I texted my sports-addicted dad with the news that veteran NBA player Jason Collins is gay.
“Who’s Jason Collins?” he wrote back.
Apparently before his very brave admission, Collins wasn’t a big deal. Brittney Griner, this year’s WNBA No. 1 draft pick—not to mention the only woman in professional basketball who can dunk—is a big deal.
She’s also recently, publicly, gay. Griner came out casually last week during an interview with USA Today. In fact, she didn’t come out so much as confirm what most people already thought they knew.
From USA Today:
She also took the advice of her parents, who always encouraged her to be herself. Griner has always embraced that advice, and it gave her the courage to open up to her parents about her sexuality. “I hadn’t come out completely,” she said. “It was kind of like, you know … I just hadn’t said it.”
In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Griner was equally laid back: “Being one that’s out, it’s just being who you are.” Media reaction was as placid as Griner’s acknowledgement. If you weren’t seeking out LGBT or WNBA news that day, you probably wouldn’t have known Griner was gay—or who she was in the first place. This seemed to irk some women in and out of the sports world who have since asserted that Jason Collins is not the first sports star to come out of the closet (as some news outlets proclaimed). There were many trailblazers — Brittney Griner included.
So why is a high-profile man’s coming-out story more newsworthy than a woman’s?
The answer is simple and separate from the fact men’s professional sports are infinitely more popular (and thus more newsworthy) than women’s athletics.
Travis Waldron at thinkprogress.org articulates it perfectly: “Because heterosexual women are assumed to be feminine,” he writes, “women who excel in male-dominated fields, or who exhibit strength normally associated with men, find themselves subject to having assumptions about their sexuality made on the basis of their bodies or their skills.” In other words, people assume if you are a woman who is heavily into sports—especially at a high level—you may be gay. Whether or not this assumption is fair or founded is irrelevant. In men’s sports, the pendulum swings the other way: people assume a man who is heavily into sports—especially at a high level—cannot be gay.
Coming out is never easy — no matter how many people “already know.” But defying other people’s expectations—as Collins and male athletes like him have to do—is an added pressure to a daunting and painful task.
Brittney Griner affirmed a stereotype. Jason Collins broke one. That is why his coming out received more attention. And in many ways, that is why it is more important.