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Why Kobe Bryant’s evolution on LGBTQ issues was a really big deal

Kobe Bryant vowed to become an ally after he had called a referee a homophobic slur in 2011, and backed up his words with action.

Ireland v United States - USWNT Victory Tour
Kobe Bryant, a longtime soccer fanatic, was an enthusiastic supporter of the USWT and developed a bond with openly gay star Megan Rapinoe.
Photo by Katharine Lotze/Getty Images

When Kobe Bryant apologized for calling an official a “fucking faggot” in 2011, he vowed he would start advocating for the equality of LGBTQ people. Though Bryant’s original apology was filled with justifications — he said his homophobic language “should not be taken literally” and was “out of frustration during the heat of a game” — he went on to participate in an anti-discrimination public service video for GLAAD and promised he “planned to do more.”

Bryant backed up his words with actions. His evolution represented a seismic shift in terms of LGBTQ acceptance in the testosterone-filled world of male professional sports.

Bryant died Sunday in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, Calif., alongside his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven other people. He was one of the greatest players in NBA history, winning five championships with the Lakers and being named to a staggering 18 All-Star teams. He finished his career No. 4 on the all-time scoring list. (LeBron James passed him for the No. 3 spot Saturday, and Bryant’s last public statement was a tweet paying tribute to the Lakers point guard for this accomplishment. James, in turn, delivered a heartfelt postgame tribute to Bryant.)

The world mourned Bryant’s sudden passing, from NBA greats such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell to former President Barack Obama offering their condolences on social media.

Bryant leaves behind a complicated legacy, including a disturbing sexual assault case. But that is for others to focus on. As it pertains to LGBTQ acceptance in sports, his late-career advocacy symbolized a more inclusive NBA.

When Jason Collins publicly came out in 2013 — becoming the first active openly gay player in NBA history — Bryant honored his word and did the right thing. The all-time great extended strong support for his peer. “Proud of @jasoncollins34,” Bryant tweeted following Collins’ announcement. “Don’t suffocate who u r because of the ignorance of others.”

Bryant’s public embrace of Collins was a watershed moment in terms of the perceived acceptance of openly gay athletes in the NBA. Just two years prior, Bryant had verbally denigrated a referee with one of the most offensive slurs that can be directed towards members of the LGBTQ community. But when Collins came out, he spoke up for inclusivity.

That’s a really big deal.

Shortly before Collins’ announcement. Bryant admonished a fan on Twitter for doing what he did in 2011: tossing around homophobic insults. He was being a proactive and steadfast ally, just as he promised.

When somebody of Bryant’s stature stands up for equality, it makes an enormous impact. Countless NBA stars followed suit, including James, who’s continued to serve as an advocate for the LGBTQ community.

It’s apparent Bryant was just beginning an impactful second act. The 41-year-old NBA icon won an Oscar in 2018 for his short film, “Dear Basketball,” and was involved in a myriad of other projects. He continued to cheer on openly gay athletes, too, fervently applauding the U.S. Women’s National Team during their World Cup run. Bryant attended the kick off to the USWNT’s World Cup victory tour with his three oldest daughters, including Gianna.

On Sunday, openly gay soccer star Megan Rapinoe tweeted her condolences to the Bryant family.

“Heart going out to the Bryant family right now,” she wrote. “RIP @kobebryant.”

It wasn’t a professional necessity for Bryant to become an ally to the LGBTQ community. He could have offered his apology and moved on. Attitudes were different in 2011. When cameras caught Bryant saying the word “faggot,” for example, the game’s announcers chuckled and suggested taking the camera off Bryant “for the children watching at home.”

Bryant embodied the cultural shift towards greater acceptance for LGBTQ people. His voice was important, and evidence that personal evolution is possible.