National political leaders, gay rights groups and entertainment icons on Monday spoke in support of Jason Collins, the first active professional athlete to come out as gay.
The 34-year-old Los Angeles native, who helped lead Harvard-Westlake School to two state championships in the 1990s with his twin brother, announced his sexual orientation in the May 6 issue of Sports Illustrated.
"Major league sports has remained one of the last bastions of homophobia, but that has slowly been changing,” said L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center spokesman Jim Key in an email. "This announcement has been a long time coming. We're incredibly grateful and proud of Jason Collins for being open about his sexual orientation and for the role he'll play in inspiring [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] youth.”
Aaron McQuade, head of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation sports program, called Collins an "exceptionally courageous man" and quipped that the NBA star was also "honestly, a really great defender."
McQuade and others described Collins as a trailblazer -- the only active player in the five major men's professional sports leagues to come out -- and that others would see his example and the support he gets and likely follow in kind. He said he hoped to see a cascade of professional athletes in the five major sports to follow suit.
A gay athlete who comes out while still playing is what "we’ve all been waiting for," said Michael Messner, a professor of sociology and gender studies at USC who writes about masculinity in sports.
The fact that it has taken this long to happen speaks to "the level of homophobia in men’s professional sports," he said.
Compared with other professional institutions' acceptance of gays, "sports has been pretty slow to respond,” he said.
But Collins’ disclosure, along with its quick embrace by newsmakers, could show times are changing, some say.
"No longer will prejudice and fear force gay athletes to remain silent about a fundamental part of their lives," said Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin in a statement. “By coming out and living openly while still an active NBA player, Collins has courageously shown the world that one's sexual orientation is no longer an impediment to achieving one's goals, even at the highest levels of professional sports.”
Collins also received a flurry of support from non-sports stars and advocacy groups on Twitter, including former President Bill Clinton, director Spike Lee and hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, who tweeted that he was proud of Collins and "... we will stand with you as you continue on your journey."
Clinton also tweeted that he was "proud to call Jason Collins a friend."
Collins wrote in Sports Illustrated that he wasn’t coming out to be put on a pedestal.
“I wish I wasn’t the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, ‘I’m different,’ ” Collins wrote. “If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand.”
Athletes have come out as gay before, but only after they’ve retired and don’t have to be in the locker room with teammates.
“I’ve been asked how other players will respond to my announcement,” Collins wrote in the magazine. “The simple answer is, I have no idea. ... I hope for the best, but plan for the worst.”
Homosexuality in men’s professional sports -- particularly in the NBA -- has only been a topic for the last few years. In 2007, John Amaechi was the first former player to come out.
In the last couple of years, the topic has come up in the NFL. Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe and Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo have been at the forefront of the conversation, with each filing amicus curiae briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court advocating for gay marriage.