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Making History, Undermining Stereotypes and Changing the LGBT Equality Movement

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Last month, when Michael Sam made history by becoming the first openly gay professional football player, he also continued an interesting trend. Sam joined a growing list of black celebrities who have recently come out and become some of the most visible spokespeople for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. For perhaps the first time in history, arguably the most high-profile figures in the LGBT community are people of color. This has been especially noticeable in the sports world, where several prominent black athletes have recently come out as gay.

Last year, Brittney Griner, the number one draft pick in the WNBA, came out in a big way in her first interview after entering the league. NBA veteran Jason Collins also came out last year, becoming the first openly-gay active professional male basketball player. Recently, Derrick Gordon of UMass became the first active out male Division 1 basketball player.

This remarkable moment has the potential to be hugely significant for the LGBT movement -- as an opportunity to highlight the diversity of the community in a simultaneously organic and groundbreaking way.

Too often, the aesthetics of the LGBT equality movement have reflected an unfortunate -- and untrue -- narrative, portraying LGBT people as white and economically privileged and the black community as homophobic. This false narrative has been reinforced by the fact that white celebrities have overwhelmingly been the primary representations of the LGBT community in the media. Some commentators have even speculated that black celebrities are reluctant to come out because they fear backlash within the black community, fueling the unfair claims that the black community is somehow uniquely unsupportive of LGBT people. This pervasive myth has rendered non-white members of the LGBT community largely invisible in the public sphere.

This has been devastating for the ability of the LGBT movement to effectively engage LGBT people of color. As a result of this lack of representation and other missteps, the movement has been consistently criticized for ignoring voices of color, forgetting about some of our most troubled regions, shirking our responsibility to protect the civil rights of other oppressed communities and failing to address the needs of the most marginalized people in the LGBT community. Disingenuous attempts to repair this image have been rightly met with charges of seeking diversity merely for optics, and not out of a genuine commitment to the needs of LGBT people of color. While some organizations have made significant efforts, many feel the movement as a whole has still failed to fully reflect the true diversity of the movement.

But athletes like Sam, Griner, Collins and Gordon are changing this. By boldly coming out in such public ways, they have become -- for many people -- the faces of the LGBT moment, and they are challenging assumptions about what the LGBT community looks like. This is particularly meaningful for LGBT athletes of color, who will now see themselves reflected in the most visible representations of their community. The result is a changing expectation of how the LGBT movement will need to engage around the issue of race moving forward.

Michael Sam, Jason Collins, Britney Griner and Derrick Gordon present an opportunity for the LGBT movement to amplify the equality message, engage more people, bring in more movement resources and potentially expand our political power. However, capitalizing on these new opportunities must be done right, and it will require a new level of commitment and accountability.

For the equality movement to reap the full benefits from such sustained engagement, movement dynamics have to change to reflect a real investment in diversity and inclusion. This means doing more than just posting images of these black faces on LGBT websites or issuing congratulatory press releases. This requires shaping equality strategies that address issues important to LGBT people of color, having people of color at the decision-making table, allocating resources to underserved regions and communities and being better allies to other civil rights organizations.

This is an opportunity for the equality movement to grow, adapt and build a movement that represents the broad spectrum of LGBT rights community.

Right now, the LGBT equality movement's most visible and popular advocates are people of color, connected to some of the country's most troubled regions, with a national stage and authentic leadership experience cultivated independently of the LGBT rights establishment. This is not only historic; it's a game-changer. And it has the potential to be so much more for the future of our movement.