What Gays in Pro Sports Can Learn From Gays in the Military

Aubrey Sarvis, a trailblazer in the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, talks about Jason Collins and coming out.

By: Carol Ross Joynt

Photograph of Sarvis courtesy of SLDN.

When NBA player Jason Collins came out as gay this week, it lit up the LGBT conversation and prompted the professional sports world to join in and consider the possibility of a new attitude. Could there be acceptance of openly gay players not only in the NBA, but also in other high-testosterone professional sports such as football, hockey, and baseball?

For the trailblazers who fought for gays in the military, the issues are familiar. Aubrey Sarvis is one of those trailblazers. For five and a half years he was the executive director of the Service Members Legal Defense Network. Sarvis and SLDN led the movement to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” a change in law that made it possible for gays to serve openly in the military. The policy officially ended on September 20, 2011, and Sarvis stepped down from leading SLDN a year later. During the time he was the face and voice of the issue he counseled dozens of active-duty service members on when, how, and whether to come out.

We called Sarvis on Wednesday to get his thoughts on Collins’s pioneering move and how Sarvis’s own experience with DADT could relate to gays in professional sports.

“I don’t know [Collins], but [it was] certainly a remarkable coming out for him, for the NBA,” Sarvis says. “We are talking about a young man in the league for 12 years. I have to believe it was something he was wrestling with for a long time. He didn’t wake up last month and discover he was gay. I’m very proud of the decision he made, but a very selfish perspective [is] I wish he’d come out several years ago when he was playing a full season. To that extent I think it would have had an even larger impact.”

Sarvis sees a common thread between Collins and other gay figures in pro sports, the military, the corporate world, and politics. He understands their dilemma. “Do I come out before I make the team, before I become a corporate officer, before I get elected? Those are individual decisions, but the sooner they make that decision the more effective they will be.”

According to Sarvis, at its core coming out is about being ready personally to go public. “Whether you are a service member or a professional athlete, you have to make a decision where you are entirely comfortable in your skin about who you are and what you are about to embark upon,” he says. “You have to be absolutely comfortable with that decision, whatever it may be, whether it is to come out or to stay in the closet. My personal belief is that each individual is stronger when he or she makes that decision to come out.”

Sarvis says that with active-duty service members in the years before the repeal of DADT, he had to counsel them “under difficult circumstances. We reminded them to do so would mean losing their jobs, losing the right to serve their country.” He says that because of the consequences most gay and lesbian service members decided “not to come out and to somehow find a way to manage their private lives.” That’s the analogy he finds with professional sports. “What will be the impact of coming out on my professional career? I think Jason Collins probably did ask himself many times what consequences coming out as a gay man would have on his career.”

Athletes face some of the same backlash as members of the military, Sarvis says, because regardless of laws, gays face the issue of acceptance. “There are people who will be angry and disappointed. You have to be prepared for that. When you make an announcement at this level, in the public arena, you are inviting a whole new level of scrutiny. You have to be prepared for those who will be angry and abandon you.” That said, he feels that for young people especially, due to the changing times, there is a likelihood that family and friends will be accepting. “You will be surprised by how much support you might receive. But that’s not to say it will be easy.”

We wondered whether it’s an obligation for a high-profile person, such as an athlete, to come out in a big, public way. Collins made his announcement, for example, with a Sports Illustrated cover story. “It’s about the individual—what he is comfortable with,” Sarvis says. “Some public figures are basically shy. That may come as a surprise, that a public figure could also be a shy person and not comfortable being before the media.”

Sarvis says if other pro athletes plan to come out, they should get professional advice from “someone who has been a colleague or who has been through this; professional assistance from their own agents and managers. Just imagine what Jason Collins has been through over the past 48 hours. You need someone to guide you through this terrain.”

Even though it is now legal for openly gay people to serve in the military, Sarvis says there’s still reluctance to go public. “Some are choosing or electing not to come out,” he says. “That reluctance is a fear you may not be accepted entirely and that coming out could have an adverse impact on your future promotions and advancement. Whether in the NBA or NFL, I suspect [gay] athletes are asking themselves, ‘What impact will this have on my playing and being retained by the team?’.”

The bottom line, he says, is that regardless of profession or position, for a gay person to come out publicly “you have to be comfortable with the decision you are about to make,” and it’s up to the individual to choose “if, when, and how.”