First Person

Jason Collins And Michael Sam Lead A New Era Of Role Models For Black Gay Men

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Black gay men are having a moment, and it’s about damn time.

That was the sentiment that came to me when, in the course of a few weeks, both gay men who made history in the two biggest professional sports leagues ended up being black. It’s not a coincidence, entirely, football and basketball are sports dominated by black men.

Jason Collins‘ just signed a second 10-day contract with Brooklyn Nets. Michael Sam is preparing for the NFL draft, where he is expected to be selected in the middle rounds. That they are both black is a major opportunity to change the way Americans see black gay men, and how black gay men see themselves.

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Being both Black and gay in America is hardly the life of misery that some would have you believe, but it is not without its challenges. I actually live on Lenox Avenue in Harlem, NY, where Pastor James David Manning claimed in big block letters on the sign of Atlah World Missionary Church that “Obama Has Released The Homo Demons On The Black Man.” In a world that is just now starting to be introduced to Black gay images, it becomes very easy for homophobes within the Black community (and outside of it) to claim that our existence is a recent development. When I see that sign and others like it, it makes me furious, but also doubly committed to living life as an out gay Black man.

Even within the gay community, the images of sexy and successful Black gay men have been virtually nonexistent. It has sometimes seemed like Black gay men existed on some other plane away from the rest of the gay community. We were either completely ignored, hyper-sexualized or accepted only when we slapped on a wig and some makeup and lip-synched to dance music. The images of us were just not as varied as our white male counterparts. While white gays can be seen as political wonks, military men, music stars and everything in between, Black gay images are limited at best.

Since Noah’s Arc left TV screens there have been only two television shows with Black gay leads (DTLA and Shirts and Skins, both coincidentally on LOGO) and the three “great gay hope” network comedies Partners, The New Normal and Sean Saves The World had no Black gay characters, preferring instead to adhere to the dated stereotype of “gay” being something that is exclusively the domain of slightly fey, upper middle-class white guys who shop for furniture at Crate and Barrel and clothing at Banana Republic.

Even in 2014, Black gay men are rarely placed on the covers of gay-oriented magazines or in ad campaigns targeted to gay media (with the exception of HIV medication or testing campaigns). Of course, there are Black gay icons like James Baldwin and Bayard Rustin, but it is important to move beyond these historical figures and to embrace more current ones. That there are major out black media figures like CNN’s Don Lemon and ESPN’s LZ Granderson is a great start, but there need to be more, which is exactly where Sam and Collins come in.

When men like these come barreling out of the closet in traditionally “masculine” fields, they challenge the mainstream idea of what “gay” is in a way that very few men have before them. For black gays in particular, they become instant role models for a generation of young black gay men who struggle to find images in mainstream gay America that they can connect to.

A black athletic teenager who’s struggling with his sexuality in high school may not be able to relate to Kurt and Blaine on Glee, but he can definitely gain something from seeing Jason Collins walk onto a professional basketball court as a proud gay man and then help the Brooklyn Nets secure a win against their West Coast rivals.

I’ve never bought into the theory that it’s harder for Black men to come out than it is for their white counterparts. In fact, due to complicated factors of privilege and class the opposite may be true, but for all of us it is easier to be out when there are leaders in various fields that are forging a path and rapidly opening hearts and changing minds.

When I see Jason Collins making a difference for his team or read one of the many stories about Michael Sam and his road to the NFL as an openly gay player, as a black gay man I feel a strong sense of pride that these two men who are breaking barriers. Their skin color is important. Their skin color is relevant. Their skin color means that for me and millions of others like me, I am finally a part of the conversation about what it means to be gay in America.

Thanks to Jason Collins and Michael Sam, Black gay men are having a moment. And it’s about damn time.

Rob Smith is an openly gay Iraq war veteran, writer, and LGBT activist. His memoir Closets, Combat and Coming Out: Coming Of Age As A Gay Man In The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Army is available now at Amazon.com and wherever LGBT books are sold.