Sexuality and sports make for a complicated mix. Throw in race and the persistent obsession with what it means to be a man in America, and the conversation becomes impossibly loaded.
That’s why it’s so significant for the NBA’s Jason Collins to come out. By telling his story–and doing so while he’s still an active player–the 34-year-old Washington Wizards alumn has created a moment in which racial justice and queer rights merge.
By and large, LGBT athletes push to be known for their performance rather than their sexual identities. But Collins has taken the risk of declaring himself gay, black and proud. Even with the early, public support of Bill Clinton, Kobe Bryant, Doc Rivers and other icons of American masculinity, it’s important to note that what Collins did isn’t easy. It sounds a bit cliche at this point, but our popular culture is rife with none-too-subtle messages that tell us that anything that falls outside of “mainstream” (read: straight and white) masculinity should be subject to judgement, ridicule, policing and exclusion. This idea impacts our attitudes, laws and who actually gets to participate fully in society.
So Collins’ coming out is a watershed moment in American sports and culture. But trust he’s not alone. In many ways, this moment has been in the works for years and has a diverse cast of characters. Below, a recap of the Collins pronouncement and a look at LGBT athletes of color who have helped pave the way.
Current NBA player
Collins, who last played with the Washington Wizards, let the world know he was gay on Monday, April 29, 2013 via a “Sports Illustrated” cover story.
“The recent Boston Marathon bombing reinforced the notion that I shouldn’t wait for the circumstances of my coming out to be perfect,” Collins told SI. “Things can change in an instant, so why not live truthfully?”
(Photo: Sports Illustrated)
Current WNBA player
Griner, who was selected as the first overall pick in April’s WNBA draft, will hit the court professionally this summer. During the post-draft hype, Griner sat down with the other top draft picks and talked openly about her sexuality. “Don’t worry about what other people are going to say,” Griner told ESPN, “because they’re always going to say something. If you’re just true to yourself, let that shine through. Don’t hide who you really are.”
(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Featherweight Orlando Cruz is among the world’s top five professional boxers. He came out publicly last fall, telling USA Today, “I have and will always be a proud Puerto Rican. I have always been and always will be a proud gay man. I don’t want to hide any of my identities.”
(Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
Dixon is an accomplished gymnast who came close to qualifying for last year’s USA Olympic squad. He came out to his teammates in college and then to “Out” in 2012. “Being gay was something that I hadn’t figured out or experienced before. I think it was something that I didn’t want to take on. I realized I have an obligation, a responsibility to say, ‘It’s OK to be gay in our sport.’”
(Photo: OUT Magazine)
Retired NBA player
Amaechi is an Englishmen who played with four NBA teams, including the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Orlando Magic. After retiring, he became the first NBA player to come out to the general public. He also published a book on his life as a closeted gay athlete. “It’s hugely important for the kids so they don’t feel alone in the world. We’re role models,” Amaechi told ESPN. “We’re adults, and we know we’re not alone but kids don’t know that.”
(Photo: CC/Greg Hernandez/Greg in Hollywood)
Current WNBA player and Olympic medalist
Augustus plays for the Minnesota Lynx and she won a gold medal playing for the USA at the 2012 Olympics. Last year she discussed her coming-out process on ESPN’s Outside the Lines: “I was on such a high note, as far as being happy with who I am, it didn’t really matter what anybody else thought. … It really was a non-issue. Every text, every call, every email, any time of communication I received has been positive.”
(Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Retired NFL player
Davis, who last played with the Seattle Seahawks, came out of the closet in 2011 after his football career ended. Asked what prompted his decision, he told the Huffington Post, “I started to realize that, you know what, there’s an opportunity here for me to really make and effect change, not only within myself but in the world.”
(Photo: SB Nation)
Retired NFL player
Harris played with the Oakland Raiders and San Francisco 49ers. Last year he was pushed out of the closet after an argument with a boyfriend made national news. Since that outing, Harris hasn’t fled the attention. “I want people, whether gay athletes, athletes still in the closet, or youths who are not sure what their sexuality is to know those are common feelings,” he told CNN. “Don’t feel alone in having them.”
(Photo: Getty Images)
Collegiate basketball player
Allums made history in 2010 as the first transgender NCAA baller to come out while still playing in the league, on George Washington University’s women’s basketball team. “If I were to give anyone advice who was a black, LGBT athlete, surround yourself with people who care about you, focus on your sport and never bring LGBT issues with you on the field,” he said in a GLAAD interview. “Who you are and the color of your skin, own it. Be proud of who you are.”
(Photo by Al Tielemans /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)
Retired WNBA player, Olympic gold medalist and Loyola head coach
In 2005, after retirement, the four-time WNBA champion, three-time Olympic gold medalist and the first woman to get her own Nike shoe (“Air Swoopes”) talked about her then-girlfriend with ESPN: “My reason for coming out isn’t to be some sort of hero. I’m just at a point in my life where I’m tired of having to pretend to be somebody I’m not. I’m tired of having to hide my feelings about the person I care about, [the] person I love.” (In 2011, Swoopes got engaged to a man.)
(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)