At the risk of mixing my sports metaphors, basketball has hit the grand slam when it comes to publicly gay players.
In the past year, we have had our first publicly gay NBA player (Jason Collins); first in NAIA (Jallen Messersmith) and first in Division II (Derek Schell). The slam was completed today when University of Massachusetts player Derrick Gordon came out as gay, the first player in Division I history. Add in superstar Brittney Griner coming out publicly in the WNBA last year and basketball is running hoops around other major sports.
Based on public perception of what sports are most gay-friendly, it's a surprise that basketball has had so many firsts. Last year, just weeks before Collins came out, Outsports polled our readers to guess which of the Big 4 American pro team sports would have the first openly gay player. The NBA finished last at 4%.
I wish I could write something insightful about why basketball is taking the lead, but I suspect it's mostly random. We are talking here about people being publicly out, with their stories told in the media. We know there are many more athletes who are out to their immediate circle of family and friends and their team, but not beyond that. Michael Sam is a perfect example: He came out to his University of Missouri football team last August, but his story was unknown publicly until February.
Gordon's coming out, while historic and important, does not guarantee others doing the same. No one has followed Collins' lead in the NBA or Sam's in college football or the NFL since they came out. Coming out is intensely personal and everyone weighs a variety of factors unique to them: family, friends, the place they live, where they go to school, their team dynamic and many others. This dilemma was summed up perfectly by Brian Olsen, a former U.S. Olympic biathlete who is gay, in an interview with Ryan Quinn for Outsports:
"How many gays and lesbians are out to more than 10,000 people? That’s the exposure even the least competitive athlete in the obscurest of sports competing has. Is it fair to expect individuals to tell the entire world they’re gay? Coming out was a really hard process for me internally six years ago, and I had supportive family and friends. It’s hard for anyone. But to do so in a public way that could potentially result in the entire world questioning the identity you’ve just come to barely accept … that is something far more difficult and courageous than simply coming out to your friends, family, and co-workers."
While Gordon was inspired by Jason Collins, his coming out had much more to do with his own unhappiness in the closet. We often hear from people coming out that they are just tired. Tired of the hiding, the lies, the fears that their secret will be exposed. Taking the step of owning their story is affirming and powerful, as Gordon said in his interview with Cyd Zeigler about hiding the past four years:
"I was just afraid that if I was to go to a party or a gay club in Boston, someone might spot me. I was well-known in the Massachusetts area. I didn't want to do anything where someone could recognize me. It was the worst four years of my life. It was torture. I was just going around faking my whole life, being someone I'm not. It's like wearing a mask because everyone else was wearing that mask. Now that I’m taking the mask off, people can finally see who I really am."
Collins said similar things when he came out. Even gay athletes who were more comfortable with their sexuality still talk about the freedom they felt once they came out to everyone. The coach of Jallen Messersmith, a player for Benedictine College in Kansas, told his player that he looked more comfortable this season, which followed Messersmith's coming out publicly.
While athletes come out (or don't) based on their own circumstances, out athletes nonetheless serve as role models and a source of aspiration. Collins and Gordon both said they were inspired by athlete coming out stories they read on Outsports, which gave them hope that is it possible to be an openly gay player. While there is not a direct cause-and-effect in either case, reading about others in the same situation made them feel less alone. Other athletes who have shared their coming out stories universally express surprise and honor by how much feedback they get from other LGBT people, athletes or not, and how many of these people said they were inspired to come out to someone in their life.
Shattering stereotypes and perceptions means a lot to these athletes. When a Tom Daley comes out, many people roll their eyes and say what else do you expect from a diver? It's unfair to people like Daley, who are every inch the athlete and competitor as those in more "macho" sports, but it's a perception that takes hold, even in the gay community. For Gordon, showing he could play with the big boys and still love men is one thing he is hoping to accomplish.
"People think gay men are soft," Gordon said. I'm not. "Especially my background growing up, I was never a soft kid and I'll never be a soft kid. People think gays are very delicate. That's not the case at all. I know Michael Sam and Jason Collins aren’t delicate. My strength coach compares me to a pit bull. There's no softness in this body."
I don't expect Derrick Gordon to inspire a wave of other athletes coming out. It might be more like a trickle, but as time goes on and more and more athletes come out in more and more sports, that trickle accumulates, gains momentum and builds a wave of its own that is unstoppable.