In the past two weeks, two professional basketball players came out in divergent manners.
The first was Brittney Griner, the college basketball superstar who was the first overall pick by the Phoenix Mercury in this year's WNBA draft. The second was Jason Collins, the journeyman center who became the first active openly gay male athlete in American professional sports.
Inspired by Collins' brave announcement, Griner wrote an article for The New York Times in which she discussed Collins, her own experience coming out and the bullying and abuse she endured as a child from her peers.
We'll start with her thoughts on Collins:
When the N.B.A. center Jason Collins announced he was gay last week, I was thrilled. Not only was I extremely happy for him, I thought that maybe, just maybe, his courage and the wave of positive reaction meant that we were on the verge of an era when people accept and celebrate one another’s differences. I think that’s what makes life beautiful: everyone is different and we can all learn from one another.
The conditions of Griner coming out publicly compared to Collins could not have been much more different, though that doesn't diminish the importance of either moment.
Griner is just entering the WNBA; Collins is a 12-year veteran. Griner is one of the most accomplished college basketball players of all time and could end up being one of the greatest female basketball players ever; Collins has averaged 3.6 points, 3.8 rebounds and 20.8 minutes per game in his career.
And when Griner came out, she did so casually, slipping in the fact that she was gay while answering an inquiry from Maggie Gray of Sports Illustrated about gay female athletes in general. Collins' announcement was the cover story of last week's Sports Illustrated and the main topic of conversation in the sports world for several days.
The differences between these two athletes coming out said a lot about male and female sports and where each gender stands when it comes to accepting gay athletes into its ranks. It's obvious that there is far more tolerance on the women's side than the men's.
But based on Collins having the bravery to come out and the support he has publicly received, hopefully that is changing.
One of the reasons Griner was so understated when she came out was that her family was so loving and accepting when she first revealed she was gay in the ninth grade, as she wrote in the Times:
I first came out to my mom in the ninth grade. Even though the story is kind of boring (comparatively), I remember it as if it were yesterday. I was leaning against a wall in our house at the time, not doing anything in particular. For whatever reason, at that moment I let my mom know I was gay. It wasn’t planned. It just popped out. She gave me a hug, smiled and told me she loved me, and I went back upstairs to my room. Simple as that.
I knew then that it didn’t matter what my sexuality was; my mom and family would always love me for who I am. For me, the simplicity behind coming out was both powerful and beautiful. No drama, just acceptance and love.
Unfortunately for Griner, however, her peers were never as kind or loving as her family. The adolescent years are challenging enough without facing the level of verbal abuse that Griner endured:
I was bullied in every way imaginable, but the worst was the verbal abuse. (I was always a strong, tough and tall girl, so nobody wanted to mess with me from a physical standpoint.) It hit rock bottom when I was in seventh grade. I was in a new school with people I didn’t know, and the teasing about my height, appearance and sexuality went on nonstop, every day.
People called me a dude and said there was no way I could be a woman. Some even wanted me to prove it to them. During high school and college, when we traveled for games, people would shout the same things while also using racial epithets and terrible homophobic slurs.
There will always be mean people out there who mock the differences they see in others. In that regard, being a teenager will be painful and awkward for most kids.
But by sharing their stories and proudly announcing their homosexuality, Collins and Griner have taken an important step toward promoting tolerance for athletes of all races, genders and sexual orientations.
Hopefully, they will help to make the experiences for young, gay athletes more positive than they would have been years ago, and hopefully their public announcements will help us get to a place in society where we simply shrug our shoulders and move on when prominent athletes come out in the future.