For years we've heard about the mythical coming out of the "gay Jackie Robinson": The first publicly out male athlete in one of the big pro leagues. In one fell swoop he's going to change the face of professional sports and open the floodgates for other gay athletes, just like Robinson did for black players.
The problem is, the first out athlete won't be the gay Jackie Robinson. He can't be.
Robinson was a very particular man at a very particular time in history. When we talk about the "gay Jackie Robinson," I'm afraid we diminish both of those pieces. In the process, we set a measuring stick so high we inadvertently push gay pro athletes deeper in the closet.
Robinson first swung a bat in Major League Baseball in 1947. That was eight years before Rosa Parks sat in the "wrong" seat. It was 15 years before the University of Mississippi was forcibly de-segregated. The Civil Rights Act wasn't signed until 1964...eight years after Robinson retired.
This was all after black people had been enslaved for centuries, prevented from voting, and even called three-fifths of a person in the U.S. Constitution. An entire movement -- the Ku Klux Klan -- was still active not in stopping them from marrying each other... but burning crosses on their lawns and hanging them from trees.
Gay people in today's culture certainly face adversity. There's too much bullying in schools, we can't get married in most states, and in some places we can be fired for being LGBT. But when we have our first publicly out athlete, our civil rights movement won't be just starting like it was when Robinson took the field, it will be coming to an end.
Maybe if someone had come out in Major League Baseball in 1969, a week after the Stonewall Riots, some analogy could be drawn. Not today. When an athlete comes out, it will be after the LGBT community has fought through most of this. Depending on the timing, even same-sex marriage may be a done deal. That's a far cry from the environment black people faced in 1947.
While Robinson was the first black player to swing a bat in the Majors, the first out athlete won't even be the first gay player to do so. At least two men -- Glenn Burke and Billy Bean -- will have beaten him to it. We also know of at least five gay NFL players and one-and-a-half gay NBA players (Dennis Rodman has to count for something).
Aside from this historical perspective is Jackie Robinson, the man.
When Mariano Rivera retires at the end of this season, we'll never see another player wear No. 42 full time in Major League Baseball; Robinson's number was retired from Major League Baseball six years ago. It wasn't just because Robinson was the first, it was because he was the first with a bullet. Not only was he a six-time All-Star, and a two-time NL stolen-bases leader, and an NL MVP, but he was -- get this -- Major League Baseball's Rookie of the Year in 1947... the same year he was the first-ever black player in the league!
That would be like an NFL player coming out of the closet and winning the league MVP award six months later.
When we make "first out male pro" synonymous with the "gay Jackie Robinson," I'm so afraid we push athletes deeper into the closet. It reduces Robinson to the color of his skin the way gay athletes are afraid they'll be remembered for simply their sexual orientation. We don't know if the first out athlete will win batting or scoring titles. He might be a journeyman forward in the NBA or a second-string cornerback in the NFL. Being compared to the athletic prowess of a Jackie Robinson -- It's a lot of expectation for most athletes to live up to.
More importantly, we heap a world of pressure on the shoulders of that athlete. We talk about how he's going to change the world, how he will be a transformational figure in the fight for LGBT equality. He'll help stop teen suicide and slow the scourge of bullying. LGBT organizations are already positioning themselves to lock up a relationship with that player and make him their poster child.
I've been a part of this hype. But I've come to realize... it's not right. The first gay pro male athlete will be just that. Maybe he'll be a future Hall of Famer, maybe not. Maybe he'll want to speak out on equality, maybe not. Maybe he'll volunteer his time at the Trevor Project, campaign for same-sex marriage rights and tear down homophobia across professional sports.
Then again, maybe he'll just be a guy who wants to catch touchdowns, shoot hoops, and live his life without any more fear.
We'll never have a gay Jackie Robinson. That time has passed. What we'll have is a brave man who chooses something bigger for himself, someone who chooses to live his life in the open. He'll be part of the conversation, but we can't expect him to be what a black man was in baseball in 1947.
He won't set anyone free except himself. That should be enough for all of us.