The country is all “abuzz” about Jason Collins’ historic announcement that he is gay. As the first active professional gay male athlete in the United States to go public about his sexual orientation, he has owned recent headlines across the country and generated an almost unanimous wave of support from the media, fellow athletes, celebrities and political leaders. Wow!
Who would have ever thought that admitting one is gay would generate a personal call from the president of the United States? How times have changed; how far we have come.
Even the likes of tennis champion Martina Navratilova, who suffered a less desirable 1980’s set of consequences from a similar public announcement, offered her congratulations to Collins. Unlike Jason, Martina did not come out in a post- Will and Grace world where the majority of Americans support gay marriage. How fitting then to see Jason acknowledge all that athletes have done before him and offer genuine thanks to Martina and others.
It’s in this same spirit of gratitude that we in this community should also look back and acknowledge our own contributions.
This week I read that Mr. Collins, the Washington Wizards’ No. 98, chose that number in honor of the year Matthew Shepard was brutally killed for being gay. It reminded me that 1998 was also the year that Miami-Dade County passed the Human Rights Ordinance in support of “gay rights.” And that, in turn, reminded me of individuals in this community that, like Martina, risked so much.
Yes, there is a healthy list of gay folks whose commitment to this effort undoubtedly made this community stronger — socially and economically. But there were also many local leaders who in spite of not being gay risked jobs and friendships, as well as the vengeful wrath of the Christian Coalition, to make this community and country the kind of place that now allows Collins a better shot at being a happy and honest pro athlete.
In what was a contentious and long public battle during the 1990s, local religious leaders like Rabbi Solomon Schiff, Rev. Guillermo Marquez Sterling, and Rev. Marilyn Hardy, among others, faced animosity in and outside their congregations for their opposition to discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Business leaders like Bill Talbert, Annette Taddeo, and Hank Klein faced heavy scrutiny and potential professional losses for taking a stand. Adora Obi Nwese, H.T. Smith, David Lawrence, Raul J. Diaz and others courageously stepped out in front of their respective communities to lead. And of course, elected officials like Alex Penelas, Raul Martinez, Manny Diaz, Jimmy Morales, and the beloved Katy Sorenson risked their political careers for our benefit and that of generations to come.
These examples of courage by no means reflect an exhaustive list of those who risked much and did their share. My hope is that all who stepped forward then and are now reading what at one time were hard to imagine headlines about gay marriage, adoption, and brawny 7-foot tall professional gay athletes can stop, reflect, and say to themselves, “I did my part.”
So, although Jason Collins is not likely to know what No. 98 means to us, he undoubtedly has benefitted from the courage, compassion and leadership that on Dec. 1, 1998 came together to secure sexual orientation as a protected class from discrimination in Miami-Dade. If you doubt the national significance of what happened in our own backyard, consider the front-page headline in The New York Times on Dec. 2, 1998: 2 decades on, Miami-Dade endorses gay rights. It qualified the Miami victory as having national significance 20 years after a similar battle led by then Commissioner (talk about courageous) Ruth Shack. The article quoted early “gay rights” supporter and former Miami Beach Mayor Neisen Kasdin as saying, “Let’s not retreat from our destiny as a major international city.”
Look around. Thanks to so many of you, we didn’t retreat from our destiny.
Jorge Mursuli, who helped lead approval for the Miami-Dade County human-rights ordinance in 1998, is a consultant in the areas of civic engagement and public policy.