But can the dude play?

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by Donna Brazile

(CNN) — My dad was an avid sports fan and a great athlete in his day. We used to watch basketball and football games together, and I know some of his proudest moments as a father were when I wore my sports uniforms in high school and college.

 

He was a man’s man — a hard drinking, foul-mouthed veteran of the Korean War who came on to every voluptuous nurse who crossed his path. He passed away about this time last year.

I think about him often, and more during March Madness. I thought about him yesterday as I read about Jason Collins coming out as the first openly gay player in NBA history. I wondered, “If my dad were reading this, what would he say?”

And, clear as day, I heard his voice. “Yeah, but can the dude play?”

It made me laugh because isn’t it just that simple? Can he play? Can he do his job?

At the same time that Jason Collins’ announcement has caused a stir, there also has been noteworthy non-reaction among many. “Is this really still news?” we ask. The answer is yes. It is news because it’s never happened before.

Pro sports, especially the ones where athletes get paid millions upon millions of dollars, are bastion of masculinity. Manhood, athleticism and heterosexuality are all woven together in our cultural paradigm. It’s still news because the stereotype of gay men as being effete, weak, uncoordinated (except where it comes to Lady Gaga impersonations) and otherwise “girly” is still so strong.

It shouldn’t be. Gay comes in all shapes, sizes, strengths and personalities. Just like straight does. It shouldn’t be news that— guess what — some gay people don’t fit your stereotype. But it is.

It shouldn’t be news for that reason, but I’m grateful that it is news for an entirely different reason. Jason’s coming out is a very, very public “it gets better” message to all the LGBTQ youth coming up, and out, right now. According to the Trevor Project, an organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ youth, suicide is the third leading cause of death for 10- to 24-year-olds, and its the second leading cause of death on college campuses. Lesbian, gay and bisexual youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers.

This is why an openly gay NBA player should be news, because it busts stereotypes, normalizes homosexuality and gives kids of all orientations a positive role model of self-love and professional excellence.

Until there are no more hate crimes, no more vicious bullying and ugly slurs, whenever a person comes out — whether that person is a celebrity or a “nobody” — it should be celebrated like the triumph of courage it is. That is why it should be news. Jason Collins is tremendously brave and deserves to be celebrated as such.

All that said, we aback to the question my dad would have asked. “Yeah, but can the dude play?” Yes, he can play. He’s an aggressive, big man who holds his space on the court. At 34, he’s probably aging out of the sport, but he’s played consistently and well over the years and deserves to be remembered for what he has done on the court, not what he did while off.

I applaud his career and his bravery, and I look forward to the day that sexual orientation is a non-issue. We are all so much more than our sexuality. It is vital to the situations in which it’s important — namely, in looking for a mate — but it has nothing to do with job performance, whether your job is as a secretary or a professional basketball player. Our sexuality is just one of a thousand pieces of our identity, not the sole determining factor.

Jason Collins is gay. That’s not all he is, and it would be nice if we could keep this one piece of identity in context with the whole.

Finally, it’s nice to see institutionalized homophobia crumbling. First it was the military, with the repeal of don’t ask, don’t tell. For decades, the argument had been that having openly gay people in the military would impair unit cohesion. Setting aside all the flawed assumptions that undergird those fears, you know what has happened to unit cohesion since the fall of don’t ask, don’t tell? It’s stayed the same or gotten slightly better. This is probably because it’s easier for people to bond when they’re not forbidden from being themselves.

First, it was the military, now it’s pro sports being forced to realize that there is no “us” and “them” when it comes to sexuality. We are all on the same team. I’ll bet that Jason Collins will be the first in a string of professional athletes to openly acknowledge their homosexuality. You can also think of him as the next in a chain of civil rights pioneers. And I’ll bet you’ll start seeing them play a bit better. We’re all at our best when we don’t have to hide who we are, when we can bring it all to the court.

I’m proud to see Jason come out and encouraged to see the overwhelmingly positive reaction he’s received. And yet, I can’t wait for the day we greet it with “so what?” and a yawn. I think my dad would agree.

Donna Brazile, a CNN contributor and a Democratic strategist, is vice chairwoman for voter registration and participation at the Democratic National Committee. She is a nationally syndicated columnist, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and author of “Cooking with Grease: Stirring the Pot in America.” She was manager for the Gore-Lieberman presidential campaign in 2000..

 

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