junetoonWhen Jason Collins came out of the closet as the first homosexual athlete in a major North American team sport, he was widely praises as a “hero” and everyone was expected to join in celebrating the accomplishment of publicizing his sexuality. Collins was likened to Jackie Robinson, the Brooklyn Dodger who broke the colour barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947. What such commentators ignore or miss, however, is that Robinson’s feat was strongly opposed as rival teams, the commissioner of baseball, and even team-mates protesting Robinson’s arrival in the Major Leagues. While technically there was no rule preventing black players, the racist tradition of exclusion was strong and had vocal defenders. Collins, on the other hand, comes out of the closet at a time when sports commissioners, team owners, advertisers, and sports journalists were clamouring for an athlete to declare himself gay. In the National Basketball Association, use of the derogatory term “fag” comes with an automatic $100,000 fine. In other words, while the sports world resisted Robinson’s barrier-breaking feat, it was welcoming Collins with open arms. Putting aside the differences between racism and so-called homophobia, the environments in which Robinson and Collins operate are hardly comparable.

What was even more pernicious than the inapt comparison, however, was the over-the-top reaction to Collins’ announcement, which came in the form of a first-person article in Sports Illustrated. In it Collins said he chose to come out now because the Boston Marathon terrorist attack convinced him he had to be honest with himself and his fans. But in an accompanying article in the same magazine, the editors said that Collins’ interview with Sports Illustrated was arranged on Easter weekend, more than two weeks before the tragedy in Boston. So in an article about being honest, there is, to put it politely, a huge discrepancy.

But that’s okay, because another reason, besides honesty, for his announcement, was Collins’ hope to start a “conversation” about homosexuality in sport and larger society. The problem is, if the reaction is any evidence, that this conversation must be limited to those who celebrate Collins’ decision. The fact is, many pro athletes, celebrities, and politicians publicly supported Collins, often going to social media to express encouragement and congratulations. ESPN had a panel discussion about the coming out party and NBA analyst Chris Broussard, a Christian, took issue with Collins invoking his own Christianity for opening up about his homosexuality. Broussard said he admired Collins’ “bravery” but wondered if something was askew as Christianity teaches that all sexual activity outside marriage is a sin. ESPN apologized for Broussard’s comments saying the sports network did not mean to detract from Collins’ announcement and offered boilerplate about respecting diversity while throwing Broussard under the bus for expressing an opinion on a sports talk show.

The National Post’s Bruce Arthur, who has been clamouring for gay rights in the sports pages of Canada’s national paper for years, welcomed the “conversation” Collins initiated while at the same time arguing that “bigots” need to be ignored. We do not expect much from a conversation in which one side is delegitimized as bigots. If there was ever any doubt, it is clear that when it comes to the issue of homosexuality, traditional moral views can be ignored and even ridiculed, being beyond the pale in any respectable discussion.

However, if you thought that keeping silent would immunize you from being criticized as anti-gay, think again. Josh Levin, writing in Slate, argued that there was a brand new form of “homophobia” exposed by the Collins announcement: people who have no opinion or did not care about Collins’ sexuality were derided as “homophobes.” Levin said having the attitude of “I don’t care” is both “foolish” and “dangerous” because it forces people with same-sex attraction to remain in the closet. Likewise, for Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Rosenbloom, anyone with a Twitter account who did not congratulate Collins was guilty of homophobia; he called out various Chicago athletes who said nothing about Collins, saying such silence betrayed an anti-gay bias.

Yes, for the sake of tolerance, everyone must celebrate homosexuality.