I heard a lot of talk Monday about how “perfect” Jason Collins, the basketball player who just came out, is. Perfect as in straight from Central Casting. (Or maybe I should say gay from Central Casting.)
He went to college at Stanford. Roomed there with Joe Kennedy III. Was in the same class as Chelsea Clinton, who tweeted her congratulations to him for the courage she said he was showing.
Seven feet tall, he’s strapping even by the brawny standards of the National Basketball Association, and his designated role on the court, as a human roadblock against the most physically imposing opponents, is an aggressive one.
“I’m not proud of it, but I once fouled a player so hard that he had to leave the arena on a stretcher,” he writes in the cover article of the new Sports Illustrated, the one in which he becomes the trailblazer so many of us have been waiting for: the first active athlete in any of America’s four major professional-sports leagues to acknowledge his homosexuality.
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He mentions his Christian values. “I take the teachings of Jesus seriously, particularly the ones that touch on tolerance and understanding,” he says, getting in a deft dig at religious extremists. And he notes that he hopes to start a family of his own.
But none of these biographical details, none of these remarks, stayed with me the way the first paragraph of the article, whose co-author is the journalist Franz Lidz, did. It’s built from three short sentences:
“I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.”
The gay part will now define him, in the public eye, more than any other. It will be the prompt for the loudest cheers he basks in and the nastiest jeers he sloughs off.
But in the opening paragraph, it comes after his age and occupation and race, getting no more space, in that one passage and for that brief moment, than other aspects of his identity. It’s a detail among many, but not the defining one.
That’s the integrated way that things should be, the unremarkable way a person’s sexual orientation ought to be lived and perceived.
And that’s precisely what Collins and his fellow trailblazers are trying to move us toward: not a constant discussion of the rightful place and treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in America, but an America in which the discussion is no longer necessary. He’s letting us focus on his gayness precisely so we can focus less on others’ down the road.
I point that out because I know that some conversation in the days to come, perhaps not public discussion but certainly private grumbling, will include questions about why Collins has to rock the boat, why the news media is paying such lavish heed to him and why gays and lesbians in general make such a fuss of things.
I know this from my inbox, where some readers routinely tell me that they’d be less bothered by homosexuals if we’d just please shut up about it.
Many of us want to, and will: when a gay, lesbian or transgendered kid isn’t at special risk of being brutalized or committing suicide. When the federal government outlaws discrimination against people based on sexual orientation, which it still hasn’t done.
When immigration laws give same-sex couples the same consideration that they do heterosexual ones. When the Defense of Marriage Act crumbles and our committed relationships are not relegated to a lesser status, a diminished dignity.
When a Rutgers coach doesn’t determine that the aptly ugly garnish for hurling basketballs at his players’ heads is the slur “faggot.”
When an athlete like Collins can be honest about himself without he and his co-author having to stress that he’s a guy’s guy, a godly man, someone who stayed mum about himself before now precisely so he wouldn’t disrupt his teams or upset his teammates, someone who has inhabited locker rooms for 12 seasons without incident.
When a gay person’s Central Casting earnestness and eloquence aren’t noted with excitement and relief, because his or her sexual orientation needn’t be accompanied by a litany of virtues and accomplishments in order for bigotry to be toppled and a negative reaction to be overcome.
When being gay doesn’t warrant a magazine cover or a phone call from the president, any more than being 34 or being black does.
If you read all of Collins’ article, and you should, you’ll come away realizing that the gay part of him was and is so big only because his world — by which I mean America, and by which I mean pro sports — made it so.
From now on, he says, “I want to be genuine and authentic and truthful.” Those are adjectives and attributes also worth dwelling on.
© 2013, New York Times News Service
Frank Bruni is a regular columnist for The New York Times.