginalized for a very obvious reason — they are women.
As Mother Jones was quick to point out, WNBA athletes Sheryl Swoopes, Britney Griner (who just got a Nike deal), and Chamique Holdsclaw all came out while playing professionally. Soccer players Megan Rapinoe and Lori Lindsey (an Olympian, no less) have also played while out about their sexual orientations. And let’s not forget Billie Jean King and Martina Navritolova.
NBA star Jason Collins is not the “first openly gay athlete in professional North American team sports,” as some have claimed. Claiming as much implies that either women’s sports don’t matter as much (or don’t exist at all), or that coming out is somehow less of a big deal for professional athletes who happen to be women.
It’s hard to deny the writing on the proverbial wall here, women’s stories don’t count as real watershed moments in the equality movement of the LGBT community, nor the general population — sports fans or otherwise.
Here’s hoping that we can course-correct on this story without diminishing it’s importance and power. I don’t blame Jason Collins for systemic patriarchy of our society that automatically treats women and their experiences as second-class to that of men. But if we are going to applaud someone for doing something brave, let’s do it without marginalizing those who have done the exact same thing and faced the exact same scrutiny and back-lashes because of it.
We can stand in solidarity with Jason Collins while also lifting up the women who did it before him. After all, equality is not a competitive sport.