Charles Pierce sees Jason Collins’ coming out as especially symbolic:
His explanation for his decision to come out is rich with the historical “dual identity” forced on black Americans under Jim Crow, and the similar dynamic within which he lived as a gay man. Homophobia in the black community — indeed, even among the leaders of the civil rights movement of the 1960s — was some of the most virulent and stubborn of all, and there are still some who resent the equation of the gay rights movement with their struggle. In his announcement in Sports Illustrated, then, Collins gave every indication that he’s fully aware of the historic and cultural dimensions of his decision, and of the sacrifices made elsewhere so that he would be free to make it now.
Adam Serwer takes issue with Pierce, arguing that the race-sexuality issues in Collins’ case “deserve a more thoughtful examination”:
There was certainly homophobia in the civil rights movement—but in the 1950s and ’60s, American society was homophobic, and Pierce offers no evidence that the civil rights movement was more homophobic than any other American institution during that period.
Given that one of the architects of the civil rights movement’s nonviolent strategy was Bayard Rustin, it was arguably less homophobic than much of society at the time. With a few notable exceptions, surviving leaders of the movement—from Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) to Rev. James Lawson to Jesse Jackson to Julian Bond—are all in favor of gay and lesbian rights.
There’s also little evidence for the proposition that black homophobia is “the most virulent and stubborn of all.” Black folks, who were disenfranchised for centuries, didn’t put any of those old anti-sodomy laws on the books. The legal architecture of discrimination based on sexual orientation is one of the few things in America that dates back to colonial times that wasn’t built by black people.