Black and gay in sports

When Michael Sam and Jason Collins made their announcements, both men identified themselves as athletes first, as African-Americans second and as gay third. AP Photo

Much has been made of Michael Sam's courage in announcing that he is gay before the NFL draft, as well as the courage of Jason Collins, who recently became the first openly gay player in the NBA with the Brooklyn Nets. Many have said their boldness will inspire other lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender athletes to come out at all levels of organized sports.

Yet the choice of these two black men to live openly as gay in the often hypermasculine world of professional men's sports is another significant achievement for African-American athletes that shouldn't go unnoticed in a conversation that's been largely focused on their sexual orientation.

"I'm a 34-year-old center. I'm black. And I'm gay, " Collins said in Sports Illustrated when he came out last April.

On Feb. 9, Sam was equally clear about affirming his multiple identities. "I'm a college graduate," he told ESPN. "I'm African-American, and I'm gay."

That Sam and Collins would align their sexuality and race is significant in understanding the ways that sexuality has been historically fused with ideas of African-American men.

"Being gay for Collins and Sam doesn't negate being black," said Marcellus Blount, a Columbia University English professor who is writing a book about race and marriage equality. "And being black doesn't negate being gay."

Sam's recent announcement is a reminder of this burden of race for the African-American male athlete and the challenges that often come with it. His family difficulties aren't exclusive to the black male experience, but they're common.

The former Missouri defensive end endured a tough childhood in tiny Hitchcock, Texas. He lost an older brother to a gunshot wound and has seen two other brothers go in and out of jail.

"Telling the world I'm gay is nothing compared to that," Sam told ESPN.

While a coalition of African-American civil rights leaders and pastors recently announced a campaign to gather 1 million signatures to impeach U.S. attorney general Eric Holder for (according to the coalition) trying to "coerce states to fall in line with same-sex marriage," Blount finds in his research that there is more acceptance of homosexuality and same-sex marriage within the black community than is reported in the media.

"Sports is the last bastion of a kind of fictional heterosexuality," Blount said. "What's at stake here is not questions of sexuality, but that men have to be heterosexual to be athletes."

Black male athletes have represented many things within American culture. They have been at once depicted as symbols of racial progress, as post-racial heroes and as hypersexualized beasts.

For generations after the Civil War, segregationists and the Ku Klux Klan argued that any kind of integration, from schools to the athletic fields to restaurant counters, would lead dangerously to marriage and sex between the races, particularly sex between black men and white women.

At the turn of the 20th century, Jack Johnson was the public face of the fears that many whites had about black men. As a black heavyweight champion who beat white opponents, he flaunted his disregard for racial taboos by openly courting white women at a time when black men were routinely lynched for crossing this color line.

Johnson was unrepentant about his masculinity. He is reputed to have used gauze bandages under his boxing trunks to make his penis look larger. By the time he was charged in 1912 under the Mann Act for allegedly transporting a white woman across state lines for immoral purposes, he was the most reviled black man in America. Today, he is remembered as much for his relations with white women as he is for his great prowess as a boxer.

Collins and Sam present a useful correction on some of these obsolete notions of manhood that Johnson once glorified. But Blount warns that they need to keep their eyes on the prize.

"They shouldn't let others distract them from doing their best at their jobs," Blount said. "And they will do their best if they are out and proud."

When Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, Charlie Sifford and Arthur Ashe were breaking racial barriers in their respective sports, they could not have conceived of a black man making the choices that Collins and Sam are able to make in 2014. In earlier times, earning the right to simply compete took precedence over everything.

When Robinson entered the starting lineup of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, the country was still years away from most of the landmark civil rights legislation that would lead to sweeping social changes that cleared the path for women, gay rights and same-sex marriage.

In many ways, Collins and Sam can thank pioneers like Robinson for letting them now enter these stadiums and arenas fully on their own terms without having to make painful personal concessions.

Ashe's three-volume history of the black athlete, "A Hard Road to Glory," is replete with the stories of black men's triumphs over racism to become champions. But how will the next volume of this journey deal with gay male athletes?

Bayard Rustin was a leading figure in the civil rights movement, but he was alienated in many circles of the movement because of his unabashed homosexuality. He was relegated to the margins of the official histories of the 1960s that largely centered around men like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Historians have tried to restore Rustin's place in the movement, but to many he is remembered as the gay civil rights activist.

Hopefully, Sam and Collins will be remembered less for coming out than for their contributions to their teams. One of the hopes of the African-American generations that birthed Robinson, King and Ashe was that men and women could just go on with their work on the basis of the content of their character and work ethic, regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation.