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In first, NBA player comes out as gay

Outpouring of support as Jason Collins breaks barrier

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Gay News, Washington Blade, Sports Illustrated, Jason Collins
Jason Collins, Washington Wizards, NBA, gay news, Washington Blade, Sports Illustrated

Traded to Washington D.C. from Boston in February, with this week’s Sports Illustrated piece, the Wizards’ center Jason Collins becomes the first active openly gay player in history in the four most-followed American professional sports leagues. (Image courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

An NBA center has become the first male athlete who actively plays in a major American professional sports league to come out as gay.

“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center,” Jason Collins wrote in a Sports Illustrated op-ed that will appear in the magazine’s May 6 issue. “I’m black. And I’m gay.”

Collins, a free agent whom the Boston Celtics traded to the Washington Wizards in February, has also played for the Atlanta Hawks, Memphis Grizzlies, Minnesota Timberwolves and New Jersey Nets. He and his twin brother Jarron were also teammates at Stanford University.

Collins said the first relative to whom he came out was his aunt, who is a judge in San Francisco. He wrote he told his brother last summer; but he “realized he needed to go public” about his sexual orientation after Massachusetts Congressman Joe Kennedy, with whom he lived at Stanford, told him he had marched in last year’s Boston Pride parade.

The southern California native, who said he chose to wear the number 98 with the Celtics and the Wizards in solidarity with Matthew Shepard, the gay University of Wyoming student who two men beat to death in 1998, added the Boston Marathon bombings on April 15 “reinforced the notion that I shouldn’t wait for the circumstances of my coming out to be perfect.” He said he plans to march with Kennedy in Boston’s Pride parade on June 8.

“I’ve endured years of misery and gone to enormous lengths to live a lie,” Collins wrote. “I was certain that my world would fall apart if anyone knew. And yet when I acknowledged my sexuality I felt whole for the first time. I still had the same sense of humor, I still had the same mannerisms and my friends still had my back.”

NBA Commissioner David Stern praised Collins in a statement.

“Jason has been a widely respected player and teammate throughout his career and we are proud he has assumed the leadership mantle on this very important issue,” he said.

“We are extremely proud of Jason and support his decision to live his life proudly and openly,” Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld added. “He has been a leader on and off the court and an outstanding teammate throughout his NBA career. Those qualities will continue to serve him both as a player and as a positive role model for others of all sexual orientation.”

Retired tennis champion Martina Navratilova, who came out in 1981, is among those who applauded Collins.

“Well done Jason Collins,” she said in a tweet. “You are a brave man.”

The Boston Red Sox, Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers, Ricky Martin, New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and the White House also praised the NBA center.

“Kudos to you for taking a stand that will help untold numbers of kids and allies,” D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray said on his Twitter account. “As a longtime LGBT ally, I salute you.”

LGBT athletes continue to gain visibility

While he is the first active male member of a major U.S. professional sports league to come out, Collins is not the first athlete to publicly disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Former NFL players David Kopay, Roy Simmons, Esera Tuaolo and Wade Davis all came out after they left the league.

Former NBA center John Amaechi, former tennis player Billie Jean King, former Olympic diver Greg Louganis and figure skater Johnny Weir are among those who have publicly declared their homosexuality.

Former George Washington University basketball player Kye Allums came out as transgender in a 2010 interview with Outsports.com, an LGBT-themed sports website. Gay Puerto Rican boxer Orlando “Fenómeno” Cruz acknowledged his homosexuality for the first time last October. Baylor University basketball player Brittney Griner came out as a lesbian during a Sports Illustrated interview earlier this month after the Phoenix Mercury picked her during the WNBA draft.

Professional soccer player Robbie Rogers in February came out as gay on the same day he announced his retirement from the sport.

Former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo and Chris Kluwe of the Minnesota Vikings remain outspoken LGBT allies as they continue to speak out in support of marriage rights for same-sex couples and other LGBT-specific issues.

Cyd Zeigler, Jr., co-founder of Outsports.com, referenced Kopay, who publicly disclosed his homosexuality in 1975 after his retirement from the NFL, when he discussed Collins’ coming out.

“We knew this day would come,” he told the Washington Blade. “We didn’t know if it would be this week or next year. It’s a brave thing he’s done, and I get the feeling that, unlike David Kopay 40 years ago, this may open the door to many more in the near future when everyone sees this work out great.”

Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin agreed.

“With his brave and honest announcement today, Jason Collins has forever changed the face of sports,” he said. “No longer will prejudice and fear force gay athletes to remain silent about a fundamental part of their lives. By coming out and living openly while still an active NBA player, Collins has courageously shown the world that one’s sexual orientation is no longer an impediment to achieving one’s goals, even at the highest levels of professional sports.”

Jason Collins Washington Wizards screenshot via YouTube

Traded to Washington D.C. from Boston in February, with this week’s Sports Illustrated piece, the Wizards’ center Jason Collins becomes the first active openly gay player in history in the four most-followed American professional sports leagues. (Screenshot via YouTube)

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District of Columbia

Judy and Dennis Shepard discuss Nex Benedict, anti-LGBTQ laws at DC event

Nonbinary Okla. high school student died last month after fight

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Dennis and Judy Shephard speak at the Raben Group’s D.C. offices on Feb. 29, 2024. (Washington Blade photo by Amber Laenen)

Judy and Dennis Shepard on Thursday reflected on Nex Benedict’s death and the proliferation of anti-LGBTQ laws across the country during a discussion the Raben Group hosted at their D.C. office.

The discussion, which MSNBC host Jonathan Capehart moderated, took place less than a month after Benedict died.

Benedict, who was nonbinary, passed away on Feb. 8 after students at their high school in Owasso, Okla., assaulted them in a bathroom. 

Vice President Kamala Harris, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, House Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Republican Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt are among those who have publicly responded to Benedict’s death, which took place after they endured months of bullying. More than 300 advocacy groups have demanded Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters’ removal and called for a federal investigation into the Oklahoma Department of Education’s “actions and policies” that have facilitated a “culture where rampant harassment of 2SLGBTQI+ students has been allowed to go unchecked.”

“Parents are doing whatever they can to protect and encourage and support kids, and you have these what I call evil, evil people around the country pushing these laws,” said Dennis Shepard.

He noted lawmakers around the country are pushing anti-LGBTQ laws and other efforts that include the elimination of diversity, equity and inclusion programs. Dennis Shepard also highlighted an effort to defund gender studies programs at the University of Wyoming.

“[It is] the old white male, Christian geezers who want to go back to the days of the 50s when they had that superior arrogant attitude,” he said. “They’re losing it and they don’t want to, so they’re passing everything they can.”

“What happened to Nex is a result of that,” added Dennis Shepard. “They feel like Henderson and McKinney felt when they took Matt out on the prairie.”

Matthew Shepard died on Oct. 12, 1998, after Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney brutally beat him and left him tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyo. Then-President Barack Obama in 2009 signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which added sexual orientation and gender identity to the federal hate crimes law.

“If you’re considered different, you’re in fear of your life right now because you don’t fit in and it’s got to stop,” said Dennis Shepard.

Judy Shepard echoed her husband, noting this moment is “the last gasp of the fight against the community.” 

“In my heart, I know this is a moment in time, and it’s going to pass. But also in that time, all these young people, everyone in the community is afraid, but young people are being terrorized,” she said. “It just shouldn’t be happening.”

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U.S. Federal Courts

N.Y. AG joins multi-state brief in Colo. anti-trans discrimination case

Letitia James and 18 other attorneys general support plaintiff

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trans health care, gay news, Washington Blade
New York Attorney General Letitia James (Photo public domain)

New York Attorney General Letitia James on Wednesday joined a brief by 18 other Democratic state attorneys general urging the Colorado Supreme Court to uphold a lower court ruling against Masterpiece Cakeshop for anti-trans discrimination.

A customer, Autumn Scardina, sued the business over claims that it refused to provide her a cake upon learning that it was for a celebration of her transition. The case is not the first in which owner Jack Smith has faced claims of anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

In 2012, Masterpiece Cakeshop refused to fulfill an order for a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, which led to the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission — and a narrow ruling that did not address core legal questions weighing the constitutionality of First Amendment claims vis-a-vis the government’s enforcement of LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination laws.

“Denying service to someone simply because of who they are is illegal discrimination, plain and simple,” James said in a press release. “Allowing this kind of behavior would undermine our nation’s fundamental values of freedom and equality and set a dangerous precedent.”

She added, “I am proud to stand with my fellow attorneys general against this blatant transphobic discrimination.”

The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Scardina, noting that Smith objected to fulfilling her cake order only after learning about her intended use for it “and that Phillips did not believe the cake itself expressed any inherent message.”

The fact pattern in both cases against Masterpiece Cakeshop resembles that of another case that originated in Colorado and was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court last year, 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis.

This time, the justices did not sidestep the question of whether the state’s anti-discrimination law can be enforced against a business owner, Lorie Smith, a website designer who claimed religious protections for her refusal to provide services to a same-sex couple for their nuptials.

The court’s conservative supermajority ruled in favor of Smith, which was widely seen as a blow to LGBTQ rights.

Joining James in her brief are the attorneys general of Connecticut, Delaware, Hawai’i, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and D.C.

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U.S. Federal Courts

Fla. man found guilty of threatening George Santos

Gay former NY congressman expelled in December

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Former U.S. Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) (Washington Blade photo by Christopher Kane)

On Feb. 22, following a two-day trial, a federal jury in Ft. Lauderdale convicted a man for calling the office of former U.S. Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) in D.C. and threatening to kill the member of Congress and another person. 

On Jan. 29, 2023, Frank Stanzione, 53, of Boynton Beach, Fla., made a telephone call from his residence in Boynton Beach to the office of a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Stanzione left a voice message for the member that stated the following:

“[Victim 1 former Rep. Santos] you fat fucking piece of shit fucker. You better watch your mother fucking back because I’m gonna bash your mother fucking fucker head in with a bat until your brains are splattered across the fucking wall. You lying, disgusting, disgraceful, mother fucking fucker. You mother fucking piece of shit. You’re gonna get fucking murdered you goddamn lying piece of garbage. Watch your back you fat, ugly, piece of shit. You and [Victim 2 Redacted] are dead.”

The congressman’s chief of staff reported the message to the U.S. Capitol Police the next morning. The USCP began investigating the voice message as a threat and determined that it was made from a telephone number assigned to Stanzione. 

On Jan. 31, 2023, USCP special agents went to the address associated with the telephone number and interviewed Stanzione. USCP confirmed that Stanzione had left the voice message for the congressman. Stanzione found the telephone number on an online search engine. 

In a motion to dismiss, lawyers for Stanzione noted in the interview he told federal agents that “he feels offended by Santos and does not want him in his (gay) community.” He said he left the message to make Santos “feel like a piece of shit.”

The court filing described Stanzione as “a long-standing, active advocate for gay rights.”

In the motion to dismiss, Stanzione claimed his prosecution was “retaliatory and vindictive” and “based upon his exercise of political speech related to gay rights.”

“Others who have allegedly committed similar acts,” his attorneys stated in the motion, “have not been prosecuted.” 

U.S. Attorney Markenzy Lapointe for the Southern District of Florida and USCP Chief J. Thomas Manger announced the guilty verdict. The USCP – Threat Assessment Section investigated the case. 

Stanzione will be sentenced in May and faces penalties including up to five years in federal prison, a fine of up to $250,000, or both.

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