Don’t be fooled. Even in this day and age, the ordeal of “coming out” for a gay person can be, and more often than not is, traumatic.
In his Sports Illustrated interview out this week, NBA professional basketball player Jason Collins tried to put in words both the anguish of not being out, and the anguish of coming out. Neither is much fun, but the long-term upsides of doing it far, far outweigh staying in the closet.
At its core, what’s at stake for a gay or lesbian person is more than freedom, or relief, or honesty, but is personal integrity. Integrity as in integrated, one whole person inside and out. It’s what I found, in my own case, to be most important.
For otherwise honest and law-abiding gays hiding their sexual orientation, they are forced to live with a (perceived) horrible secret, draining an enormous amount of physical and emotional energy. It often involves a serious self-loathing, passionate desire to be different than you are.
Now, with the help of the Internet and the general societal acceptance of homosexuality, it has become a lot easier for younger gays and lesbians. It can almost be trauma-free. Still, there is a lot of fear and trepidation in even the most accepting of environments, because anti-gay prejudice is built so deeply into the backdrop of prevailing social mores.
But Jason Collins has done it, and in one of the most aversive environments condoned in today’s world: testosterone-laden all-male sports. He should rightly feel proud and empowered as a role model for countless others.
He was able to stand on the shoulders of the many activists and their allies who fought for gay enfranchisement during much more aversive times over the last four decades, and President Obama can take credit for accelerating the process by his decision to weigh in with unqualified support for full equality for LGBT people a year ago.
That led to a massive and rapid shift in public opinion, the public having been provided by the president a “permission structure” to make the shift. Many who shifted shared the attitude of Collins’ coach, the Washington Wizards’ Randy Wittman, quoted in the Washington Post saying, “Black, white, Jewish or Christian. Religion, sex. It’s all the same. Who gives anybody the right to judge anybody?”
But it is more than just tolerance or technical equality that’s at stake, as Obama affirmed at his press conference Tuesday. “The LGBT community,” he said, “deserves full equality, not just partial equality, not just tolerance, but a recognition that they are fully a part of the American family. … America should be proud that this is just one more step in this ongoing recognition that we treat everybody fairly, and everybody is part of a family, and we judge people on the basis of their characters and their performance and not their sexual orientation.”
Also reflecting this sentiment was a blog post by Wizards’ owner Ted Leonsis on Monday. He wrote, “Jason Collins made a tremendously brave announcement today. I spoke with Jason today, right before the Sports Illustrated article broke as a cover story on the web. I listened to him, and heard real strength and grace in his voice. He is a man of high character, a terrific teammate and is quite professional. My message to him was simple: ‘I believe what you did in being true to yourself shows integrity and courage, we are proud of you and I support you in every way possible. Good for you.’ I am also proud of his teammates (as well as all others who have spoken out) for their messages of support.”
“Being true to yourself” requires integrity and courage, and also provides them.
In our culture, “going along to get along” is the norm. Whether gay or straight, we can all learn from the example of Jason Collins, who will be remembered for this act of integrity and courage long after the statistics of any current professional athletes are forgotten.
He should make us all sit up and think, how much have we compromised our true selves just to slide by? Life is too short.