The loneliest people on the planet are those who are alone, without friends and family. Throughout history, being forced out of your community frequently leads to an early death, a cause for suicide. Banishment kills, but the opposite can heal. Is that why we tend to root for the underdog, those who are ostracized, left out in the cold?
What moved me when NBA player Jason Collins came out as gay is not so much what he said or did, but the response from the global community. I especially like former NBA star Charles Barkley’s reaction. “Big deal, we’ve always played with gay guys.” Barkley also added, “This is a great day for the NBA.” And this was said by a man from Alabama.
In fact, Barkley was one of the first to publicly support Magic Johnson 22 years ago when Johnson revealed he was HIV-positive. Charles is a good friend and I’m sure Magic Johnson considers him family too.
Barkley went as far as to say, “I’m disappointed in myself that I haven’t felt the same compassion for other people stricken with AIDS that I now feel for Magic.” In 2004, ESPN put Magic Johnson’s coming out as HIV-positive as the seventh most memorable moment of the past 25 years.
Other athletes who have come out as HIV-positive include: Ji Wallace, an Australian Olympic gymnast; tennis great Arthur Ashe; champion figure skater Rudy Galindo; and Olympic gold medal diver Greg Louganis. All are strong advocates for human, HIV and gay rights.
I am most interested in the reaction from the African-American community to Collins’ announcement. Many of my friends who are black and HIV-positive have shared their stories, and they’re heartbreaking. Now I’m curious to see how the general public, fans and athletes will support and treat Jason Collins. Support or banishment?
Within the HIV community the pendulum swings between support and banishment, and HIV’s stigma puts it squarely on the banishment side. Sadly, this is true also within the gay community. I’ve heard persons living with HIV described as “not clean” and “negative only,” terms that hurt and alienate. Of course, HIV and the gay community are solidly linked, even though gays were not the first affected. (We now know HIV has been around for more than a century.) The linkage is because the gay community was the first to take action. Rather than banishment, it chose to support.
A number of professional athletes have helped gay athletes decide to come out of the closet — and they did this in a major and vocal way, with gay marriage serving as the central issue for many.
Gareth Thomas, a professional rugby player in the UK, came out as gay in December 2008, most likely the first athlete in professional sports to reveal publicly he’s gay. Jason Collins is the first athlete to come out in a major American sport while still playing. I used to manage professional athletes early in my career and left the field because I was afraid that someone would find out I was gay and take it out on my professional athlete clients. I was afraid and retreated. That was in the mid-80s.
Let’s face it, most human beings are struggling with a tough life issue, and many seek to hide and isolate. In other words, they banish themselves because they feel shame. Self-imposed shame always is the worst kind, and the vast majority who emerge whole do so only with the support and help of friends and family – and, yes, strangers, too. Sometimes we find it’s strangers who understand best, and that’s usually because they also have felt shame. But that’s so not the point. It’s helping and supporting each other that’s important.
Now we will see how the world will treat Jason Collins after he revealed he’s a gay professional athlete. One day — and I hope it’s soon — being gay, black, and an athlete no longer is news. I believe in hope and still believe in the good in all of us.