When NBA player Jason Collins came out as gay this week, he was hailed as a courageous pathbreaker. It was, exclaimed headlines in nearly every national publication, the first time a professional athlete in one of the major sports had come out as gay while still active as a player. In Collins’s interview with George Stephanopolous on Good Morning America, the ticker at the bottom of the screen read, “FIRST PRO ATHLETE SAYS HE’S GAY.”
Except, of course, he’s not the first. Far from it. “Well done Jason Collins- you are a brave man. And a big man at that :),” tweeted Martina Navratilova. “1981 was the year for me- 2013 is the year for you :)” Emoticons aside, it was the tennis star’s way of reminding fans that, hey, some professional athletes have been out of the closet since Collins was in diapers.
Most of those athletes have been women. While a handful of retired male athletes have come out in recent years — football’s Wade Davis, basketball’s John Amaechi, baseball’s Billy Bean — some of the biggest names in women’s sports history are lesbians. There’s Billie Jean King, who was outed the same year as Navratilova. In 2005, major WNBA star Sheryl Swoopes announced she was in a relationship with a woman (although, after attending many a gay-rights fund-raiser with her partner, Swoopes announced in 2011 that they had broken up and she was engaged to a man). A majority of out-and-proud 2012 Olympians were women. And when No. 1 WNBA draft pick Brittney Griner came out last month, the news was covered by sports media, although Griner did not appear on the morning news talk shows or make national headlines.
The difference? Well, there’s the fact that the three major male sports leagues have much bigger audiences than any others, and thus, an out and active player in those leagues will receive a disproportionate amount of attention. But there’s something more subtle at work, too: We almost expect women athletes to not be classically beautiful or feminine, and therefore we’re not surprised to learn they’re gay. Male professional athletes, by contrast, are thought to be our most masculine specimens. So when they come out as gay, it seems they’re playing against type. Even more than with femininity, masculinity and heterosexuality are widely perceived to be linked. For all the progress that’s been made, there’s still a perception that the bullied gay kid is spending his after-school hours curating a Lana Del Rey Tumblr, not practicing with the varsity basketball team. The bullied teen lesbian? She’s the one on the court.
“Jason Collins didn’t even tell his twin brother until a week or two ago,” says my friend Megan Greenwell, a senior editor at ESPN: The Magazine. “With Brittney Griner, it seems pretty clear to me that people in her life are well aware, this was just the first time she’d said it to the national media.” Even to fans, her story wasn’t a shock. Some people had circulated rumors that the six-foot-eight Griner was actually a man — hinting that she didn’t compete in the Olympics because she didn’t want to be gender-tested. It all boiled down to a perceived lack of femininity. “Girl is six-foot-eight and has hands that are bigger than Lebron’s,” Greenwell says. “That is not something she can change. She could make an attempt to present more feminine. God forbid if you look the least bit butch, you’re going to be assumed to be lesbian.”
It doesn’t matter how many wood-splitting bears or miniskirted femmes we meet. Even for the supposedly forward-thinking denizens of the urban coasts, our notions of sexuality and gender roles are still deeply linked. These are tough associations to undo. And so when an athlete upends them — which is precisely what Collins is doing, whether or not he says as much — we sit up and take notice.
This is true even in the realm of women’s sports. Contrast Griner with the No. 2 WNBA draft pick this year, Elena Delle Donne: “She’s super-blonde, super-thin, does not look like a classic image of a female athlete,” Greenwell says. “If Elena Delle Donne was the one who said, ‘I’m gay,’ I think that would have blown people’s minds. I mean, Elena Delle Donne wore basically a cocktail dress to the WNBA draft. Brittney Griner wore a white suit chosen for her by Ellen Degeneres’s stylist.” In other words, even in the world of women’s sports, it’s the least conventionally feminine athletes whom we expect to come out as lesbians. This is not so different than when Navratilova came out in the early eighties. Granted, it was still a huge story — “I didn't have much public support and I know I lost endorsements,” she wrote in Sports Illustrated this week — though probably less because Navratilova was contradicting stereotypes of female athletes, and more because there were so few openly gay public figures back then.
After headlines touted a record number of gay Olympians last year, the gay sports website Real Jock attempted to explain why so few male athletes were comfortable coming out: “For men, the threat of homophobia may be greater than for women, particularly in team environments, where the fear of being ostracized may be particularly strong for male athletes. It may also be that men are more likely to perceive their gay status as undermining their athletic identities than are women.” After Collins made his announcement, ESPN’s Henry Abbott wrote, “Compared to women or gay men, heterosexual men lack practice coping with sexualization, and are easily alarmed.”
This is the real importance of Jason Collins’s coming out. His decision, and the generally warm reaction to it, are not about proving we can be okay with gay people — polling says we increasingly are. Collins’s bold statement is important because it is a challenge to America to accept even gay people who break with stereotype, to recognize that not every gay man is a rosé-sipping RuPaul’s Drag Race enthusiast and not every gay woman is a baseball-capped butch. Sure, some are, and that’s great. But not everyone. It’ll probably take more than a gay NBA player — or, say, a lesbian Miss America or prima ballerina — for us to fully learn this lesson, but such transgressions of gender stereotype are at least a start.
Or as Collins explained in his published letter: “When you finally get to that point of acceptance, there's nothing more beautiful than just allowing yourself to really be happy and be comfortable in your own skin.” He’s right — and it applies even more to gender than it does to sexuality. Just as his bold play may start the long process of decoupling heterosexuality and masculinity, the same can be hoped for women and notions of femininity, too.