Pro basketball player Jason Collins was the first. Then college football's Michael Sam. And now University of Massachusetts basketball guard Derrick Gordon has become the third active male athlete playing a major team sport to reveal he is gay.
The response, Gordon said, has been overwhelmingly positive.
"If I would have known this was going to be the reaction," he said Friday by phone from the UMass campus, "I probably would have done it in high school."
Gordon, 22, hopes other athletes follow him. "It's a lot of us," he said. "Not just basketball. We're hiding. Of course, I'm not hiding anymore. These past couple of days have been the happiest days of my life. I was suffering. I was crying. I felt I wasn't wanted. That's the worst way to live."
Gordon told Newsday that he first came out four months ago to Tim Kenney, the university's executive associate athletic director, who held a similar position at Stony Brook University. "He has been like a father to me," Gordon said.
That didn't make it any easier. Gordon informed Kenney by text. "I said, 'Really, you're going to do this by text?' " Kenney responded.
Kenney was with Gordon when he informed his teammates on April 2. "When we talked to the team, some of the guys weren't comfortable enough," Kenney said. "Some of the guys said, 'This doesn't happen [where they live].' To equate it the right way, I said to them, 'Years ago, you couldn't drink out of the same water fountain as a white person. Would you have liked that?' That hit home."
What does Gordon expect when he steps on the court next season?
"I'm not worried about the crowd," the sophomore said. "Someone talking about my sexuality, it isn't going to change anything one bit. Not at all. I'm going to be just fine."
He understands there are those who may object to his sexual orientation, saying, "There are going to be people out there who don't agree with it and feel that it's wrong. I respect their position. I feel that everybody was made different, but equal at the same time. I was born this way. And there's a lot of us. It's not like I woke up one day and said, 'All right, I'm going to be gay.' I respect everybody if they feel they disagree with it, but I have people out there who do support me, and that's all that matters at the end of the day."
Based on the initial public reaction, perhaps, as Indiana University sports psychologist Jesse Steinfeldt suggested, society now "has their backs."
There have been no reported incidents of harassment by fans regarding Collins, whom the Nets signed in February, less than a year after his announcement. Sam, the former Missouri linebacker, came out after last season and soon will be an NFL player. He has not disclosed any problems.
"There seems to be a 'hey, dude, don't go there' type of dynamic," said Steinfeldt, who sees a shift from perceived intolerance in the older generation to one of acceptance by the younger fan base.
"Collectively, if someone were to stand up and yell [a slur], you can imagine the backlash of people sitting around that person," Steinfeldt said. "We haven't given society enough credit that there would be backlash not only from the team but the crowd saying, 'That's not what we do. We have a social contract where we value each other.' "
Fordham basketball coach Tom Pecora agreed. "If you're ready to make statements that publicly are ignorant, dumb, archaic statements regarding a person who is gay, then you deserve to be vilified, not him."
Gordon likened his situation to Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball's color barrier. "He took that great leap of faith and eventually over time, people accepted him," Gordon said. "I think it's the same with me. Over time, it's not going to be a story as people come out. I can't wait for it to get like that. I think that will make our society a lot better."
Jim Struve, a clinical social worker in Salt Lake City and coordinator for the LGBTQ-Affirmative Psychotherapist Guild of Utah, said openly gay athletes play an important role "because there's such a code of masculinity within sports and the people who are coming out are encouraged to break that rule. It's just scrambling people's expectations . . . [Gay athletes] can be just as much a man as any straight guy. They are at the forefront of visibly challenging the gender norms."
NBA legend Bill Russell, speaking last week in Austin, Texas, at a summit celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, expressed support for gay athletes. "It seems to me, a lot of questions about gay athletes were the same questions they used to ask about us," Russell was quoted in reference to African-American players.
Russell said the only question he would have about a gay teammate is whether he can play. Speaking to that point, Steinfeldt said, "We're not far off where someone can be known as a basketball player who happens to be gay. The final step would be he's just a basketball player and, oh, yeah, he's gay, but that is inconsequential."