“I'm Black. And I'm gay. “
With this confession, the now openly gay NBA player, Jason Collins, has reintroduced to public conversations the issue of sexual diversity and inclusion within U.S. sports culture. Collins’ public disclosure has the potential to shift narrow-minded societal ideas about what it means to be black, gay, and athletic within a moment where many still hold onto the stereotypical ideas that professional male athletes are always straight, black gay men are not athletic (and when they are, they must be on the “down low”), as well as the belief that “gay” is synonymous to “White.” In fact, Jason Collins admitted, "I didn't set out to be the first openly gay male athlete." Yet, he may actually end up being the perfect "first" for one reason and one reason alone: He's Black.
The popular philosopher and activist, Cornel West, was right when he proclaimed that race matters in America. And it always has, especially considering the ways that our ideas about race shape our sexual politics and understandings of sexuality. When Jason Collins named himself a Black gay man, he situated himself in a very precarious intersection in the American psyche—the space in our collective consciousness that still imagines a limited Black manhood that fails to see Black men as anything but representations of the hyper- and hetero-sexual.
But Collins challenges the stale ideas that too often shape our understandings of Black gay men. Many of Collins friends and new admirers, for example, have deemed him intelligent and thoughtful. He is a masculine- presenting professional athlete. He is a graduate of one of the best universities in the country. He comes from a middle class family of respectable professionals. To many, he defines and breaks a multitude of stereotypes all at once. And depending on one’s vantage point, his disclosure is one to celebrate or shame. However, Collins’ experience of acceptance (or rejection) by his peers and the wider public says less about the Black gay man who was brave enough to invite the public into the personal spaces of his life and more about the broader society’s need for him to fit into its minute boxes.
Over the past several months, the media has centered so much air time discussing the seeming lack of sexual diversity within professional sports. Indeed, the refrain “who will be the next Jackie Robinson” has been repeated so many times that one would actually think that the LGBTQ sports activist community actually believed that the first “out” pro player would be a Black male like Robinson.
Yet, the public conversations focused specifically on the possibility of gay pros in any of the four major sports took on the posture of media “witch hunts” and loud demands placed upon gay athletes seemingly hidden within a closet of shame to “come out.” And when stories began to circulate, like the Kwame Harris domestic violence incident and the recent media circus organized around Kerry Rhodes’s supposed same-sex affair, Black male athletes remained on the receiving end of deficit-focused activists and media campaigns. And many believed that the mostly Black NBA and NFL, sans Brendon Ayanbadejo and Kenneth Faried, of course, would be resistant to accepting and playing with “out” gay athletes. Who would have thought, given the “drama” and “fear” that has dominated sports news reports, that the first person to publicly invite his team, league, and world into his life would be a representative of the very group folk that have come to represent anything but self- and other-acceptance?
Many Black people understand that when you are exceptional, you're the exception and when you're a disappointment you are the rule. But which is Jason Collins? Is it the case that Collins commands so much respect and has been heralded as “courageous” because his background, pedigree, demeanor, and masculine gender presentation makes him a safe and respectable Black gay man? Would the majority of our responses be flowered with praise if he was “feminine acting” or less well-spoken or had a scandalous history with other men? What if he didn’t graduate from Stanford or befriended a US President’s daughter? The answers to these questions will certainly be as varied as the array of responses to Collins’ disclosure, but they deserve contemplation.
Collins is an out Black gay pro athlete. His declaration, while empowering to so many, speaks more to our society’s definitions and understandings of race, sexuality and sexual diversity than it does Collins’ understanding of himself. The simple and hard truth is this: Collin’s disclosure upsets the limited beliefs about black men maintained by some. We are not all straight. And those of us who are gay are not all trapped in the “closet.” And those of us who are athletes are not all womanizing jocks. And some of us who are masterful on the court or field might also be masterful in other arenas as well. And many of us are accepting of difference.
Collins’ disclosure did more than break a glass ceiling within professional sports, his proclamation challenges us to reconsider the ways we have come to think about athletes, specifically black male athletes and some black gay men, in our present moment. Collins has offered us an opportunity to grow just as well. In fact, he has challenged us to rethink the closet as that which traps and limits our thinking about others. What some have named the “last closet,” namely, sports culture, has seemingly been destroyed. Yet, there is another that remains: our own ideas about race and sexuality.
Author bios: Wade Davis, II is a former NFL player and LGBTQ advocate. Darnell L. Moore is a writer and educator. Davis and Moore are co-founders of YOU Belong.