A little over two weeks ago, as my entire family was gathered at Sunday dinner, discussing the plans and preparations for my sister’s upcoming (June) wedding, she (my sister) unexpectantly broke down in tears and rushed out of the room, running upstairs. My parents and I looked at each other baffled, each of our faces simultaneously stuck on “Was it something I said?” mode. After the shock wore off, my mom went after my still hysterical sister, whose cries could be heard downstairs.
After a few minutes, my mom returned to the dinner table, alone.
“The wedding is off”
“Wait! What? What happened?”
“Rick broke up with her this morning. Said he didn’t want to marry her. Apparently didn’t give any reason for it.”
This news, while shocking, wasn’t necessarily surprising. They (Rick and my sister) met in college, and dated for eight years, and eight years is a hell of a long relationship gestation period. I know there are exceptions to every rule, but it’s been my experience that “eight years of dating” = “yeah, he doesn’t really want to marry your ass.”
I think my sister sensed this as well, but she still tried her damnedest to believe in their future together. She’d invested so much energy, so much time, sweat, love, and tears into this relationship she wouldn’t allow herself to think otherwise. Also, she wanted to have children—multiple children—and she was aware that as she got older (she’s 33), she honestly didn’t have much more time to be able to do that. Quite frankly, she needed this relationship with Rick to work.
As I mentioned earlier, I had an idea that this was coming. But, there was no urge to remind her or anyone of this. Instead, I was filled with rage. I thought about all the pre and post-wedding preparations my parents made, and the stress that put them through. My dad even developed an ulcer. I thought of all the people—friends and family—who’d saved up and altered their schedules to attend the June wedding. I thought about all the awkward conversations my sister was going to have to have for the next several months when co-workers and acquaintances who haven’t heard the news yet will ask her about Rick and the wedding. I thought of how she always wanted to be a wife and a mother. Even as a kid, she’d joke about wanting to have enough kids to field her own basketball team. Yes, she can still get married and yes, she can still have kids—despite what the media might tell you, a 30-something woman breaking up with a man isn’t a death sentence—but realistically, the chances of that happening are much lower now than they were even five years ago.
I wasn’t the only one filled with rage, either. Since hearing the news, my parents and I have both struggled to juggle the surreal ambivalence of wanting to be supportive for my sister and wanting to shed Rick’s blood. Some days, I’m so consumed with antipathy that I think about what I’d do to Rick if he ever had the misfortune of crossing paths with me. I know these feelings will eventually pass, but right now it’s all I can think about.
I imagine most people would also feel that strange combination of feelings—anger, confusion, disgust–if their loved one was hurt in a similar way. I’m sure you’d feel even more strange if the man who broke up with your sister so suddenly was being celebrated nationally—hailed everywhere as a hero—for basically the same reason he broke up with your sister so suddenly. Perhaps this reason makes him a pioneer, a vanguard, a spearhead to newer, better, and more progressive America. But, while bravery and a willingness to stand alone, to do what others haven’t done are part of its definition, “heroism” also implies a certain selflessness, a benevolent altruisticness, and knowing what this man did to your sister and your family, you’ll never be able to call him a hero.
I’m sure by now you’ve deduced that my story about my sister was a bit of an allegory. If you hadn’t figured it out, well, my story about my sister was a bit of an allegory. I wrote this from an hypothetical perspective of a hypothetical family member of Carolyn Moos—the woman who Jason Collins dated for eight years, proposed to, and broke up with a month before their wedding.
I didn’t write this to discredit or dismiss the bravery it took for Collins to make his recent admission, nor am I so myopic that I can’t see how an act like that has the potential to make a positive impact on thousands, even millions of lives. I also am fully aware that I have absolutely no idea about the inner workings of Collins’ and Moos’ relationship, and I couldn’t even begin the fathom how it must feel to spend decades trapped inside of a box, forced by societal constraints to live a lie.
I am, though, aware of how much of an influence perspective has on perception, and the Collins’ case—and the prevailing reaction to it—is an perfect example of that. A big part of the reason why Collins is being lauded as a hero is because he told his story first. Think of how much different everything would be if our first news about Collins’ sexuality was told by a scorned ex-fiancee who wanted to set the record straight after being led on for a decade.
There also lies the uncomfortable fact that his “heroism” is predicated on the fact that he very likely deceived and even hurt people—people very close to him—for a very long time. Lemme put it this way: If Collins was “Rick the civil engineer who just broke up with your sister a month before her wedding” instead of a guy who’s really, really, really good at playing basketball, and the story of Rick finally coming out was told from your sister’s perspective, I doubt you’d throw many positive-sounding nouns and adjectives in Rick’s direction.
Yet, Collins’ position as a professional athlete has made us assign a heroism to an act—publicly admitting that you’ve been living a lie—that isn’t really all that heroic. Yes, you cannot discount the role societal expectations played in Collins’ life, as I’m sure he did not set out to delude or hurt anyone. And yes, what Collins’ did—either intentionally or unintentionally lead a woman to believe their relationship was something that it wasn’t—has been done by men everywhere (me included). My eyes are filled with planks. This is exactly my point. If you take away the “firstness” and the homosexuality and just look at it as a “man spends decade deceiving woman who was in love with him” perspective, what separates him from the thousands of men (and women) reading this today? Obviously, being shitty at relationships doesn’t mean that you can’t be a hero. Just not when the heroism is directly linked to the shitty behavior.
You could argue that since Collins himself wasn’t completely sure of his sexuality—in his own words, this realization was “baking” for 33 years—it doesn’t really count as deception. Basically, deception isn’t truly deception if you’re genuinely deluding yourself. This is a valid argument. I don’t agree—a person unsure of their sexual preference telling someone they want to get married sounds like true deception to me—but it is valid. You can also argue that anyone hurt by Collins’ lie is America’s fault for forcing a man to think that he had to live that way, not Collins’. This is also a valid argument. I don’t agree—while America may have made it very difficult to come out as gay, America doesn’t force you to get into long relationships with women (What’s wrong with just not seriously dating anyone?)—but it is valid. But, the argument that context makes Collins a hero, that the impact of his admission supersedes any possible collateral damage caused by him living a lie, isn’t.
I applaud Collins for being real with himself, for having the courage to be free, for being the first active male athlete in one of our major sports to stand up and tell the world that he will no longer pretend to be something he isn’t, for having the balls to be the first member of a club that will likely grow much sooner and much larger than we think, for “outing” himself when he apparently didn’t have to.
But, as we rush to praise him for being first, we can’t forget that it came with a very human cost. If this still makes him a “hero” to you, fine. I understand. We all have our own definitions of the word, I guess. For now, though, I’ll be safe and just call him a “man.”
—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)