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12 small words hammer down 1 more barrier

I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.

Three declarative sentences. Twelve words. One statement of seismic cultural significance.

And I know what some of you are thinking now, as Jason Collins introduces himself in Sports Illustrated with those three sentences and 12 words, and a purgatory of silence comes to a long and merited end.

You’re thinking you don’t care whether the man is gay, so why doesn’t he just shut up about it.

You’re thinking why bring it up, why make an issue of it, why make a, you know, thing out of it.

I’ll tell you why.

Because somewhere in America today – in a lot of somewheres – there’s a kid who’s listening to Jason Collins publicly come out as a gay pro athlete, he’s thinking maybe it’s gonna be OK.

Because that boom you’re hearing is the sound of one of our last bastions of intolerance crashing to earth, and thank God for it.

Because the day when a gay person felt constrained by society to hide his or her very essence is one more step toward being over – even if its vestiges are evident in the continuing notion that gay people shouldn’t be regarded as equal in the eyes of the law.

Why is Jason Collins making an issue of this?

Because the aforementioned attitude belongs to a benighted era we are well shut of, an era of segregated restrooms and lunch counters and the lie that was separate-but-equal. It belongs in the same dustbin of history as all those “Colored” and “White” signs we now so deservedly find shameful.

And, yes, I also know how that will play in some quarters, comparing the struggle for racial equality to the struggle for gay/straight equality. But both are about human dignity, when you get down to the bare wood of it. Both are about the acknowledgment that, while different, we are fundamentally the same.

Seen through that prism, professional sports were pretty much the last stand for “White” and “Colored” toward gays, except that the signs in this case both read “Silence.” So unmentionable was the issue, and so representative of what was often the locker room culture, that the only gay athletes who emerged from the closet did so only after they were safely retired.

Even now, Collins says, he didn’t want to be That Guy. In Sports Illustrated, he writes that he had no desire to be “the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying ‘I’m different.’ ” If he had his way, he says, someone else would have done it a long time ago. “Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand,” he writes.

For that, he deserves our respect and our gratitude. He deserves his public say, because not only does it take a hammer to intolerance but to stereotypes as well.

As soon as Jason Collins stepped out on that ledge alone, after all, he found out he wasn’t alone. Dozens of his contemporaries – Kobe Bryant and Celtics coach Doc Rivers among them – publicly pronounced their support. That led to the inescapable conclusion that the last bastion of intolerance wasn’t the monolith it appeared to be, and that maybe the tide had at last turned. And that made Collins’ pronouncement not just important but necessary.

Why is Jason Collins making an issue of this, you’re saying?

Simple: Because too many others have made an issue of it for far too long.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.