In a bold display of personal courage, Jason Collins of the NBA has become the first openly-gay athlete in the four major North American sports. While I respect that this is truly a watershed moment for sports and LGBTQ rights, it would be a great disservice not to acknowledge the many athletes before Collins who have made gains for LGBTQ rights and visibility:
Billie-Jean King. Greg Louganis. Brendan Burke. Martina Navratilova. Mark Tewksbury. Johnny Weir. Orlando Cruz. John Amaechi. Wade Davis. Alan Gendreau. Matthew Mitcham. Esera Tuaolo. Brian Orser. And many, many more.
(This isn’t meant to be a complete list – you can go to wikipedia for that, although I’m sure their list is far from complete either. And yes, I did check that list to fill in my previous paragraph.)
Even though he’s far from the first, Collins’ gesture is important for its context. The four major sports in North America (baseball, basketball, football and hockey) perpetuate the myth that professional sports is the domain of the hyper-masculine, where only the manliest of the manly men can compete. This is why every other sport has long since accepted gay and lesbian athletes, where the big four have not; not only that, but it also seems that women’s sports are miles ahead.
It’s not surprising that there are more female athletes who have come out as lesbians, than there are male athletes who have come out as gay. When Brittany Griner, the 1st overall pick in the recent WNBA Draft, announced she was a lesbian, the world barely shrugged, and went back to ignoring the WNBA as it has for years; but Collins’ announcement has made headlines in every news outlet in North America.
Ultimately, this speaks to the pervasive sexism that still exists in sports, and how we regard sports as a strongly-masculine pursuit. A lesbian athlete who is attracted to women more readily fits the stereotypes we assign to athletes – tough, powerful, strong, etc – all of which are terms we associate with masculinity. Gay men are stereotypically associated with femininity and weakness, rather than masculinity and strength – though the Ancient Greeks would be quick to disagree!
So, this is why Collins’ courage matters so much. He is not simply speaking out against homophobia, but also speaking out against the sexist undertones that encourage homophobia – and as I wrote in my previous article about Yunel Escobar, the line differentiating homophobia from misogyny is very blurry indeed. The underlying message behind homophobia is that the worst thing a man can do is to adopt the behaviours of a woman, which is at the root of all misogynistic sexism.
Even as Collins breaks down this barrier, we must also acknowledge another list that is growing every day – athletes who identify as trans, and transition during or before their athletic career:
Renee Richards. Kye Allums. Michelle Dumaresq. Keelen Godsey. Fallon Fox. Lana Lawless. Kristen Worley. And many, many more.
Again, this list is hardly exhaustive, and in time, will grow longer. More barriers will be broken. More athletes will find compassion and inclusion among their sports and their teams. Eventually, and hopefully, nobody will even care.
Collins’ courage is just one more step in a journey that will force me to change the first line of my article – instead of using the term “gay athlete” to describe players like Collins, we’ll soon be calling them “athletes who happen to be gay”.
Or hopefully, someday, just “athletes.”