This morning, NBA center Jason Collins became the first active athlete in a major American sport to come out. “I’m black. And I’m gay,” he wrote in the first line of an essay for Sports Illustrated.
Last week, Nevada State Senator Kelvin Atkinson unburdened himself similarly. “I’m black. I’m gay,” he said during an emotional address from the senate floor. In case anyone had misunderstood him, he hammered home the point: “I know this is the first time many of you have heard me say that I am a black, gay male.”
The announcements from Collins and Atkinson were more than just statements of gay pride (and, in Collins’ case, more than a historic shattering of America’s last closet—the world of professional sports). They were also carefully worded messages to some in the African American community who still believe that blackness and gayness are mutually exclusive.
Many gay black men in America grow up feeling they have to choose between their skin color and their sexuality. Afraid of being shunned by their families or churches and of finding no real home in mainstream gay culture (“The gay identity has long been constructed in the media as white and privileged,” says openly gay black writer Keith Boykin), many black men with same-sex attractions believe they have no choice but to live secret sexual or romantic lives.
To say “I’m black, and I’m gay” is to try to upend that narrative.
“I did the same thing [as Collins and Atkinson] when I came out,” CNN anchor Don Lemon told me. “Coming out as a gay black men is a messed-up head game. It’s a delicate dance. You have to deal with the challenges and insecurities that anyone faces when coming out. And you have to deal with your own people not supporting you. By saying ‘I’m black, and I’m gay,’ we’re trying to get our own people to support us and know that we were born gay, just as surely as we were born black. And because the church has such a strong influence in our community, we want our churchgoing, god-fearing, black brethren to know that despite what the church tells them, God doesn’t make mistakes. Nor does he judge.”
Only a decade ago, a black professional basketball player coming out of the closet would have been inconceivable to the men I spent time with for a New York Times Magazine story about the Down Low.
“'We know there are black gay rappers, black gay athletes, but they're all on the DL,” one young man told me. “If you're white, you can come out as an openly gay skier or actor or whatever. It might hurt you some, but it's not like if you're black and gay, because then it's like you've let down the whole black community, black women, black history, black pride. You don't hear black people say, 'Oh yeah, he's gay, but he's still a real man, and he still takes care of all his responsibilities.' What you hear is, 'Look at that sissy faggot.'''
In his Sports Illustrated piece, Collins was sure to tackle the “sissy” assumption straight on. “Go ahead, take a swing—I'll get up,” he wrote. “I hate to say it, and I'm not proud of it, but I once fouled a player so hard that he had to leave the arena on a stretcher. I go against the gay stereotype, which is why I think a lot of players will be shocked: That guy is gay? But I've always been an aggressive player, even in high school. Am I so physical to prove that being gay doesn't make you soft? Who knows? That's something for a psychologist to unravel.”
Benoit Denizet-Lewis is a contributing writer with The New York Times magazine and the Writer-in-Residence at The College of Wooster.