Editor's note: Vince Pryor was an outside linebacker for TCU from 1991-94.
Initially I thought it was not surprising that the first active gay NBA player and the first out and drafted NFL player happened to be African American.
After all, African Americans are heavily represented in these sports. But then I asked myself what this meant for African American culture for these brave men to be the first out gay athletes. It isn’t that African Americans haven’t been first at other things. But when I thought about the negative stigma of gay men embedded in the African American culture, I was even more surprised at their courage. Although I was proud of these men for being first, I was even more proud because they are African American.
If these men were brave enough to be the first out gay athletes in their sports, what does this do to the stigma that I grew up with? And is there something shifting in our culture that facilitated it?
I am not an expert on African American culture. I can only speak from my own experience and what I observed growing up in San Antonio. In my youth, gay Black men were not viewed favorably. There weren’t many male role models and women in my family were often the heads of the household. But I often recall hearing the phrase "be a man" as instructive of what a strong Black man should be. Even though I wasn’t sure what this meant, it was clear that to not "be a man" wasn’t a good thing. So instead of learning what a Black man should aspire to be, I learned what a Black man wasn’t supposed to be. And the clearest message of this was that a Black man should not be feminine.
In general and while playing sports, I often heard the terms "punk," "sissy," "queer" and "faggot." I heard this in the locker room, in the classroom, on the street and even in church. Not only were these terms used in church, but they were also combined with a reference to going to hell. Music was not an outlet for me growing up either. The same stigma was reinforced in the lyrics of many of the songs I grew up listening to.
But what I remember most about that period of my life was playing sports with my older brother. He and my uncle were both great athletes and I remember wanting to be good at football and basketball like them. I idolized them and I tried to be like them in every way. To do this, I would try to outdo them in talking shit to demoralizing my opponents -- "get that faggot shit out of here" or "sorry, punk ass bitch!" Those were common putdowns and I got to be pretty good at making them.
After all, the fastest way to demoralize someone on the football field or on the basketball court was to call him a "punk ass faggot." Those words often led to fights, but it was necessary to blend in. At one point, I quit playing sports because the stress to keep this up was too much. Eventually, the desire to play was too overwhelming. But if I wanted to play I would have to restrict myself and do whatever was necessary to limit any kind of attention. Sadly, I think that stigma continued for some time.
Today, I’m encouraged that it is a new day. I’m encouraged by Jason Collins, Michael Sam, and Derrick Gordon. For Derrick Gordon, the University of Massachusetts basketball player, I’m hopeful that he was able to look to Jason Collins as a role model. When Collins came out, he was still unsigned. But then he was offered a 10-day contract by the Brooklyn Nets. When the contract was extended, it sent a very positive message that something was changing. This had an impact on Gordon’s decision to come out, and I know it would have made an impact on me when I was an active football player at Texas Christian University. This would have allowed me to realize that I could be out and that my dreams of becoming a professional athlete could be realized just as Derrick Gordon realized them.
I know that Michael Sam’s story will have the same impact on young Black gay men. The images of the Mizzou Nation supporting Sam affirm that times have changed. But what does this do to the stigma I grew up with? What do each of these stories do for the African American community and their views of what it means to "be a man?"
The success of Collins, Sam and Gordon provides a beacon and a road map. First, it sends a message to young Black gay men that they are not alone. Despite all of the negative language they’ve heard on the streets, on the field, in the locker room and even in their church – there is someone to look up to. These men are human, and being human means they’re not perfect, but who is?
But they provide a reference point. The idea that you are less than because you happen to be gay is not true. Rather, you will be judged based on your ability to play and contribute to the success of the team and not for who you love. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened to me if I had these men as role models. Maybe instead of waiting to the last game of my career at TCU to come out, I would have come out as a freshman. Maybe instead of only having a successful college career, I would have had a chance to be in the NFL. But I restricted myself because of the negative stigma that I grew up with. At the time, it was more important to belong even if that meant sacrificing who I was.
What Jason Collins, Michael Sam, and Derrick Gordon have done, not only for the African American community, but for society at large is remarkable. They have reset the rules of engagement. You don’t have to sacrifice who you are or whom you love. The persona that I believed I needed to take on to be a Black man is bullshit. Jason, Michael and Derrick have sacked that negative stigma forever.
Vince Pryor lives in Chicago with his husband, Alan Dettlaff. He played outside linebacker for TCU from 1991-94 and came out to his team prior to his final game. In that game, he had 4.5 sacks, still a school record. He told his coming out story to Outsports in 2011. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.