When Jason Collins came out to the world and to the NBA, he said that he was black and that he was gay. Most people glossed over the first part of the statement and concentrated on the fact that he had just become the first openly gay participant in a major American sports franchise.
However, there's the fact that he felt the need to include the obvious fact that he's black. Why? Because black people speak in code. It's a cultural phenomenon that goes back to the days when we couldn't openly express an opinion of our own. It's like "the nod." If you‚'re black, you understand what "the nod" is.
He wasn't just talking to sportswriters, fans, players, and gay men. He was letting the black community know that he was standing up for himself as a man and that his family stood behind him, that they had not thrown him under a moral bus because of their own religious beliefs or fears.
What Collins did, I believe, in front of the sports world and beyond that to Black America, was to literally put himself between black kids and the ignorance and accompanying emotional and physical violence that comes at many of them from within their own families, from their peers, and from their churches. By coming out he threw a monkey wrench into a belief system. I'd bet that somewhere, someone is looking at their child differently. By coming out, he may have created a pause in an act of violence long enough for understanding to creep in.
It's hard to be black and a gay man. You can be black and a punk, sissy, or a faggot. Gay is code for white to a lot of black Americans. Black men who sleep with other men are looked at as being less than men. Being gay means you've abdicated your responsibility as a man in our community. We don't have a lot of role models and heroes — but the ones we do have are expected to be straight. That thought process gets hung up when you see a 7-foot, All-American center from Stanford who got picked up in the first round. That's not someone you can call "faggot" all that easily, is it? That's not someone you can tear down or humiliate. And if you can't pull him down, you might not be able to tear down your own child, your brother or sister, or that guy who lives down the block or sings in the church choir.
Collins stood up as a man and let his community — our community — know that you can be both a black man and gay; that the barber shop beliefs and the Sunday morning rhetoric about what a man is and what he is not don't work anymore. His coming out signifies that you can be a baller and be gay. That you can be a sports hero and be gay. That you can be someone to cheer for or follow up and down a court, someone color commentators and coaches can point out and marvel at, and be gay.
Kobe Bryant was fined $100,000 two years ago when he called a referee "faggot." And Bryant was one of the first pro athletes to publicly support Collins.
It does get better. Collins just made it better for a lot of kids in housing developments, projects, gated subdivisions, and schoolyards. He made it better for all of us. It's hard to be first. But thank God, someone was.
Doug Spearman is an actor, director, and activist.
More In This Series
Black, LGBT, American: A Search for Sanctuaries
Don Lemon: A Sense of Otherness
Wanda Sykes: On Being Real
Laverne Cox: Threat or Threatened
Twiggy Garcon: Ballroom at 14
Doug Spearman: Breaking the Code
Janora McDuffie: My Obligation
Aaron Walton: Angelic Troublemakers
Editor's Letter: Black and LGBT in America