“I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay.”
With those three sentences, Jason Collins became a household name. Across the country the words “NBA center” and “gay” headlined newspapers as the world prepared for the first openly gay athlete to play in one of the four major American professional leagues. What was notably missing from those headlines and many of the discussions that followed after was that middle sentence: I’m black.
“I knew as an African American that it adds another dimension to the discussion,” Collins said in an interview with Oprah following his decision to come out.
That dimension also affects Michael Sam, who came out right before his NFL combine debut. The Missouri defensive end is set to become the first openly gay player to compete in the league. Sam and Collins are now leading the gay rights movement in American sports, and they are doing so as queer people of color.
It is important to realize the power these two, and many more, queer people of color have within the LGBT rights movement. They offer a perspective that is often missing from mainstream coverage, and without their voices, the fight for LGBT equality is null.
In a time when just being black meant legal segregation and calculated acts of violence, Bayard Rustin stood beside his friend Martin Luther King Jr., and he did so as an openly gay man. King and Rustin first met after Rustin helped organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and later, Rustin went on to organize the March on Washington, where King gave his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech. Many close to King wanted Rustin to keep his sexuality quiet, but Rustin knew the power of embracing both of his identities. He was one of the first to create a bridge between the two movements in which racial justice and LGBT equality intersected.
Today, that intersection is more prevalent than ever, and being a queer person of color has just as much significance. In a 2012 survey by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, queer people of color represent more than half of the total reported victims of hate crimes and more than 70 percent of all homicide victims.
Just recently, CeCe McDonald, a transgender woman from Minnesota, was released from jail after serving 41 months in an all-male prison. She was convicted of fatally stabbing a man who violently attacked her and her friends during a hate crime. Now McDonald, alongside transgender actress Laverne Cox, is an outspoken activist in the fight for transgender rights, particular for transgender women of color.
It is their experiences that make this movement, yet when we look to at the coverage of LGBT equality, queer people of color are rarely included in the conversation. And if they are, their experiences are looked at from one perspective or the other, but rarely both. When that happens, many are left to assume that every LGBT person’s struggle is the same, but the truth is that a person’s culture has a far greater impact on what it means to be LGBT than anything else.
So as Sam and Collins make waves by competing as openly gay athletes, it is important to realize the impact they have as queer people of color. As their stories are being told, their experiences are opening more doors for other queer people of color to join the mainstream fight for LGBT equality.