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Editorial: Jason Collins is brave to tell he's gay

Jason Collins, a free agent NBA center, became

Jason Collins, a free agent NBA center, became the first openly gay athlete to play a major American team sport. Credit: AP, 2012

NBA player Jason Collins came out yesterday in a column in Sports Illustrated. The piece is already stirring comment, and one of the biggest questions will be: "Does this matter?"

It matters very much.

It matters because many gay young people are so uncomfortable, so fearful or so ashamed that, according to a 2011 Columbia University study in the journal Pediatrics, they are five times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight counterparts. It matters because when disgraced former Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice wanted to demean players, among his weapons were anti-gay slurs.

For Collins, the first active male player in a major professional U.S. team sport to make such a disclosure, his honesty after 12 seasons was a high-risk decision but a well-timed one. Top WNBA draft pick Brittney Griner came out earlier this month and several NFL players are reportedly planning to do so soon as a group.

A 7-footer who recently became a free agent and is known for his physical play, Collins fits no one's stereotype of a homosexual. In the piece, he related his struggle to come to terms with being gay, his years of hiding it, his gradual revelations to friends and family, and the evolution of his desire to come out publicly.

If his move creates an avalanche of prominent people, from athletics and other walks of life, speaking publicly about being gay, the power could be tremendous. If more gay men and lesbians come out, young gay people will know they are not strange, or alone. The suicides might lessen and the violence against them might abate. The stigma could fade even faster than it has of late.

What Collins did is brave. The next pro athlete or captain of industry or elected official to come out will risk less, and the bunch after that less still, until, if enough are open, there will be no risk at all.