At first glance, it may seem unusual for Jason Collins, a California native and Bay Area resident, to support a candidate for Baltimore City Council.
But Akil Patterson is not a typical candidate.
The former collegiate football player and Greco Roman Wrestler first came out in an Outsports story in 2010, where he revealed how his inner-struggle over his sexuality led him to abuse drugs and alcohol. Recruited to the University of Maryland as a blue chip lineman, Patterson faced ridicule from teammates and coaches — he says one coach asked him at point if he was “some fag” — leading him to transfer to the smaller California University of Pennsylvania. After more battles with substance abuse and obesity, Patterson eventually devoted himself to Greco Roman Wrestling, where he once ranked as high as No. 5 in the U.S.
His wrestling days behind him, Patterson has devoted himself to public service over the last several years, working as Athlete Ally’s Youth Programs director and a community advocate. Collins first met Patterson at the Athlete Ally Action Awards in 2014, and they’ve kept in touch about various issues and projects ever since. When Patterson announced his candidacy for Baltimore’s 13th District earlier this year, it was easy for Collins to support him.
Much like Collins, who became the first active openly gay NBA player when he came out in 2013, Patterson dedicates his life to helping people.
“At the end of the day, you would hope every politician remembers that human factor,” Collins told Outsports in a recent phone call. “Being able to try and put yourself in someone else’s shoes and saying, ‘How can I connect with them?’ Akil has a great way with his life story to try and connect with people on some level, and that’s something all of us should try and be able to do — be able to connect with someone on a human level.”
According to Maryland Matters, Patterson is one of six Democrats vying for the 13th District Council seat, running against Jacqueline Addison, Antonio Glover, Wesley Hawkins, Clarence Thomas and Raymond Wallace David. The incumbent, Shannon Sneed, is vacating the seat to run for Council president. The primary will be held April 28.
In addition to Collins, Patterson has also secured the endorsement of former NAACP President Ben Jealous.
Ravaged with poverty, Baltimore’s 13th District faces some pressing issues involving economic development and opportunity. Patterson has plenty of ideas on how to invest in the community, such as increasing transportation services (most of East Baltimore is without subway access). Without reliable public transportation, it is difficult for the community’s residents to find work, and hard for employers to reach them.
When there is a dearth of economic opportunity, Patterson says, crime follows.
“If there isn’t access to jobs, what tends to happen? Poverty,” Patterson told Outsports in a phone call. “Fixing crime sounds great, because you can say, ‘I just want the guys causing trouble on the street near my house to stop doing it.’ But if you think about it, poverty is the root of all evil. Martin Luther King, let’s talk about him: that was his message. He goes, ‘Wait a second, this is about economics. This is about the wealth gap.’”
Beyond policy, Patterson says he is running because he doesn’t want anybody to struggle alone. As a gay black man who struggled with his sexuality for his entire younger life, Patterson understands the value of mentorship. He was first drawn to the work around 2012, when he connected with former NFL tight end-turned-LGBTQ advocate Brendon Ayanbadejo to campaign for marriage equality in Maryland, which passed the following year.
The experience energized Patterson and pushed him towards public service. Currently, he serves as a member of the Baltimore City LGBTQ Commission, and would be the first openly LGBTQ person elected to the Council.
“I never want anybody to ever experience the loneliness, heartache and pain I did. I was depressed,” Patterson said. “I could tell anyone 1,000 times over, and they would say, ‘Be happy,’ or, ‘Get over it.’ They would also ask whether it was about school or sports, and I was like, ‘This is something I just can’t share with everybody.’ And when you go to share your story, sometimes you get told not to talk. I just never want anybody to experience that pain.
“When I do national advocacy — when it comes to HIV criminalization, when it comes to trans women who are murdered or working low-wage jobs, or just communities that have been marginalized — I know what it feels like. Because I can take that pain and put it in a compartment, and then just say, ‘I know what you’re feeling. I don’t know what this feels like, exactly, but I know that feeling of someone not being there for you, or not being able to help.’”
Collins shares similar feelings towards public advocacy work. Since coming out, the ex-NBA center has served as a leading voice for LGBTQ inclusion in sports, working with young athletes. Most of all, he says he’s endorsing Patterson because of his empathy.
“I think it’s very important for people who have a platform or achieved some level of success and are in a position where they can give back — whether it’s financially or with their time or with their words, whatever it is,” Collins said. “Try and see if you can make someone else’s life easier, or someone else’s path in life better. I think it’s very important for all of us to do that if you can.”