It's been more than a week now since Jason Collins put his name above the words: "I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay." You've had more than a week of arguments, at dinner parties, at sports bars, and online, about what those words really mean. There's been more than a week of parsing — Did he really write it? Is he really a "Hero"? Can you be privileged and brave at the same time? — and we've suffered through more than a week of idiots saying their piece, from pundits (Howard Kurtz) to athletes (Mike Wallace) and athletic pundits (Chris Broussard). And according to at least one major book publisher, a week is more than enough: The Associated Press reported Monday night that a publishing house had turned down the book Collins is shopping because of "concern that his story already has been told." (On Twitter, Collins denied that he's writing a book.)
But Collins's coming out from private into public view is meant to be an ongoing conversation in private and in public, or at least he intended it that way: Of reactions by players to his announcement, he wrote in Sports Illustrated, "I have no idea," but players have responded in droves — openly, positively, and for the most part without labels, even as the NBA playoffs continue. Of the response from fans, he wrote, "I don't mind if they heckle me" — and heckle they have, including the appearance of the F word on a Wikipedia page. In this week's New Yorker, Margaret Talbot writes that "the most remarkable thing" about Collins's admission has been the clearing out "the last refuges of homophobic slurs" from athletes themselves. Except what are our athletes without those they influence? What are we fans — we the spectators and the screamers — if we can't take what Collins told Oprah Winfrey was "all that angst" and translate it into words that matter?
"It doesn't matter that you’re gay," Collins said on Good Morning America the morning after the SI story went online. And he's sort of right. The announcement has faded from the headlines almost as quickly this week as ESPN didn't report it in the first place. Shaq and Charles Barkley don't talk about it before LeBron's playoff routs. (Although Barkley did say on Dan Patrick's radio show Tuesday that he "probably had three or four gay teammates.") But even as Collins turns to political fundraiser and free-agent pariah, our private conversations about very public gay Americans continue — and they most certainly continue to matter. Here's how a week of arguing informed the most hot-button mass conversation of the moment, and how we've learned to talk about it since.
Does Supporting Jason Collins Mean You Hate America?
Well no, not necessarily. But it's one way of transforming the conversation about Collins's coming out into a conversation about absolutely nothing — and transforming the message of his many supporters into something nasty.
"Why do you hate America so much that you think it's such a homophobic country, that when Jason Collins comes out it is the biggest deal in the history of humanity and President Obama has to personally congratulate him?" Breitbart.com star Ben Shapiro told Piers Morgan on Morgan's show last Thursday night, referring to the near universal support Collins received when he came out earlier in the week. And Shapiro wasn't done ruining an important dialogue. He added:
I wear a yarmulke on TV. There is a lot of anti-Semitism. There are people who are killed in anti-Semitic attacks — you know, per capita as many hate crimes against Jews as against gays in this country. America is not an anti-Semitic country and I am not a hero for wearing a yarmulke.
Shapiro's appearance was rebuked immediately. But let's go with his logic for a quick second: His steadfast belief that America is not a homophobic country doesn't explain why many homosexual men and women are still in the closet. It doesn't explain why there are still homeless LGBT youth, many of whom have been kicked out of their houses. It doesn't explain how Collins has played for 12 years in a league that still has problems with its stars using homophobic slurs — and fans, too, if you ask Kobe Bryant... or, probably, attend a game for whichever team Collins end up on next season.
What We Learned: Contrarian pundits will try and turn support for Collins into the wrong Big Important Discussion. And everyone else will ignore actually important realities like the historic occasion of Collins's announcement, or the sad ongoing history of how we treat young gay people in this country, or the horrifying marker on history brought by the death of Matthew Shepard in 1998 — even if Collins admitting that he wears a No. 98 jersey has turned that jersey into a new kind of "touching" symbol, and with huge sales.
Is Jason Collins Part of Some Trend?
The word choice here belongs to the Dallas Morning News, which syndicated a New York Times report to break the news... under a much different headline. Have a look (courtesy of Fleishman Hillard VP Brandon Friedman):
Usually "trends" and "trend stories" revolve around something trivial like, say, Brooklyn moms who don't believe in using diapers. Or sometimes three makes a trend, and giving The Dallas Morning News online editors the benefit of the doubt, they were probably referring to time and sequence. In February, Major League Soccer player and U.S. national team member Robbie Rogers came out of the closet, then promptly quit soccer. This month, Brittney Griner, the top pick in the WNBA Draft, came out as well, and she's been vocal about her support for Collins. And over the pas few weeks, the NFL and the NHL have assured fans that they're ready for gay players, even if the NFL isn't quite there yet. Perhaps Collins's coming out is part of that trend — indeed, there's been a lot of news about gay rights in football and beyond this year.
But the word "trend" can be used all too interchangeably with a fad. And fads go out of style. So do trends. Calling gay rights a trend could seem flip considering that our nation's highest court is about a month away from deciding whether or not to allow gay citizens the right to marry and the benefits that come with it. To that, would we call women's suffrage or civil rights a trend? Probably not.
What We Learned: Editors have to be doubly careful in the words they choose, because they can over- or under-define a moment of impact in all the wrong ways. And athletes like Griner might still be better conversation starters than journalists are. She wrote in a New York Times essay Monday:
Just as basketball doesn’t define who I am, neither does being gay.
The good news is that I do see change coming. It might be slow, but there are so many positive signs. After being drafted by the Phoenix Mercury and with more media acknowledging my sexuality, I’ve received more hugs, tweets, thank-yous and well-wishes in regard to being “out” than ever.
Does Privilege Nullify the Bravery of Jason Collins?
Collins said it himself in the SI story:
I go against the gay stereotype, which is why I think a lot of players will be shocked: That guy is gay? But I've always been an aggressive player, even in high school. Am I so physical to prove that being gay doesn't make you soft? Who knows? That's something for a psychologist to unravel.
Now everyone's an armchair psychologist, not least because that high school was a fancy one, because he went to Stanford, because he gets a big paycheck for not a lot of playing time.
"Jason Collins, I applaud you. That is a very brave man. I would high-five you but I don’t think I can reach you. But when I see you, I am gonna hug your knees so hard," said Ellen DeGeneres on her show following Collins's announcement. DeGeneres wasn't the only one who thought Collins's coming out was brave — Griner called it "courageous" in her Times essay, and so did dozens of her fellow athletes in this list of reactions compiled by OutSports.com. But Josh Barro at Bloomberg View disagreed:
But I'm already sick of hearing how 'brave' that was. ... He's a graduate of the Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles and Stanford University who has made more than $32 million during his NBA career. His coming-out story reflects the strong personal support network that's available to him. Yet every day, much younger gays and lesbians routinely come out without such social, financial and emotional resources. Their actions are bravery; what Collins did should be expected.
Barro's point, in a nutshell: There was no risk in Collins coming out, and there are many gay men and lesbians who aren't in Collins' position who might be kicked out of their homes and shunned by their family members for coming out. Even an historic feat like this one, Barro thinks, should come easy for a man with life cushions.
The Washington Post's Sally Jenkins, on the other hand, would agree with DeGeneres in measuring Collins's coming out. "Bravery takes a lot of forms, physical being just one, and a particularly unappreciated brand of it is social courage, which is the courage to to risk your place in the society you move in," she wrote.
What We Learned: Everyone — even gay rights supporters — define bravery differently, and everyone can get meta about the labeling of a hero, for better or worse, whether Collins wanted it or not. As Collins wrote in SI, "I don't let my race define me any more than I want my sexual orientation to. I don't want to be labeled, and I can't let someone else's label define me."
Jason Collins: Hero?
Being gay — like being straight — doesn't automatically make you any more heroic than the person next to you. That's not really up for debate, but whether or not Collins's announcement — as the first active player in a major American sport — makes him a "hero," well, that was an argument waiting to happen. And make no mistake: This is an argument, not some potentially useful conversation about bravery. Because, sure, it's all too easy to throw around the word "hero" as a show of support — Star Jones caught a little flack for comparing Collins to Rosa Parks as a kind of accidental "gay hero" on the Today show, but she qualified that under the important circumstances of "if it becomes a movement that equalizes people not based on their sexuality." But it's even easier to define down a hero when you're someone who already — perhaps dismissively — think being gay doesn't matter. We're not there yet.
Shapiro was on a trolling roll before his comments with Morgan. He was one of the first people to throw a wet blanket on Collins's admission:
So Jason Collins is a hero because he's gay? Our standard for heroism has dropped quite a bit since Normandy.— Ben Shapiro (@benshapiro) April 29, 2013
Never mind the fact that Shapiro has used the term "hero" to describe the likes of Newt Gingrich, Ted Cruz, and Adam Carolla. The 29-year-old Breitbart reporter wanted to take the shine off history. And he wasn't the only one. Take, for example, CBS College Football Today host Tim Brando:
I'm hearing Collins is a HERO because he made history! Ok as a Sports Commentator if I make a SEX tape is that history?The word matters ok— Tim Brando (@TimBrando) April 29, 2013
Sorry, we're still trying to erase the idea of a Tim Brando sex tape from our memories. But we think his point is not unlike Shapiro's point — that coming out isn't courageous or heroic because straight people never make a big deal about their sexual orientation. And Brando's crass assumption is that there's no real difference between coming out of the closet and making a sex tape — because, we guess, both announce what kind of person you take to bed, right?
Brando also began re-tweeting supporters who shared his view:
It's conversations like that which continue to debase us, which assume America has already arrived at some level of tolerance where coming out, setting an example for millions, and unwinding a path toward acceptance is, somehow, no big deal. Never mind that Collins plays in a league which still has millions of young fans and which, as recently as last June, had to hand out fines to players who think it okay to use the slur "faggot." (That word has been in no short supply the last week or so, but we'll spare you the references.) Brando's comments are an example of the wrong way to talk about Collins's coming out, the way that seeks public justification for private absurdity, not public discussion about private discussions. Conversely, Frank Bruni's wrote about the same idea in The New York Times — that being gay is no big deal — in a completely different way:
That’s the integrated way that things should be, the unremarkable way a person’s sexual orientation ought to be lived and perceived. And that’s precisely what Collins and his fellow trailblazers are trying to move us toward: not a constant discussion of the rightful place and treatment of L.G.B.T. people in America, but an America in which the discussion is no longer necessary.
The truth of it, as Bruni points out and Brando fails to address, is that life in this country hasn't reached a point where being gay is no big deal yet. And as Bruni points out, the harsh realities of bullying and hate crimes make being gay painfully so different:
I know this from my in-box, where some readers routinely tell me that they’d be less bothered by homosexuals if we’d just please shut up about it.
Many of us want to, and will: when a gay, lesbian or transgendered kid isn’t at special risk of being brutalized or committing suicide. When the federal government outlaws discrimination against people based on sexual orientation, which it still hasn’t done.
Perhaps the truest words on the topic of heroism and Jason Collins come from Spencer Hall, at SB Nation of all places, who believes there is more positive than negative done in Collins's decision to come out — even if there isn't a great word for that yet:
Debate whether he's a hero or not in your world, but he's leading by example for a small subset of people who need examples, and doing so positively: with love, and work, and still more work. The two are ultimately indistinguishable when done right, and what they leave behind is the capacity to pass that work forward.
What We Learned: We haven't reached total acceptance. Not nearly. And President Obama might not have called Collins a "hero," but he said it pretty well in his press conference last week:
One of the extraordinary measures of progress that we’ve seen in this country has been the recognition that the LGBT community deserves full equality — not just partial equality, not just tolerance — but a recognition that they’re fully a part of the American family. Given the importance of sports in our society, for an individual who has excelled at the highest levels in one of the major sports, go ahead and say, “This is who I am. I’m proud of it. I’m still a great competitor. I’m still seven foot tall and can bang with Shaq and deliver a hard foul.”
I think a lot of young people out there who are gay or lesbian, who are struggling with these issues, to see a role model like that who is unafraid — I think it’s a great thing and I think America should be proud that this is just one more step in this ongoing recognition that we treat everybody fairly. Everybody’s part of a family and we judge people on the basis of their character and their performance and not their sexual orientation. So I’m very proud of him."
If that's not a hero, what is?
At What Point Do You Call Someone a Bigot?
Some of the more negative reactions to Collins were just thrown out there as exercises of pundits' personal opinion, not public discussion brought upon us by way of informed professional observer. One of those was, now notoriously, the ESPN commentator Chris Broussard: "If you're openly living that lifestyle in repented sin whatever it may be — not just homosexuality, adultery... fornication," Broussard said, "I believe that's walking an open rebellion to God and Jesus Christ,"
Broussard's comments were met with pushback, obviously. "Hours after the first active male athlete in major team sports had come out of the closet, ESPN had reduced the story to depressingly modular dimensions—a piece of sellable controversy lying equidistant between two competing claims," wrote Deadpin's John Koblin in his piece "Why ESPN's Chris Broussard Came Out As A Bigot."
Greg Cote, a Miami Herald sports columnist for 18 years, wrote that Broussard was picking and choosing his religious talking points in his piece, "Reaction to Jason Collins shows bigotry will always lose":
The broader lesson: It just isn’t cool to be anti-gay. It isn’t right. Some might even seek their justification in religion, as when ESPN’s Chris Broussard on Monday called being gay "an open rebellion to God." But surely love and tolerance should be religion’s overriding message, no?
Both of those writers along with private non-published folk gone public, were quick to lob the word "bigot" at the likes of Broussard and Bruno. That's not to say Broussard didn't have defenders. Pat Robertson, who believes that gays cause meteorological catastrophes, said there was "nothing bigoted" about Broussard's comments about an "open rebellion" against God.
What We Learned: When are we allowed to call someone a bigot if labeling someone a bigot might arrive as fast we label heroes? Now that's a conversation worth having.
When Is a Closeted Secret an Open Secret, and Who Owns That Secret?
Despite his followup interviews, and his just scheduled appearance with Michelle Obama and Debbie Wasserman Schultz at the Democratic Party's LFBT Leadership Council gala later this month, and his promise in the SI story to march in a pride parade next month, Collins has maintained that his coming out was meant largely to be a one-time thing before he headed back into his private life and his public career. As he wrote in the SI story:
I've never sought the spotlight. Though I'm coming out to the world, I intend to guard my privacy. I'm making this blanket statement in part to keep rumors and misunderstandings at bay. I hope fans will respect me for raising my hand. And I hope teammates will remember that I've never been an in-your-face kind of guy. All you need to know is that I'm single. I see no need to delve into specifics.
Of course, media reporter Howard Kurtz had to go try and dig up "Jason Collins' Other Hidden Secret," which was, of course, erroneous, and which was retracted, and which cost Kurtz his job at The Daily Beast, even if Kurtz had it coming to him. But the original impulse for Kurtz's column was to take back a piece of Collins's own language, to suggest that Collins was being nefarious about an engagement to a woman, instead of honoring Collins's words, right there on the page. Kurtz's blog post was seen as an irresponsible attack though not uncommon attack faced by gay men and women, but in how we talk about Jason Collins, well, perhaps Kurtz actually explained it best on his CNN show Reliable Sources:
My logic about what happened between Jason Collins and his former fiancée and what was and wasn't disclosed, in hindsight, well, I was wrong to even raise that issue.
Which gets right to the heart of this whole thing: We should read closely, and think before we speak. We should raise issues that matter, and we should debate! We should worry about what has been disclosed, when it's disclosed, to foster more disclosure, more healthy debate.
Barkley, on The Dan Patrick Show Tuesday, talked about the unknown gay players on his teams back in the day — but also more:
I had several teammates, I probably had three guys I played with in my 16 years. But like I say, think about Jason Collins, he played on six teams, so six teams played with a gay guy. And so, everybody has played with a gay guy, you just didn’t know he was a gay guy. Cause until a gay guy comes out, it’s none of your business.
What We Learned: A gay guy came out, and it's all of our business now, apparently. We just need to be respectful of how we handle it, "Openness may not completely disarm prejudice, but it's a good place to start," Collins wrote in Sports Illustrated. After a rough start to the conversation, how we talk about Jason Collins and his historic followers next — well, that's up to each and every one of us, together.