Chip Sarafin, an offensive lineman on Arizona State's football team, just "announced" he is gay, making him the first openly gay man to play Division I football. The mechanics of publicly telling the entire world your sexual preference is always going to be clunky and weird. Hey everybody, listen up, I need to tell the media that I love men. Michael Sam, the only gay player in the NFL, came out after a series of complicated behind-the-scenes communications with publicists and agents; the NBA's Jason Collins did so in a Sports Illustrated story. In Collins's case, his public revelation long after he came out to those around him, but Sam, who is a decade younger, was already out to many people who knew him, including his teammates.
Sarafin's coming out was even more low-key. The 6'6" 320-pound biomedical engineering major was profiled in Compete, a gay sports magazine, and the article barely makes mention of his sexuality, focusing instead on, for instance, his research into making better football helmets and his upbringing in a Mormon community. The story is brief and the magazine didn't put Sarafin on the cover next to a big "1ST GAY COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYER UNCOVERED HERE!"—the cover mentions the article but says only "Arizona State Linebacker Shows Colors," a teaser that gets his position wrong.
There seems to be no outcry at all over Sarafin's casual coming out—it's been greeted the same way it was offered, with a shrug. That's as it should be: As time passes and fewer and fewer people hold bigoted views (and anti-gay prejudice gets pushed out of the mainstream the way open, virulent racism has been), being openly gay has become less risky, and less of a big deal. That's not to say there isn't a lot of homophobia out there or that gay people aren't discriminated against and abused because of their sexuality, but it is getting better. America is a more tolerant of different sexualities than it was 20 years ago; 20 years from now it will likely be more tolerant still. Public figures coming out as gay, especially in traditionally masculine spaces like sports, can help speed this transition toward full acceptance, which is why it's a great and brave thing for Collins and Sam to announce their identities. It's also why news anchor Anderson Cooper decided to publicly come out in 2012, though he wasn't "closeted" by any stretch of the imagination; he simply hadn't told the world at large about his sexuality, which is, after all, what straights do.
Someday, hopefully someday soon, openly gay athletes will be like openly gay lawyers, openly gay graphic designers, openly gay doctors, and openly gay scientists, which is to say they'll be unremarkable. There won't be any need for this odd, often embarrassing process where a man has to "announce" his sexuality to the world and have everyone talk about who he loves for a couple of news cycles. Gay athletes revealing themselves as such publicly is progress, but it'll be better still when we're at the place where a football player can say he's gay and everyone will go, "So what?"
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