When I awoke early Monday morning, there were 25 text messages waiting on my phone. My heart raced, wondering if something awful had happened in my family.
My friends were asking how I felt about the big news: NBA center Jason Collins, in an act of courage and grace, had come out as gay.
Over the past dozen years, I have answered the same question a thousand times. “When will an active male athlete in one of the four major professional sports come out?” Over and over, I said the same thing. “I’m hopeful it will happen soon, but I honestly don’t know.”
Since I, a retired major league ballplayer, came out as a gay man in late 1999 while living in Miami Beach, the world has changed dramatically. The military’s don’t ask/don’t tell policy was scrapped. Marriage equality advanced in the courts and at the ballot box. But no active professional athlete in baseball, basketball, football or hockey had announced they were gay.
I’ve never met Jason Collins, but on Monday he became my brother. He said in his Sports Illustrated article that, “I’m glad I’m coming out in 2013 rather than 2003. The climate has shifted; public opinion has shifted.” He is so right. Jason has benefitted from the bravery of thousands of men and women who came before him — and before me. They refused to accept discrimination and harassment, and fought for our dying brothers during the AIDS crisis, when our political leaders would not even utter its name.
When Jason was a boy, amazing organizations like ACT UP, the Human Rights Campaign, and the Gay and Lesbian Task Force (just to name a few) demanded and fought valiently for equal and fair treatment for our community when most of us were hiding and afraid to admit we were one of them.
Immediately after my story broke on national TV more than a decade ago, I remember feeling pressured by the many people in the LGBT community who reached out to me. I was asked to speak about my secret life in baseball. I was sure I would disappoint them. I had lived in the closet as a player, and I quit in the middle of my career instead of facing my fears or reaching out to my family.
After my partner’s sudden death, I even skipped his funeral because I was afraid to ask for a day off or try to explain why. I was no hero. I made so many mistakes, and hurt people who loved me, and who I loved along the way.
That’s what the closet does. It hurts people.
Then, one day, an amazing woman named Elizabeth Birch, executive director at The Human Rights Campaign, literally refused to take no for an answer, and willed me to fly up to our nation’s capital for a luncheon. I finally gave in and got on an airplane. As I walked into a large room, I was anxious and uncomfortable, and felt like the whole room was staring at me.
After I was escorted to my assigned table, I turned to my left and said hello to the sweet woman sitting next to me. A few moments into our conversation, I looked at her name tag: “Judy Shepard.” She was the mother of Matthew Shepard, the young Wyoming man beaten, lashed to a fence and left to die in an anti-gay hate crime that shocked the nation. I became overwhelmed with emotion. She reached out her hand, grabbed ahold of mine, and told me that this was my destiny, and I was here for a reason. I wasn’t sure what she meant. She said that reason was “to save lives.”
She told me that Matthew loved baseball, and he would have been thrilled to meet me. She said my community needed me, needed role models. What she said next was like a knife in my heart: “What happened to my son, can NEVER happen again.”
I quietly wished I was with Matthew that fateful day in October 1998. Maybe I could have helped protect him from those angry, ignorant boys who took his life. My eyes filled with tears for her loss, and she reached up and hugged me.
She was the strong one.
My life changed that day. I realized it’s a responsibility, not an obligation, to help my community, my family, my brothers and sisters. To this day, it’s a responsibility that I embrace and hold dear to my heart. I have always been a fighter as an athlete, and now I was on another mission, a much more important one.
As I finished Jason’s article, I realized that my life, my story may have contributed in a small way to his decision. I felt proud, but even more proud of him.
Today, he is a hero, and I applaud him. When I meet him, I will tell him that what he is doing is the most generous decision of his life. I have learned first-hand that most of the people that I have helped are ones that I have never met, and it will be the same for him.
I have always been a huge NBA fan, but now even more so. I can’t wait to cheer for Jason. I will wear his No. 98 jersey with pride, and if they ask, I will let everyone know why.
The LGBT community still has so much work ahead of us, but today we have a new general, and I like our chances with a seven-foot-tall center leading the way.