First Person

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


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.


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 and wherever LGBT books are sold.

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  • denvermtnbiker

    Great article, Rob Smith. Thanks for posting; I wholeheartedly agree :-)

  • JohnnyCorby

    I agree but the really revolution will be when Sam and Collins find husbands and get married.

  • CCTR

    Interesting read from Rob Smith! Thanks!

  • Kieran

    I think all gay men, regardless of color, should take pride in Michael Sam and Jason Collins as openly gay professional athletes. Personally, when I see these two profiles in courage breaking down barriers and smashing homophobic stereotypes, I’m not seeing color. I’m see two of my own kind heroically fight a battle against bigotry and shame in the arena of pro sports. And I admire them for the amazing and brave thing they are doing on behalf of gay men of every skin color.

  • etseq

    Methinks she doth protest too much on the swipes at “fey” gay men. And what about the majority of gay kids who aren’t athletes? Os it ok if they are “fey” so long as the athletes are butch enough?

    Someone has got some issues…

  • charwegl

    What makes you think Michael Sam and/or Jason Collins are my role models because we all happen to be gay and black? I think this article oversimplifies a few things.

  • Sebizzar

    @Kieran: Agreed, but I do like how the article calls out the struggles of being both gay and black. One guy I spoke to (who was gay and black) called it a “double-whammy”, that really bothered me.

  • Harley

    WOW, Michael Sam and Jason Collins are black. I just considered them gay athletes. Never even considered the race issue. Thanks for pointing that out to me.


    You’ve forgot to mention another two modern — NON-FEY!!!!– black ICONS: Ocky Williams & Nick Delmacy. Bow down bitches! As I’m sure they’d say, LOL

    “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..”

    Interesting. I wish you could elaborate on this.

  • Tackle

    Having read many articles written by Rob Smith, usually I’m in agreement. And he does make some valid points in this piece on the image of Black men, and how they are seen and accepted. However, I do feel that he misses the mark on the overall premise.

    I would question as to who does Rob Smith think he is to have the authority to dictate for Black men, who their role models should be?
    As a gay Black man, my role model doesn’t necessarily has to be either Black, gay or male. And he sure as hell doesn’t have to be in pro sports. For those those Black men, or any one for that matter who chooses to accept Michael Sam or Jason Collins as a roll model,more power to you. But I don’t. For me, I just don’t know that much about either, or how they live their personal lives to accept as a roll model. Are they recreational drug users, how do they view/treat other gays who are fat/heavy, older, fem,in drag or trans, etc ? And to all thoes Black men who accept both as role models,(not that there is anything wrong with interracial,and the opertive word being “preferred”) but what if both turned out to be the type of Black men who preferred White men. Would they still be a role models to you? Not that they,or anyone has to be perfect, But I just don’t know that much about either to accept as MY role model. However I will accept that both did a brave act in coming out.

  • jar

    Although I agree with the sentiments expressed by the author, there does seem to be an underlying statement that these are “good” role models, as opposed to the more “fey” less-good role models. The author certainly would not be alone in espousing this view, but I would encourage him to challenge his own preconceptions of what is laudable behavior and presentation for gay men.

  • JennyFromdabloc

    @Harley: Not acknowledging that Jason & Michael are black only insults your intelligence and theirs. Pretending that race doesn’t exist does not make racism fade.

  • Harley

    @JennyFromdabloc: You are absolutely right. I just hope that one day that both black AND gay will be labels we can discard as labels and just be considered for our abilities as humans, just as one day we won’t be out shooting each other down in the streets. A far off fantasy.

  • DonovanS28

    Not trying to start nothing but all you guys saying I don’t see color are being a bit insensitive. There color is part of who they are, for you to say you dont see it is neglecting who they are. Sure they are not solely their color but their racial identity is part of who they are and has had something to do with shaping them into the men they are today. So when you say “I dont see color” your saying I dont see part of who you are.

    Gay or not they are still black men and thats something they will have for life.

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