Massachusetts has a pivotal place in LGBT history. It is the birthplace of equal marriage in America, and has been home to pioneering out politicos like Gerry Studds and Barney Frank. When it comes to breakthroughs in gay issues, Massachusetts always manages to muscle its way in to the conversation.
And it did again this week, when news broke that NBA player Jason Collins announced he was gay in a Sports Illustrated cover story, becoming the first out active male athlete in a major American sport. Collins is a free agent, recently coming off a contract with the Washington Wizards; but he’s a former Celtics player, announced his plans to march in Boston Pride this June, and cited several Massachusetts connections as inspiring his decision to come out.
Among those reasons: Massachusetts Congressman Joe Kennedy, Collins’ former roommate at Stanford University.
“He’s a great guy with a great heart. He was there anytime I needed something,” said Rep. Kennedy to Bay Windows. Kennedy said he and Collins stayed in close contact after college; the congressman was one of Collins’s first phone calls when he signed to the Celtics in 2012. But it was a different kind of call that Kennedy received a few weeks ago; before his public announcement, Collins came out to Kennedy over the phone.
“It was the first time we ever talked about it,” Kennedy told Bay Windows, when asked if Collins had ever broached the topic of his sexuality in the past. The congressman is reluctant to discuss the details of their conversation. “He’s a private person, and it’s his story to tell,” says Kennedy. But he says he was “honored” that Collins reached out to him, and that the athlete has cited his marching in the 2012 Boston Pride parade as a watershed moment in deciding to come out.
“I’m seldom jealous of others, but hearing what Joe had done filled me with envy,” wrote Collins in a coming-out essay on the Sports Illustrated website. “I was proud of him for participating but angry that as a closeted gay man I couldn’t even cheer my straight friend on as a spectator. If I’d been questioned, I would have concocted half-truths. What a shame to have to lie at a celebration of pride. I want to do the right thing and not hide anymore. I want to march for tolerance, acceptance and understanding. I want to take a stand and say, ‘Me, too.’”
“I was so honored and thrilled that he would say that; that it was such an important message for him,” says Kennedy. But the congressman is quick to add that the full credit for coming out always remains with Collins. “Those of us who know Jason know that he has a big heart and he’s a strong guy. He came to this absolutely on his own.”
Though there is a different, tragic factor that also informed Collins’s decision. “The recent Boston Marathon bombing reinforced the notion that I shouldn’t wait for the circumstances of my coming out to be perfect,” wrote Collins in his essay. “Things can change in an instant, so why not live truthfully?”
Collins’s decision to live out and honestly has been met largely with praise, especially locally. “I am extremely happy and proud of Jason Collins,” said Celtics coach Doc Rivers in a statement on Monday “He's a pro's pro. He is the consummate professional and he is one of my favorite ‘team’ players I have ever coached. If you have learned anything from Jackie Robinson, it is that teammates are always the first to accept. It will be society who has to learn tolerance. One of my favorite sayings is, ‘I am who I am, are whom we are, can be what I want to be, it's not up to you, it's just me being me.’”
Some of Boston’s other sports teams chimed in with their support. “We salute you [Jason Collins] for your courage and leadership,” tweeted the official account of the Boston Red Sox. “Any time you want to throw out a first pitch at Fenway Park, let us know.”
Of course, there were some less enlightened reactions. On Tuesday morning, when KISS 108 personality Billy Costa was out sick from the “Matty in the Morning” show, his co-hosts chose a curious way to tease Costa for, they joked, faking his illness. “Just because we like to torture poor [Billy Costa]… let’s get #ComeOnOutBill trending!” tweeted the KISS 108 account. “Congratulations to [Billy Costa] on your bravery,” added host Matty Siegel, referencing the reactions to Collins’s coming out. That one of the “Matty” show’s producers happens to be a popular gay DJ doesn’t make it less tacky to minimize a significant moment in the LGBT movement, or to riff off the junior high humor of gay-equals-embarrassing. (What could torture a guy more than trending that he’s gay? LOL!) Plenty of the radio station’s fans predictably took the bait, responding with jokes (that the co-host will now be able to double his wardrobe!) and adding their own “poor Billy!” and “What a sport!” style expressions of sympathy. You know, cause being called gay is something to feel embarrassed about. That was the gag, methinks.
Putting a better foot forward is Collins. Inspired by Kennedy’s participation in the 2012 Boston Pride parade, he will march alongside the congressmen in June’s 2013 event. “When he mentioned the Pride parade, I told him I’d be honored to do it with him,” said Kennedy to Bay Windows. “I marched last year with Congressman Frank, and this year it will be with Jason. I don’t know how I’m going to top these!” he laughed.
But whatever level of symbolism Collins’s coming out attains, Kennedy says that in his eyes the athlete will remain what he has always been: a friend.
“He is now a historic figure in sports, and in our country,” said Kennedy. “And he should be, for the courage that he’s shown.”
“But he’s still Jason. He’s still that great guy I lived with.”
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