Jason Collins and Michael Sam Recast View of Black Manhood

PHOTO: Michael Sam, left, and Jason Collins are the first openly gay athletes to reach the national state.
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Brooklyn Nets basketball player Jason Collins and NFL hopeful Michael Sam are poised to do more than reshape what it means to be openly gay athletes on the national stage, according to at least one LGBT advocate: Their high-profile roles in professional sports may "push the construct" of black manhood.

"This is extremely significant," said Kimberley McLeod, an African-American who runs Elixher, a magazine and blog for black LGBT women. "Sports and pop culture play such a huge role in forming our values and beliefs. … They are expanding the definition of what it means to be a black man and highlighting our common humanity in the process.

"They are saying that they should not be treated any differently than anyone else," she said. "It's exciting that they are at the forefront of the national conversation."

Whether that discussion finds common ground remains to be seen, given some of the deep resistance to homosexuality within the black religious community and its cool relations with LGBT advocates.

Jason Collins makes NBA return.

But none of that negates the historic signing of Collins, 35, who played with the Nets Sunday against the Los Angeles Lakers to become the first openly gay man playing in the Big 4 sports. The free agent had announced at the end of last season that he was gay and had, until now, remained unsigned.

"Right now I'm focusing on trying to learn the plays, learning the coverages and the game plan and the assignments," Collins said at a crowded news conference less than an hour before the game. "So I didn't have time to really think about history."

Teammate Kevin Garnett, noting that he didn't think Collins' sexual orientation would matter, said, "Great competitor, plays team basketball, is for the team, great guy, great character.

"I think it's important that anybody who has the capabilities and skill level [gets] a chance to [do] something he's great at," Garnett said, according to ESPN. "I think it would be bias, and in a sense, racist, if you [were] to keep that opportunity from a person."

Sam, a University of Missouri All-America defensive lineman who is expected to be drafted by an NFL team in May, came out publicly to ESPN's Chris Connelly this month.

Maybe Michael Sam will fit in NFL just fine.

Meanwhile, the two communities -- LGBT advocates and African-Americans -- have not always been mutual supporters. In 2008, conservative black churches allied with the Mormon Church to campaign for the passage of Proposition 8, a referendum that banned legal same-sex marriage in California.

But public opinion began to shift in May 2012 after President Obama endorsed same-sex marriage. At the same time the NAACP threw its support for marriage equality.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll two weeks later revealed that 53 percent of Americans say same-sex marriage should be legal; in 2006, only 36 percent were in favor of same-sex unions.

The 2012 poll also found that 59 percent of African-Americans support same-sex marriage, up from 41 percent.

But whether attitudes have fundamentally shifted is an open question.

The Rev. Morris Tipton, spokesman for the National Baptist Convention, the largest predominantly African-American Christian denomination in the United States, said that although he applauded the success of both Collins and Sam, his religious views are unchanged.

"Those who are against [homosexuality] are still against it," he said. "It really gets down to the nuts and bolts of those debates. One side believes someone is born homosexual and the other believes it's a choice. ...

"While I can't speak for every African American -- opinions are just as broad and different as any people can be -- our stance within the church has been more about human rights than gay and lesbian rights," he said. "Whether or not we agree as individuals within the church or as a body of believers, it would never be our stance to block someone from pursuing their career. More power to Jason Collins and Michael Sam in their pursuit of a professional sports career."

McLeod of Elixher magazine said she hoped Collins and Sam might dispel the "narratives" about homophobia in the sports world, as well as create new role models for African-American youth.

"We talk about black people and athletes like they are monolithically homophobic," she said. "But most NFL players polled have said they don't think sexual orientation matters."

Traditionally, in the world of music and the media, black manhood has been viewed as "surrounded by wealth and how many women you can have or be with; those have been the examples of power for black men," she said.

But with Collins and Sam in the rough-and-tumble world of professional sports, "manhood looks like a very different thing," McLeod said. "Being gay doesn't make you any less of a man. You can be both.

"Being gay is only one part of your identity, but it doesn't completely define you. You can exist at these multiple identities as a whole and full person."

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