As soon as I read the news that NBA star Jason Collins had come out as gay, I found myself preparing for the torrent of comments that will no doubt swamp message boards and social networking sites across the globe in the coming hours, days and weeks. Whenever a public figure or someone in a traditionally 'straight' arena comes out we get the same reaction from various sections of society. We get the proud, supportive people congratulating the person on making, what must have been, a huge personal step. We also hear from a section of the gay community who simply don't see the big deal and greet the news with a shrug of the shoulders. We obviously and unfortunately still have to hear from the homophobic minority who turn the story into a trolling opportunity and a way of showcasing their vile opinions and attitudes towards gay people. But we also hear comments from a huge section of society who simply say, 'who cares?'
It's 2013 right? Gay people are everywhere right? Who cares if a basketball player is gay? I tell you who cares; the millions of young people or older closeted gay, lesbian or bisexual people around the world who are still too scared to come out themselves.
I think to understand the gravity of Collins' announcement we have to think about this fact. Until Collins came out today there was NO OPENLY GAY ATHLETE IN A MAJOR U.S. TEAM SPORT. Just think about that for a few seconds. Sport is part of U.S. and global culture and therefore part of all of our lives in some way. And to think that until today the gay community was not represented in any way in major US sport is actually pretty unbelievable. To think that there is now only one gay athlete in a major US team sport is also pretty unbelievable. It's unbelievable because it isn't true. There are many gay athletes, both male and female in popular sport around the world but they do not feel able to let the world know. Why? Fear.
So when someone like Collins decides to take that step up on to the podium and stand in the spotlight, that will now undoubtedly shine on him, it is a big deal. It's not a big deal because people need to know that gay people can play sports and it's not a big deal because people need to know that gay people can be really tall. It's important because it's a first and firsts are hugely important.
Think back to 2009 when Barack Obama was sworn in as the first black President. It was a big deal. It was a big deal because it was a first and to dismiss that or not acknowledge it would have been ignorant. These firsts matter because they show progress. They give us a clear benchmark to assess where we are as a country, as a continent and as a world. Of course I am aware that to compare Collins to Obama may open me up to some ridicule. However, I'm not comparing the importance of their jobs, I'm simply suggesting that significant events in the journey of equality for any group are important and will be remembered in generations to come.
The important thing around Collins' coming out isn't really his coming out, it's how it will be received by teammates, the NBA and U.S. sports fans in general over the coming months. We all know that gay people can play basketball, we were not waiting for confirmation of that! What we were waiting for was for someone to be that 'first' person to stand up and be counted, alone, as one person. Collins might be feeling pretty lonely at the moment being the only openly gay U.S. athlete in a major U.S. team sport but he won't be lonely for long.
The reason that it annoys me when people dismiss these coming outs as 'unimportant' or 'no big deal' is because they ARE important and they ARE a big deal to many millions of closeted people around the world. When you live your life in the closet you're almost like an undercover agent -- constantly assessing the views about gay people from friends, family and colleagues. Listening for passive insults, outright homophobia or verbal acceptance of our sexual minorities. I knew I was gay at 15 but didn't come out until I was 21. I spent six years hiding who I was through fear of being rejected. I wouldn't have come out any sooner if there would have been an out gay basketball player but that's not the point. Closeted gay people will be watching the reaction that Collins gets after his announcement. They will be watching closely. It won't be the 'who cares?' or the 'what's the big deal?' comments that will stick in the minds of these people. It will be the vile homophobic ones and the messages of support.
In the 11 years since I came out I've become comfortable with who I am and can look back on my closeted period with a huge sense of sadness. The fear I felt from the assumption that all my straight friends and family members hated gay people and would therefore hate me, turned out to be unfounded.
Keeping quiet isn't good enough I'm afraid. Don't assume that everyone knows you have no issues with gay people. If you're straight, gay or bisexual and think that Jason Collins was brave when he shared something so personal with the world today then why not tell people? Change your Facebook status, send a Tweet, mention it to a friend. Take a step further and comment on a news article. There'll be plenty of anti-gay sentiments on there so why not offer a balance. Whatever you do, do something. You never know, someone that reads or hears what you say might just need it. Quiet acceptance isn't as powerful as proactive acknowledgement. We are judged on our actions and words and not on our opinions.