News & Politics

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.

Photograph of Sarvis courtesy of SLDN.

When NBA player
Jason Collins came out as gay this

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

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
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.”

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