Jason Collins and the Culture That Makes Us


Image by Scott Cunningham/NBAE / Getty Images


When he came out it was like he threw the door wide open. It was an invitation to a world that has sat out, waiting as we often do, for a strong voice with a high balcony to shout from.


He is the-first-active-professional-athlete-in-one-of-the-four-major-sports to come out, and if you read that title like I did, you probably heard it muffling the moment. When I read it I instantly thought of an MLB broadcaster saying something like, “This pitcher is the greatest pitcher against left handed shortstops at only away games.” It’s long and unconvincing. An event, but not a breakthrough.


Which is unfortunate because this was monumental.

It shook the ground. It blew the speakers.


Being yourself is hard and that’s true for just about anyone. But as we grow older, we are constantly moving closer and closer toward who we really are. The inside pushes into the outside.


“You are a soul. You have a body” C.S. Lewis (supposedly) once said and I think that’s true, but I also think we struggle with the space between them. Like a seed trying to grow inside a jar. To nurture it, to give it life, we need to be honest with one another and willing to accept ourselves. Every time we do, every time we admit to whatever is in our closet, we grow a little more comfortable in our own skin. The inside presses into the out and, hopefully, spreads our colors against the glass. Let’s us live life a little more authentically.


But it’s hard because culture has a way of wedging itself in. Culture assigns what is normal and what is not which can make it difficult to share anything atypical at all. This leads the atypical into shadows of shame, practically encouraging them toward self-hatred and solitude and suddenly, there’s this shriveled up seed where there should be a whole beating heart person.


After Jason came out, I heard a lot of harping about double standards. About how lesbians had been out in sports for decades and one guy’s coming out shouldn’t outshine these pioneers of history. And I get that, I do.


But at the same time I can’t help but feel that the road forward was somewhat smoother for them. Because when they came out, they were already atypical. They were females in athletics which was considered the sacred court of the masculine. Which, of course, meant they must be masculine. They fit conveniently into the cultural assignment of what it meant to be a lesbian. It didn’t upset the order of things at all.


Jason does though. He violently violates cultural codes just because of who he is. The way he is an extraordinary athlete that can dunk over Kevin Garnett- culture never told us that gay men could do that! I’ve heard and seen and been asked about the pigeonhole personas of Glee and Modern Family and Will and Grace, and always, I respond that those descriptions, as fun as they are, don’t make much room for me. Because I’m like a mix of the “masculine” and the “feminine” (as culture defines them) and so is every person of every orientation and every gender.


We’ve become so comfortable painting with such broad strokes that we’ve lost sight of our own uniqueness. Of how we were created with fluidity, able to grow and change and stay the same. We are not cookie cutter products, but Original crafts. Souls with thousands of traits woven into the fabric, variations and similarities and abnormalities.


And in the end, Jason Collins coming out should not tell us that gay men are masculine too. It should make us reconsider how we regard the relationship between personality and gender and sexual identity. Like, if a relationship is inherently there at all.


So in a way, when Jason Collins came out, he let the whole wide world in. He made it okay to not fit the societal mold, to chart one’s course in whatever direction their heart takes them. He pulled forward in powerful witness, fulfilling the words of Marianne Williamson who wrote,


“We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”


And that, when you think of it, is what coming out is all about.