Ninety-Eight

Until this week, the name Jason Collins meant nothing to me.

Now that Collins has become the first active player in the four major American sports to announce that he is gay, he means next to nothing.

So far as I can tell, Collins and I have exactly one thing in common.  We’re both single.

OK, maybe two.

In 2007, when John Amaechi became the first retired NBA player to come out, Real Time host Bill Maher asked him whether, while he was still playing, he ever sought to form any kind of support group with fellow closet cases within the league.  Amaechi answered in the negative, espousing his view that being gay is not a sufficient qualification for forming friendships, even in the uber-macho world of the NBA.

As someone who tends not to forge bonds with people with whom I would seem to have much in common, I have long appreciated Amaechi’s sentiment on this subject, and it returned to me as I learned the story of Collins, who seems to understand the same, crucial insight.

That is:  Not all gay people are the same, and we should stop acting as if they were.

“I go against the gay stereotype,” Collins writes in this week’s issue of Sports Illustrated, “which is why I think a lot of players will be shocked:  That guy is gay?”

I know what he means.  When I finally spilled the beans about myself to family and friends, it was partly to find out if any of them had assumed or suspected my gayness the whole time.  The answer, to a person, was that the thought had never occurred to them.  After all, I enjoyed sports and gangster movies, and had absolutely no sense of fashion.  What was there to suspect?

Yet I was gay all the same—still am, in fact—and so are a whole bunch of guys and gals whose interests and ways of life would not necessarily signal as much to the outer world.

As Collins now teaches us, it is possible to land a three-pointer and be attracted to men at the same time.  Who knew?

Of course, a wide spectrum of interests by gay folks does not necessarily correlate to a wide spectrum of experience.  In point of fact, to grow up gay in America very nearly fates one to a handful of events, feelings and inner torments that few homosexuals manage to avoid, and virtually no heterosexuals experience in quite the same way.

Yet even here, the homogeneity of homosexuality is not quite as pronounced as it perhaps used to be.

When blogger Andrew Sullivan was asked by a reader why he had not contributed a personal testimonial to the It Gets Better Project—an initiative to console schoolchildren bullied for being gay—Sullivan responded that, in his own adolescence, he simply did not experience the sort of antigay torture that so many young people do and did.  That, in fact, he quite enjoyed his high school years, in spite of spending nearly all of them in the closet, with all the internal torment that that entails.

I suspect Sullivan’s story rings true for at least as many fellow gays as those for whom it does not.

One term that bounces around the gay community quite a lot—particularly on dating sites—is “straight-acting.”  It refers to the phenomenon of a homosexual behaving in such a way as to lead people to assume he is heterosexual, even if such a disposition is, for him, completely natural.

The whole concept is ludicrous, as the world has slowly but steadily come to realize.  If I am gay and I carry myself in a masculine fashion, then I am acting like a gay person with a masculine disposition.  That is to say, I am behaving the way a person who is me behaves.  If the rest of the world can only process this through the prism of sexuality, that is not my problem.

Accordingly, Jason Collins is quite right in requesting that he be judged as an individual, and not on the basis of his sexuality, his skin color or any other characteristic that has no particular bearing on his character or his basketball-playing skills.  That if the NBA community—players, fans and executives—would honor that simple plea, Collins will honor the community’s hope—spoken and unspoken—that this week marks both the first and last time that his homosexuality is a subject of public discussion.

I think that’s a fair trade.

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