18 May 2011

Another Closet Door Slams Shut

I hadn’t heard of Rick Welts by name before yesterday, when he came out of the closet in the New York Times, and on ESPN. But I know two of his accomplishments: he created the NBA All-Star Slam Dunk Contest, and the WNBA.

He’s worked his whole life in professional basketball, being careful to keep his work separate from his life as a gay man. So separate that he couldn’t publicly mourn his partner’s death from AIDS. So separate that he lost another 14-year relationship when he couldn’t agree to come out of the closet.

He watched while a few minor sports celebrities came out after retirement, only to see some major sports celebrities publicly hate on them. He watched while other major sports celebrities used homophobic remarks on and off the court. He continued to stay in the closet.

He finally couldn’t accept the personal toll anymore, and decided to come out to some of his mentors, friends, and colleagues, who also happen to be some of the biggest names in basketball--now or ever. Bill Russell, legendary player and coach, gave his blessing, and a supportive interview on Rick’s behalf to the Times. Likewise David Stern, NBA Commissioner, who also tagged Kobe Bryant’s homophobic tirade last month as “despicable” and worthy of a $100K fine. Steve Nash, current star athlete, had this to say: “Anyone who’s not ready for this needs to catch up”.

Why is this important? As a high-level executive (Welts is president of the Phoenix Suns), he just raised the bar, of course, for professional behavior. Two Suns players have already recorded a public service announcement about anti-gay slurs.

Also, this is a story with a long reach for several reasons: Phoenix Suns fans will now have a new perspective on gays. Bill Russell’s support of Welts will have a large spillover effect because Russell was a pioneer in the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s (vocal supporter, first African-American NBA coach), and is still a fiercely beloved figure in sports. (The old Business teacher at my junior high, not your typical sports fan, mentioned him almost daily with a tear in his eye). Russell fans, who are perhaps not the typical pro-gay demographic (see Mr. DiFranco above) will be moved to consider this topic. Ditto Steve Nash fans.

Surely at least a handful of Phoenix Suns, Bill Russell, or Steve Nash fans (and those are pretty large circles of influence) will come away from this with a more positive view of gays--in sports, as business leaders, in general.

This means less closeting, less isolation, less bullying, less suicide.

Thank you, Rick, for opening this door.

One final thought from Harvey Milk:

“I would like to see every gay doctor come out, every gay lawyer, every gay architect come out, stand up and let that world know. That would do more to end prejudice overnight than anybody would imagine.”

-Maura McGurk

Maura makes artwork about issues related to the LGBT/queer/gay experience, especially gay bullying. Take a stand against gay bullying by checking out her work, liking it on Facebook, or commenting on her blog.

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