About 10 minutes after Jason Collins’ coming-out essay in Sports Illustrated hit the internet, one thing became clear: No statement, however sincere, is sacred in the social age. Even an essay as heartfelt as Collins’ — and heartfelt it is — has to endure the commentary, chatter, analysis, and white noise that are now integral to the way we experience national news. Some people, gay voices among them, found his essay to be “awkward” and “wishy-washy.” Others have taken issue with his professed rejection of the “gay stereotype.” To say nothing of the inane comments made by Chris Broussard and Howard Kurtz among others.
Such chatter is to be expected, but there’s one particular strain of comments that I’ve found especially noteworthy. More than a few people have questioned, chafed, and commented on Collins’ decision to identify himself as a black gay man — rather than simply as a gay man. And that’s where I step into the ring.
The most essential parts of our being are also the most difficult to explain to others. Perhaps that’s why Collins stuck to such simple declarative sentences: “I’m black. And I’m gay.” As a gay black man myself, I can’t even begin to discuss the significance of Collins’ statement without pulling “double consciousness” into the conversation. As W.E.B. Dubois wrote in 1903 in The Souls of Black Folk, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
Dubois’s notion of “double-consciousness” speaks to the tension between being black and American; the collision of identities that, to put it lightly, have a complicated history. “Two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings,” continues Dubois. Sounds complicated right? It is. And the only thing that’s more complicated is facing those “two unreconciled strivings” while also dealing with a third: being gay. In other words, being black and gay is a difficult dance and often a lonely one. The only way to figure out the dance steps is to connect with people who also know the choreography. Collins has positioned himself as one of those people. That’s a huge step for his own personal journey, but also to countless black gay youth who can now look to him as a role model.
We cannot dismiss what it means for young LGBT kids of color to grow up watching a world-class athlete who lives and loves just like they do. When Collins says that he’s a black gay man; he’s saying, just loud enough for the people who need it most to pick up the frequency, “Hey, I’ve been there. I get it.” And, for young people struggling to figure out who they are or might be, such a statement can be a lifeline.
The closet is a ghastly place to live; the longer you’re in there, the more torturous it becomes. You fear that you’re alone, that being out and happy and accepted all at once is impossible, that coming out will ruin everything.
Every LGBT person confronts those fears. But LGBT people of color have to face those fears as well as all the other challenges awaiting any person of color trying to make it in America. That is a hell of a lot to stare down.
When I was growing up in North Texas, I was fortunate enough to have an older cousin come out as trans when I was fourteen. I watched her with a sense of awe. It’s hard to explain, even now, just how much it meant to witness her ferocity as I was struggling to come to terms with my own sexuality. I’m lucky to have my cousin as a queer role model, but having a role model shouldn’t be a matter of luck.
Role models give kids tangible examples of possibilities. And as cultural critic bell hooks has noted, “oppression means the absence of choices.” LGBT representation on television has come a long way since “Will and Grace,” but everybody isn’t going to identify with Chris Colfer or Neil Patrick Harris. The “It Gets Better” videos are great, but have you noticed how few black men appear in them? The fewer choices queer youth have for role models, the more vulnerable they are to the idea that being a successful and proud black, gay male is not a possibility.
We all need and deserve diverse examples of people who have already stared down the darkness. We need to see out gay people of all colors, creeds, and classes thriving on the basketball courts and football fields; we need to see them delivering closing arguments in landmark legal cases and announcing breakthroughs in scientific discoveries; we need to see black gay men on stage, on television, and movie screens, behind the lectern, in the spotlight, and everywhere else a queer kid might hope to end up one day.
Jason Collins didn’t just step out of the closet. By proudly introducing us to his whole self, Collins has become, for countless people, a threshold to a new way of thinking.
Thanks, Jason. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.
I invited black gay men to submit their photos and introduce themselves as well.