Every day, The Trevor Project hears from young people who struggle to accept who they are. This difficult journey to self-acceptance can be especially daunting when lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning (LGBTQ) youth search for public figures to relate to, but come up short. The isolation they feel is not surprising; there are only a handful of diverse LGBTQ people promoted by our mainstream media, and though there are many public allies, the voices of intolerance often seem louder than those who offer support.
To combat these negative messages, we must emphasize the importance of tolerance and sensitivity education that promotes an understanding of the LGBTQ community, as well as continue to empower LGBTQ leaders and allies to be public examples of hope for youth nationwide.
This week, LGBTQ young people found a new, courageous role model in NBA center, Jason Collins. By coming out as gay in his historic Sports Illustrated story, Collins has done more than publically accept who he is. Thanks to his bravery, more youth across the country who feel alone in their struggle can now know that a twelve-year veteran center of the NBA has struggled like them, experienced tough times, and came out strong.
Coming out isn't easy for a professional athlete. We can point to pioneers in professional sports who came out while still playing -- mostly women, and some men, like boxer Orlando Cruz -- but even superstars like Martina Navratilova or Billie Jean King still faced anti-LGBT slurs and hate on and off the court. Unfortunately, prejudice, fear and hate confront LGBTQ people frequently just for being who they are.
The tide may be turning. Though the sports world has historically received media attention for unsupportive comments about gay teammates, NBA Commissioner David Stern and Washington Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld took an encouraging and commendable step when they expressed strong stances of support for Collins. The two Commissioners join NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman in their solidarity with other LGBTQ athletes.
Jason's announcement is certainly an important step in professional sports and makes a positive difference for young impressionable fans and athletes. Yet, despite this progress, there is much more work to be done. Changing a culture of homophobia, transphobia and intolerance not only takes time, it takes education and a willingness to learn.
Jason got it right when he wrote, "Openness may not completely disarm prejudice, but it's a good place to start. It all comes down to education." LGBTQ youth face unique challenges that can be compounded by intolerance -- even if the hurtful messages aren't directed to them personally. Too often, the fear and hate directed at aspects of who they are by adults or team members they look up to can contribute to high risk behaviors, including possibly attempting suicide.
There are few major professional leagues, like the NHL, that currently embrace the need for education about the LGBTQ community as a necessary step in combating homophobia. Many more leagues still need to "come out" in support of their LGBTQ players, coaches, staff and fans. By acknowledging the importance of tolerance training and education in major sports leagues, the realm of professional sports can help reduce these harmful occurrences before they happen.
It is our hope that more athletes -- whether they are high school hockey players, college athletes, or professional team members -- find the courage and support that Jason has found. Sports leagues and organizations must continue taking steps to educate their players and coaches, and send a message to all athletes and fans that fear, discrimination, and bias have no place in team sports. Offering education to thousands of athletes is more than a huge step toward creating a culture of understanding for LGBTQ youth -- for some, the knowledge that they are accepted can be life-saving.
To learn more about Trevor's adult education programs, visit TheTrevorProject.org/Education.
If you need support, please contact the Trevor Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386, available 24/7 for ages 13-24.