Last Sunday, Jason Collins became the first openly gay man to play in one of America’s four major sports leagues (NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL). The Brooklyn Nets signed Collins to a 10-day contract on Sunday and he played in a game against the Los Angeles Lakers later that night. Collins had already played in the NBA for 12 seasons, but this was his first game since his announcement in April 2013 that he is gay.
As I expected, Collins had no problems with his Nets teammates. Granted, his situation is unique because he played with the Nets for the first six years of his career and has played for several other teams as well, so he had already been teammates with many of the Nets players, as well as with its coach, Jason Kidd. Thus, these players know Collins, so it is just silly to assume that they will have a problem being around him or showering with him (which is always mentioned in the media as a supposed fear of players).
Michael Sam, a standout University of Missouri football player and NFL prospect, shocked many across the nation when he announced earlier this month that he is gay. Many people were also surprised when he revealed that he told his teammates in August 2013 before the start of his senior season. Not only did he play with his teammates as an openly gay player all season, but he and his team thrived. He had his best season by far, was named the SEC co-defensive player of the year, and his team had its best season in school history. Thus, having an openly gay player certainly didn’t hurt the camaraderie or success of Missouri’s team.
While everyone clearly notices that Collins and Sam are African American, no one wants to explicitly mention race. After all, popular logic concludes that coming out stories are about sexual orientation, not race. That sounds good in theory, but in reality, as LGBT people of color we do not have the luxury of ignoring one aspect of our identity when embracing another. Even when we do not mention race, it often plays a role.
I cannot personally speak to the role that race played with Collins or Sam, but I can speak to the role that race plays in public perception of how they or other similarly situated people would be treated. When Collins came out, what was often left unsaid, was that people could not imagine that a league with an overwhelming majority of African-American players would accept him. After all, the NBA is full of black men and black men are “known” to be homophobic, right? While there were sentiments about homophobia in sports across the board, many seemed to feel that it had to be worst in a league with the NBA’s demographics. Most did not say it directly, but sentiments like these were sometimes expressed in the comments section of articles about Collins and Sam. Despite this stereotype, after Collins came out, many NBA players expressed public support for him and while a few players made homophobic comments, they were clearly in the minority.
These beliefs are probably one of the reasons people were surprised that Sam came out to his teammates before his senior season. Of course, to be fair, many were also surprised because it is hard to maintain privacy in the age of social media, so some folks were stunned that an entire football team could know and it not be revealed publicly.
Don’t get me wrong, a large element of surprise in Sam’s case is because he plays football and, race aside, football players are generally regarded as the toughest athletes. Thus, Sam’s coming out challenged people to address their stereotypes about gay men. The racial composition of Missouri’s football team only adds to the surprise. While Missouri’s football team does not have the percentage of African-American players as an average NBA roster, it still has a large number of African-American players.
I wrote an op-ed for the Blade after the Maryland electorate upheld marriage equality in 2012, dispelling many myths about African-Americans being more homophobic than other races. Simply put, my research, with a statistical vote breakdown of every county in Maryland, indicates that marriage equality never would have passed in Maryland if African-Americans had overwhelmingly voted against it.
To quote what I wrote after the election: “Out of Maryland’s 24 counties, predominantly African-American Baltimore City had the third highest percentage of those in favor of marriage equality with 57.5 percent. Predominately African-American Prince George’s County had the 8th highest percentage in favor of marriage equality with 48.9 percent. Contrast that with majority white Caroline County, where only 37 percent voted in favor, Dorchester County, where only 36.9 percent voted in favor, and Somerset County, where 34.1 percent voted in favor.”
This is not to say that there is not homophobia in the African-American community. Rather, it is to say that stereotypes that African-Americans are more homophobic than other communities have not been proven to be true.
Lateefah Williams’ biweekly column, ‘Life in the Intersection,’ focuses on the intersection of race, gender and sexual orientation. She is a D.C.-based political and LGBT activist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her at @lateefahwms.