When 12-year NBA veteran Jason Collins revealed publicly in Sports Illustrated last Monday that he is gay, he seemed to catch many by surprise. Yet there were many in the sports world, media and otherwise, who treated the news of the first openly gay active athlete in one of America’s four major sports with a collective shrug. One of the people not doing that? Tennis legend Martina Navratilova, who came out as a lesbian in 1981.
Responding on the same day as Collins’ announcement, Navratilova wrote that his coming out will “save lives.” She reiterated the point Sunday in an interview on Melissa Harris-Perry. “In this day and age, a third of teenage suicides are due to their sexual orientations,” Navratilova said. “They’re so terrified of coming out as gay that they take their own life.”
Navratilova mentioned that she came out as AIDS was coming to light, and noted President Reagan’s failure to adequately acknowledge the problem was a part of the culture at the time.
“Being gay was the lowest of the low that you could get, and that’s why people stayed in the closet, because you could get so shamed, you were so ashamed of who you were—not because of who you thought you were, but because of what everybody else thought—that people just didn’t speak up.”
Now that Collins has spoken up, Navratilova—the winner of a record 59 Grand Slam titles—feels it’s time for another LGBT athlete to be a trailblazer for equality.
“When I used to march on Washington in ‘93 and 2000, my mom used to ask me, ‘Why do you have to carry the flag?’ I said, ‘Well, it’s because there was no one else picking it up!’” she said. “I’m actively handing it over to Jason Collins. He can carry it. He’s a lot bigger, and he’ll get a lot more attention. Passing the baton, paying it forward.”