Jason Collins & Robbie Rogers Make History as First Openly-Gay Players in Professional Sports: Why Coming Out is So Important

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NBA center Jason Collins’ recent coming out and openly gay Robbie Rogers’ return to Major League Soccer is a game changer for professional sports. San Francisco psychotherapist Michael Halyard explains why their coming out is also important for LGBT mental health.

Their coming out will also help gay people--young and old--who are still in the closet and need a positive role model.

The recent coming out of sports stars Jason Collins and Robbie Rogers have challenged one of the last bastions of homophobia. Their coming out will arguably make their lives easier, but the impact will extend far beyond the athletes themselves--it opens the door for more athletes to come out and the two serve as role models for LGBT young people.

Last month in a first-person article on Sports Illustrated’s website, NBA (National Basketball Association) center Jason Collins came out as gay --and admitted that he went through years of despair and great lengths to "live a lie."

Last February on his blog, MLS (Major League Soccer) soccer star Robbie Rogers came out as gay and said he was leaving the sport--but now Rogers is reversing course and signed with the Los Angeles Galaxy soccer team. Rogers told USA Today that his epiphany came when he was speaking to Nike Be True LGBT Youth Forum in Portland and realized he should have the courage to play and use the platform to be open and make things better for LGBT people.

Collins immediately became the first openly gay athlete active in a major sports league. Other athletes, like NBA player John Amaechi, came out but only after they retired. Rogers became the first openly gay player active in MLS.

When Rogers and Collins announced their sexual orientation, some people wondered why it was even necessary. San Francisco gay therapist Michael Halyard, MFT says in addition to the obvious reasons of living more authentically, coming out serves other important purposes.

“The bottom line is that high profile athletes coming out have the ability to save lives. The suicide rate among gay and questioning youth remains high, even as acceptance levels continue to improve throughout the country. Athletes’ openness about their sexuality sends the message to young people that it’s okay to be gay,” says San Francisco therapist Michael Halyard.

Halyard is a gay psychotherapist in San Francisco, and can be found on the websites: http://www.sftherapy.com and http://www.sanfrancisco-psychotherapy.com.

After Martina Navratilova came out in 1981--the state of LGBT equality was abysmal--she got letters from gay men and lesbians telling her that they were suicidal. On NPR she described how her coming out gave them hope.

Collins’ coming out has been greeted mostly positive by his peers in professional sports, Hollywood celebrities, civil rights leaders, and politicians including President Obama. Rogers coming out received similar accolades. Their courageous acts will make it easier for the next professional athletes to come out, continuing the cycle of openness and progress.

Although most reactions of both Collins and Rogers have been positive, there are still detractors. Usually they voice their concerns in terms of sharing a locker room with a gay player.

“Truth be told, gay people and straight people have been sharing locker-rooms for as long as their have been locker-rooms--people just didn’t know who was gay and who wasn’t. That concern is a red herring,” says Halyard.

“There’s been tremendous progress in LGBT rights, all made possible by LGBT people being open about their sexuality. One measure of how far society has come is the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Collins and Rogers. Harvey Milk was right--when every LGBT person comes out, stereotypes are smashed and gay people are seen as normal people with all the same concerns and needs as everyone else--and then we get our rights,” adds Halyard.

Most observers feel that openly gay athletes in the major leagues are long overdue. Football star Dave Kopay came out in the 1970’s and recently said he’s been waiting 40 years for a player still active in a major league to come out. Kopay was excited for Collins and hopeful that other professional players--especially from the NFL--will come out.

The percentage of gay athletes in major leagues likely mirrors the percentage of gay people in the general population. That means that there are likely dozens of athletes who are gay, but remain in the closet. What keeps people in the closet is the “macho” culture of professional sports, their fears of being ostracized by their teammates, and the worry that being open will somehow diminish their careers.

Collins and Rogers nonetheless took the risk, and professional sports are better for it. As President Obama acknowledged, gay men or lesbians who are having difficulty coping with their sexual orientation now have a courageous role model to look up to.

“Their coming out will also help gay people--young and old--who are still in the closet and need a positive role model,” says Halyard.

“The importance of athletes like Jason Collins and Robbie Rogers coming out cannot be overstated. Both break a barrier that fans have been waiting for an athlete to cross--a major team sports player coming out while still active and near the height of their careers. While major league players have come out after they retired, until now, no one has had the courage to do so while still active in major league sports,” adds Halyard.

Michael Halyard, MS, MFT is an openly-gay San Francisco Marriage and Family Therapist and specializes in LGBT issues, depression, anxiety, addictions and couples counseling in his San Francisco private practice. He can be found on the websites http://www.sftherapy.com/ and http://www.sanfrancisco-psychotherapy.com.

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