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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Are Jason Collins and Robbie Rogers Changing the Game?

By Peter DeWitt — May 28, 2013 4 min read
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“Unconditional support is so key when someone first comes out. I hope that my actions will give the next person in future generations that continued hope and courage.” Jason Collins

There has been a great deal of press recently about some professional athletes who came out publicly and said they were gay. When Jason Collins, the first openly gay professional Athlete came out last month, you could not turn on the television or radio without hearing the story. Most of the stories were extremely positive.

In the Sports Illustrated articlewhere he came out Collins said,

No one wants to live in fear. I've always been scared of saying the wrong thing. I don't sleep well. I never have. But each time I tell another person, I feel stronger and sleep a little more soundly. It takes an enormous amount of energy to guard such a big secret. I've endured years of misery and gone to enormous lengths to live a lie. I was certain that my world would fall apart if anyone knew. And yet when I acknowledged my sexuality I felt whole for the first time. I still had the same sense of humor, I still had the same mannerisms and my friends still had my back."

His words were perfect. For many students who are gay, they walk into school feeling the need to hide who they are for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they feel threatened because they attend a hostile school where administrators will not protect them. They may have a family that is not supportive, or worse, will disown them just because they are gay. Before they come out, many LGBT youth and adults feel as though their world may collapse.

Robbie Rogers, a soccer player who came out after he retired, just came out of retirement and signed a multi-year deal with the Los Angeles Galaxy. When Rogers was asked why he came out publicly, he told USA Today, “I seriously felt like a coward. These kids (whom he met at the Nike Be True LGBT Youth Forum in Portland last month) are standing up for themselves and changing the world, and I’m 25, I have a platform and a voice to be a role model. How much of a coward was I to not step up to the plate?”

Although some observers walked away from Collins’ and Rogers’ public coming out wondering what the big deal was, many others celebrated it because the sports world is not known for its acceptance of the LGBT community. Too often anti-gay slurs are heard on the court or out in the field. When Collins and Rogers came out it broke a stereotype that gay men and women have long battled. It proved that people in the LGBT community, not only like sports, they can play them too...even at the professional level.

GLSEN Changes the Game
Jason Collins was the recipient of the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network’s (GLSEN) Courage Award. NBA Commissioner David Stern introduced him on stage to accept the award. As much as Collins getting the award was important, David Stern being present to introduce him was just as important.

Stern’s support of Collins is the equivalent of an openly gay student have the support of their administrator. It sends the message that the leader at the top supports an inclusive environment. This level of support and strength that Stern showed needs to happen in every school, especially if it can happen in the professional sports arena.

An organization like GLSEN is the perfect place for a school system to start when trying to confront homophobia in school or in their athletic program. GLSEN has long been a leader in the LGBT community, and last year they began a new campaign called Changing the Game. According to the website, “The GLSEN Sports Project’s mission is to assist K-12 schools in creating and maintaining an athletic and physical education climate that is based on the core principles of respect, safety and equal access for all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression.”

Sending a Unifying Message
Recently, I participated in a panel discussion sponsored by the Pride Center of Albany, NY and the Hudson Pride Foundation. The panel had four openly gay teenagers who talked about their experiences in the public school systems they attend. All four had very different stories. What they do takes the same kind of strength and courage of Collins and Rogers.

After the discussion ended one of the teenage participants came over to talk with me and she probably didn’t get the conversation she expected. I told her that what she does every day takes a great deal of strength and sends a powerful message, to not only other LGBT youth who are out, but to those who have not come out yet. The LGBT youth who are out can find strength in numbers, but those individuals who are not out can find strength from watching others.

Collins and Rogers have helped change the conversation in professional sports and helped countless youth who they will never meet. Having athletes before them like Billie Jean King, Billy Bean and Martina Navratilova definitely helped pave the way. However, the media blitz and positive attention helps those young men and women who feel unsafe or insecure about who they are as well. They are sitting back watching these stories unfold finding strength to perhaps come out one day. Hopefully, if they do this in school, they will find supportive teachers and administrators.

In his acceptance speech, Jason Collins said. “Unconditional support is so key when someone first comes out. I hope that my actions will give the next person in future generations that continued hope and courage.” I believe he did.

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Peter is the author of Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students(Corwin Press).

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.