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Jason Collins has come out as the first openly gay NBA player. In his own words, Collins has declared, “I am 34 years old, I am black and I am gay.” When I heard the news I felt deeply proud and happy for the courage Collins displayed in being himself.
Celebrating gay people is not one of the experiences that many African-Americans have. I was raised in an African American Christian home, where the Bible was the law of the land and being gay was considered an abomination to God. I was also raised in an African-American Christian home where my gay uncle lived. Seeing what was done to my uncle when I was a child and he was a young adult was shattering for me.
As a little boy, my uncle was different from his five brothers. He was soft-spoken, awkward and a “mama’s boy.” Because my uncle was different, his brothers bullied and teased him. In an effort to toughen him up, they often hit him and called him names. Within our family, one never spoke about the reason my uncle was single or had no children. There was an unspoken agreement that no one would ever acknowledge that my uncle was gay. Looking back, it was as if he were invisible.
As a teenaged girl I prayed that my uncle would not go to hell because of his sin. At the time, I believed that anyone who wasn’t a Christian or who lived a life filled with sin needed salvation and to accept Jesus. However, I also loved my uncle beyond words. He was fun to be with and interesting in ways that most adults were not. He listened to me when I spoke to him about my life, dreams and fears. He went out of his way to support me and show me what the world could offer. He would take me to plays, concerts and museums. And whatever I was doing, he was always there rooting me on. He was also close by when I needed a ride to a friend’s house to or the mall for Saturday afternoon shopping. Best of all, he was funny.
I decided to respect his privacy and his choice to keep his sexuality separate from our family.
My uncle would wear his black frame reading glasses on the back of his head and make funny faces when meeting my boyfriends. I’d be simultaneously embarrassed and hysterical. The boy would be confused. My love for my uncle was driving a stake between my faith and the reality of the loving experience I had with him. Unable to reconcile the two, I eventually left the church.
I believed my newfound freedom would open a new dialogue between my uncle and me. I wanted to be invited into the places he was hiding, and to talk openly about what it was like to be a gay black man in a Christian family. But nothing I said or did would move him out of the closet. My uncle is now in his 60s, and to this day we have never talked openly about his homosexuality. And believe me, I have done everything possible to open that door. He has simply ignored all of my attempts. Eventually, I decided to respect his privacy and his choice to keep his sexuality separate from our family. All I want for him today is to feel as happy and loved as he made me feel when I was a child.
In my experience, acting as though someone was not gay, and denying him the freedom to express himself fully, worked to imprison us all. Even though I attempted to open the door to the cell, I could not force anyone to actually leave. Kudos to Jason Collins and the door he has opened for all those who will follow him.
Image via Kwaku Alston/Sports Illustrated/Contour by Getty Images