Jason Collins received kudos from the president, first lady, a former president and many others for having the courage to break one of America's last great barriers. He became the first openly gay active player in one of America's major professional sports. Collins has handled the situation with pure class, and refreshingly, the sports world has, for the most part, responded in kind.
In addition to the doors Collins has potentially opened for other lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender athletes with his announcement, the grace he has displayed has hopefully closed the door on one cultural pastime: outing.
After this year's Super Bowl, the first in which there were players vocally expressing support for LGBT Americans, speculation began that perhaps an NFL player, or two or three, might soon be ready to publicly acknowledge being gay. This then led to further speculation regarding who those players might be. Recently, certain outlets began openly naming one player in particular, whom I will not be naming in this piece. The reason? Because I don't understand the purpose of outing and never have.
Let me clarify. I certainly didn't shed any tears when conservative Sen. Larry Craig was caught in a compromising position in a men's bathroom and was subsequently accused by a number of men of having been caught in similarly compromised positions before. I shed no tears because Craig had a record of actively opposing LGBT rights, including anti-discrimination measures, as an elected official. Therefore, his apparent hypocrisy made his sex life very relevant. But I have never understood how it is relevant beyond that limited set of circumstances.
Yet in the past several years, outing has become almost accepted practice. In 2008 the appropriately titled LGBT publication Out placed images of Anderson Cooper and Jodie Foster on the cover of its "Power 50" issue. Neither had publicly intimated that he or was gay at that point. To be clear, neither had ever denied being gay, either. Apparently some people had a problem with that. But here's a question: Why?
When I interviewed CNN anchor Don Lemon years ago, the day he publicly acknowledged being gay, I asked him to help me understand, as a straight American, what I view as a blatant double standard between the respect and privacy heterosexuals are allowed, versus what gay Americans are granted today.
For instance, public figures who are perceived as being straight are given the leeway to say things like, "I'd prefer not to discuss my private life." The reaction is usually, "Good for him [or her] for preserving some semblance of normalcy in the age of Twitter and staged paparazzi shots." But if there is even the slightest speculation that a celebrity might not be straight, then "I'd prefer not to discuss my private life" is interpreted by some members of the media and LGBT community as "He's obviously ashamed of who he is and has a duty to the entire community to be out and proud!"
Again, my question is, why?
I have had a number of conversations with gay friends -- some of whom are public figures -- on this very topic, with all of them having varying perspectives. But during our interview, Lemon gave one of the most thoughtful answers I have heard on the topic, which I will do my best to paraphrase here. He essentially compared being closeted today to a black person's passing for white 50 years ago. You may not be actively lying, but you are being complicit by not vocally speaking the truth and thereby being a default beneficiary of a discriminatory system.
I see his point. But speaking as a black American (which Lemon is as well), I can't say that I entirely agree. Had I been alive during the civil rights movement and someone said to me, "You know, it turns out I know President Johnson's cousin. The president is actually part black," my instinct probably would not have been to out him on the cover of Jet magazine but, rather, to let him live his life -- trying to help me get my rights as the civil rights pioneer he was -- and then, when he was ready to come out as a black American on his own terms, to support him doing that. (As a historical side note, it is widely rumored that President Warren G. Harding was part black. Opponents tried "outing" this secret, which Harding pointedly never denied but merely laughed off.)
Now, if the same person had told me decades ago that Strom Thurmond had a black daughter and had proof, I wouldn't have been able to print that news on the cover of Jet quickly enough. This revelation, which was confirmed within the last decade, proved that Thurmond, one of the most outspoken racists of the last century, was a hypocrite. Because he was a government official who affected civil rights legislation, the public definitely had a right to know. Just as the public had a right to know that the late Rep. Henry Hyde, who was prosecuting President Clinton for the Lewinsky scandal, was also having an affair, just like the president he was condemning.
But when there is no hypocrisy involved, outing is really nothing more than bullying. Which is ironic, because some of the same individuals, outlets and institutions promoting outing likely decry the bullying of gay students in schools.
Everyone has a right to find and declare his own identity in his own way, in his own time and on his own terms. Jason Collins found the right moment for him to tell the world his truth. Because of him, the journey will hopefully be a little easier for the next gay athlete who comes out.
But perhaps an even more important part of his legacy will be that Collins proves that the most effective role models are those who have embraced being one, not those forced into the role by others who feel it is owed to them. Here's hoping that his courageous move will not only inspire others to show equal courage but also inspire the public at large to display more compassion and kindness toward those who are not quite ready to follow Collins' lead yet but who may be one day.
Keli Goff is The Root's political correspondent.