When President Obama declared last year he supported same-sex marriage, one of the pastors who had long advised Obama, Florida’s Joel Hunter, publicly disagreed with the president. On a private conference call with Obama, some leading black pastors, stalwart backers of most of the president’s policies, also criticized his decision. Some Democrats wondered if it would hurt Obama among African-American voters in last November’s elections.
Almost exactly a year later (Obama’s announcement was on May 9, 2012), NBA player Jason Collins became the first male athlete in a major pro sport to say he is gay. And in a sign of how swiftly opinion on gay rights has changed in America, his decision to be open about his homosexuality was almost universally praised. Both other athletes and politicians like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama embraced Collins.
Just as significantly, almost no one publicly criticized Collins or suggested a gay player would somehow disrupt the morale of an NBA team, the argument that was long cited in barring people who are openly gay from serving in the U.S. military.
A triumph for gay rights
ESPN basketball commentator Chris Broussard, a devout Christian, did say on the air that he felt Collins was violating the tenets of Christianity by being gay, and suggested some NBA players were wary of Collins’ declaration but would not say so publicly because it would not be “politically correct.”
But that reluctance to go public against Collins is itself a triumph for gay rights. Two years ago, Kobe Bryant was fined by the NBA for calling a referee a “fa**ot” in the midst of an argument during a game. Now, Bryant was among a group of players who praised the courage of Collins for being open about his sexuality. No player would go on the record with Broussard and suggest they would be unwilling to play alongside Collins. And the ESPN commentator himself was sharply criticized for his comments about faith and homosexuality, with the network issuing an apology.
Collins’ announcement was groundbreaking because he is a member of male-dominated profession that, like the military, is perceived (perhaps unfairly) as being less tolerant of gay rights.
But his words and the reaction to them are actually part of a much broader shift in American culture. Being openly gay, or strongly supportive of gay rights, as President Obama and other politicians have shown, increasingly is the position of most Americans, and there is little consequence to holding such views. On the other hand, people who don’t back gay rights views speaking of their stance as a risk, and hence often won’t do so. Many Republican politicians, even if they are officially opposed to gay rights for religious reasons, are not as blunt about it as Broussard was.
Gay rights agenda to strengthen
That dynamic is likely to strengthen the gay rights agenda, as its backers now include presidents and its opponents have gone mute. Elites help drive public opinion, and elites are becoming overwhelmingly supportive of gay unions and pushing others in the same direction. Collins’ announcement was almost certainly influenced by Obama being so open about his support of gay rights last year. Democratic senators rushed to embrace gay marriage after Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) became one of the first prominent Republicans to do so a few months ago.
Only a year ago, it seemed hard to imagine either presidential candidate supporting gay marriage. Now, it seems that by 2016, the Democratic candidate is virtually certain to, and the Republican might as well. Current polls show about 75 percent of Republicans oppose gay marriage, about the same as the number of Democrats who back it.
But those numbers could shift quickly, as sports becomes the latest major part of American culture to embrace people who are openly gay.
Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr