Congratulations to Jason Collins, the 34-year-old NBA player, for coming out as a gay man. Praise is due for his willingness to be a trailblazer. Yesterday was a good day for the cause of gay rights.
Mr. Collins is a relatively wealthy man. He spent months consulting with a who's who of the strategic communication establishment, with Lance Bass (!), with the Clinton family (!), with many others, and mapped out a strategy for his decision to announce his sexual orientation. (Oprah!) He controlled the timing of his announcement. He controlled, by writing an essay for Sports Illustrated, the venue. And he controlled the narrative. Broadly speaking, his social class is one that has grown to accept homosexuality. As a black man, he'll face more resistance from other black men, but his contemporaries (of all races) are very much like him: cosmopolitan, wealthy, and now in a professional environment that frowns upon homophobia.
Collins' experience is not the experience of most gay, bi, lesbian, or transgender people. Those who support gay rights should be wary of assuming that political victories and carefully controlled coming out experiments like Collins' represent the be-all and end-all for the gay rights movement. The pace of political progress has been breathtaking, but true social equality is far off. Coming out in many parts of the country is much more dangerous than it ever would have been for Collins. Many gay teens are abandoned by their parents. Many young gay men are entranced by the sexual liberation offered by coming out, and they're lured into a lifestyle that doesn't set limits or hold them accountable for their actions.
People like Collins and Ken Mehlman, the former RNC chairman who came out to me, certainly ought to be lauded for their decisions to let their public lives be defined by their sexuality; Mehlman's work with Republicans has been a major driver of recent political progress.
But they are not gay America. Gay Americans who come out don't get Sports Illustrated to pay them; many come out with virtually no support systems in place and find their way to cities where they very slowly work through the pain and shame and rage that life in a closet generates. To be honest, I don't really care about homophobia in the NFL or the NBA. I care about homophobia in high school gym classes or in street basketball leagues. Those homophobes do far more harm to gay teens than rich athletes who say stupid things about shower-sharing to someone like Collins.
I know of other professional athletes who live life on the edge. One of them is one of the best pro athletes in America today. They fool around with men, and they stay in the closet. They're universally admired by straight guys who otherwise might be quick to call someone a "fag" on the court or baseball diamond or football field. This athlete I'm thinking of is richer than Jason Collins, but coming out bears more risk for him and more potential rewards for the most vulnerable among us. When he comes out, if he ever does, THAT will be a story.