“You cannot choose your heroes. The moment chooses them.”

I was planning to write a broader piece about the recent tidal wave of gay rights progress and gay visibility in America, anyway; from gay marriage laws in Rhode Island, Minnesota, Delaware and Maryland; to the pending legislation in Illinois; Jason Collins coming out via an exceptionally moving personal essay in the pages of Sports Illustrated; and LA Galaxy’s Robbie Rogers making history on Sunday, entering the field as the first openly gay player in American soccer. But a piece in yesterday’s New York Times prompted me both to finally sit down and write about it, and consider whether it could be said more eloquently than in that piece. don’t think so. It’s a fitting summary of, and a look into the future of gay progress in sports, at a time when there’s a lot to celebrate for for gay people, for sports fans, and for people who just care about equality, fairness and progress, in politics as well as in sports.

For readers who are understandably giddy with the good news, it is nonetheless important to remember that the social, political and legal landscape is still a challenging one for many gay Americans. Yes, the Supreme Court is expected to strike down the risible Defense of Marriage Act by a narrow margin next month, but it is also expected to deliver a partial victory, at best, for marriage equality when deciding on the challenge to the legality of California’s Proposition 8, likely either issuing a narrow ruling, or looking for a way out of ruling on the merits of the case altogether. There’s also the very troubling rise in anti-gay violence in New York, and the cowardice of Senate Democrats, backing away from even taking a vote on citizenship rights for same-sex spouses in the mark-up process for the pending immigration reform bill. Progress, as is so often the case, is incremental. For every two steps forward, you can be sure the first step back is not far away.

The big picture today, though, remains the incredible personal bravely shown by sportsmen like Jason Collins and Robbie Rogers in helping to usher in a moment of remarkable, if not unqualified cultural change But to remind myself of what these stories really mean at the basic level, I’m circling back to the most insightful instant piece I read upon Collins coming out, by Brian Phillips of Grantland. He acknowledged that although some people might argue that the measure of whether this was truly a step toward equality would be if it had been met with less attention, or they might say that it would have made a bigger impact if a huge star had come out, that was essentially missing the point.

Sometimes (…) it’s worth spending a little more time with the basic thing that just happened before you go squiggling off into the stratosphere. An NBA player just came out. If that’s not brave, why hasn’t it happened before now?

And he was right, of course. Firsts like these by definition don’t come around that often. In the end it doesn’t feel like Phillips and John Branch of the Times are that far apart on this, even though Branch starts from the perspective that Collins and Rogers are fairly unremarkable players, and therefore an unlikely pair of icons. Supporters of gay rights and gay visibility in sports can’t “choose their heroes” any more than the two pioneers in question chose to be gay, however, and in some sense, it is their relative unremarkableness that makes the embrace of their status as openly gay professionals so moving, argues Branch:

Those who have responded to the announcements of Collins and Rogers by saying that their sexuality is no big deal, that it should be kept a secret and not be news at all, do not understand. It is a big deal — to the men declaring it, to the people who love them, to the countless masses who instantly, if silently, feel a swell of pride and little less fear and worry. It is why so many have recently declared that Collins and Rogers are their favorite players, even if they have never watched them play.

Unless you are one of those people, you cannot fully appreciate the significance.

What I found so moving about what Branch wrote, is that for once, a pundit recognizes that a development like this could be just as important for the silent many, or few, who can take solace and courage in finding somebody a little bit like them on the court or the pitch, instead of immediately reverting to the wider politico-cultural perspective. Coming out starts with self-realization, and from beginning it is an intensely vulnerable private act, although one I believe many people, if not all, have to go through in order to live fulfilling and honest lives at peace with themselves. It also takes the Collins story somewhat from the perhaps unavoidable but also unhelpful comparisons to Jackie Robinson, who broke the race barrier in baseball. Both are pioneers in their own right, and there’s not necessarily much to gain from debating who had the largest impact or sacrificed the most.

The most important point is that Robbie Rogers and Jason Collins just bravely made their contributions to a more open and open-minded sports world. In that, they stand on the shoulders of many, but in the shadows of few. In the light they have shone on the importance and possibility of openness, however, many could emerge, out and proud.

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