CHICAGO — You’ve probably never heard of Holly Peterson or Jonathan Jean-Pierre. One came out as a lesbian at age 15, when she was playing high school basketball. The other, a college rower, told his teammates last year that he’s gay.
There was little fanfare for either. There were no headlines as there were this past week when NBA player Jason Collins declared that he is gay, making him the first in a major U.S. men’s professional sport to come out.
Some are calling Collins a role model for this up-and-coming generation of gay and lesbian athletes. But in some ways, those young athletes and their supporters also have helped pave the way for pros like Collins.
“Change is coming from the top down, but it’s also coming from the bottom up,” says Ellen Staurowsky, a professor of sport management at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
“It is a movement that’s taken place quietly,” she adds, “on teams, in athletic departments with some coaches and athletes standing up when they needed to … It’s an accumulated movement over many, many decades.”
Awareness of homosexuality in athletics started to grow, slowly, Staurowsky says, in the 1970s on college campuses. Then in the early 1980s, tennis star Billie Jean King was outed, and Martina Navratilova also came out as a lesbian.
As a small number of high-profile athletes followed suit in years to come, Gene Smith, the athletic director at Ohio State University, says he and others began to notice a shift in momentum on college campuses by the mid-1990s. More young athletes were feeling empowered to be open about their sexuality, he says, and the trend has only grown.
“I think it was easier on certain teams, and it kind of evolved over time,” says Smith, who was the athletic director at Eastern Michigan University and Iowa State University before going to Ohio State.
For some, like Holly Peterson, an athlete who grew up outside Sacramento, Calif., coming out happened even earlier in life. She made the decision to tell her family and friends that she’s a lesbian 14 years ago, when she was a sophomore in high school.
“I was ready,” says Peterson, who’s now 29. “I needed to tell someone.”
Her team and coach responded well, she says, though her parents removed her from her traveling basketball team and, instead, used the money they’d spent on that for therapy.
Eventually, though, her parents came to terms with her sexual orientation — and she went on to play college basketball at the University of California, Riverside, where she also lived her life openly.
While there, she recalls speaking on a panel with other gay and lesbian athletes — and how other women athletes on her campus told her that she’d given them the courage to come out, too.
“That was huge for me,” says Peterson, who now plays women’s professional tackle football. “That was really the first step in my looking at myself as a role model and someone who could make a difference.”
Several campuses — among them Princeton, the University of Michigan and the University of California, Berkeley — now have groups for gay and lesbian athletes.
There are groups, too, for straight allies, including Athlete Ally, an organization for straight athletes who publicly back their lesbian and gay peers.
The website for another organization, the You Can Play Project, includes videos of support from athletic directors, coaches and athletes from colleges and universities across the country.
“If you can play, you can play,” is the tagline repeated over and over in those videos.
If you come out, you also might get an endorsement deal.
Just days after Brittney Griner came out as a lesbian, sportswear company Nike Inc. announced a deal with Griner, the WNBA’s No. 1 draft pick who’ll soon graduate from Baylor University.
Not that it’s always easy for gay and lesbian athletes.
Jonathan Jean-Pierre, a member of the rowing team at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, says his teammates have never given him any trouble about being gay.
“But sometimes I still feel like I have to work twice as hard to prove myself,” says the 19-year-old athlete, who plans to discuss these and other issues as a participant of a summit for gay and lesbian athletes that Nike will host next month for the athletes, coaches and college athletic directors.
While more gay and lesbian athletes are coming out, Smith at Ohio State also notes that his school remains among those where a gay athlete has yet to come out on the football, men’s basketball, hockey or wrestling teams.
That, he and others say, is where pro athletes like Collins may have particular influence, especially if Collins, who is a free agent, signs with a team next season.
“There are certainly other closeted athletes who are looking to Jason Collins to see what will happen with him,” says Hudson Taylor, a former collegiate wrestler who, as a straight supporter of his gay and lesbian peers, founded Athlete Ally.
Either way, many — including skater Johnny Weir, who announced he was gay after the last winter Olympics — expect that Collins’ revelation will have a positive impact on young gay and lesbian athletes, partly because so many people are aware of it.
“I’m envious of it,” the 28-year-old Weir says, because there wasn’t “as much craze” when he came out. “But I do really respect it.”
Smith at Ohio State says he, too, has great respect for the athletes at his school who continue to come out. He recalls, for instance, how a member of the university’s track team named Derrick Anderson recently announced that he’s gay at a school forum.
That said, he hopes that, one day, coming out in such a public way won’t be necessary — that gay and straight athletes and other students can simply coexist.
“That’s a long ways away,” Smith says. “But I think we’re making good progress.”
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