Why Anyone Can Look Up To Jason Collins

Jason Collins broke ground when he came out in a Sports Illustrated editorial on Monday, April 29th. He is the first active NBA player to talk about being gay, and people have wasted no time in showing their support for him--including President Obama, who tweeted and personally called the 34-year-old Wizard center to say how proud he was.

Collins' first interview was with ABC's George Stephanopoulos, who prompted the 34-year-old center to comment particularly on the support from tennis legend, Martina Navritalova, who came out in 1981. According to the Associated Press, Collins told ABC he was overwhelmed when Navritalova said his coming out would "save some kids' lives." Collins said he  looks at her as one of his heroes, regarding the "dignity and class that she's lived her life and all that she's achieved in her career." "She is my role model," he said. "Hopefully going forward I can be someone else's role model."

There were, of course, those who said Collins' coming out was more sinful than courageous, and there were those who furrowed their brows and wondered why the former Celtics center is being hailed as a hero at all.

Collins' coming out isn't a celebration of homosexuality; it's a declaration of unabashed self-acceptance in unfamiliar territory. You don't have to be gay to struggle with the things gay people often struggle with. I'll bet everyone has been outnumbered, bullied, scared, and weighed down with what someone else thinks you should or should not be. You take a group of Atheists with a closeted Christian, and that Christian will have to "come out," knowing the majority of her peers are markedly different from her.

Before we accept we're different, our unique-ness scares us. It looms like a dormant illness, or a vulture perched over our shoulder, waiting to pick apart our resolve when we're too weak to wave it away. After we own it, declare it, defend it, and maybe even laugh at it, the thing that marks us as "other" loses its talons.  The bent and menacing form becomes maleable and smooth so that we can either wear it like armor, or cradle it in one hand. Collins' coming out is the beginning of this journey, as it is for Robbie RogersOrlando CruzMegan Rapinoe, and Alan Gendreau, all who came out last year, and as it was for Matthew Mitcham, who came out in 2008, and John Amaechi, who came out in 2007. He may not be the only athlete to come out, but he is the first to come out while playing in a major sport. Coming out is difficult in itself; to come out on the platform from which Collins did, is remarkable. His bravery is a model for others to follow and deserves our attention and support.

The real code of a hero is to exercise an influence that fosters self-respect and love in the face of fear and adversity. Without a sense of self-worth, we lose our will to live. That's what Martina Navritalova meant when she told Collins he saved someone's life. By being the first athlete to come out while actively playing in a major sport, he likely invoked courage in someone else. A young person watching him is thinking, "If he can come out to the entire NBA and to the world, then I can certainly stand up for myself at school." Courage is contagious and Collins is spreading it.

In his Sports Illustrated editorial, he wrote, “I want to do the right thing and not hide anymore. I want to march for tolerance, acceptance and understanding. I want to take a stand and say, ‘Me, too.’” Those last two words are what anyone who has been excluded, regardless of orientation, wants to say. Most of us just need someone to say it first, a role model to show us the water is fine. Those of us who ever needed a hero--or still need one--should be grateful, because we can find one in Collins.

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