Jason Collins: “I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay."

The media storm surrounding NBA centre Jason Collins coming out shows the sporting world is ready to hear what he has to say.


Jason Collins got straight to the point. “I'm a 34-year-old NBA center,” ran the opening line of his article for Sports Illustrated. “I'm black. And I'm gay.”

Those three simple sentences sparked a national conversation. Across the United States, TV news crews scrambled to find guests who could speak on the subjects of sexuality and sport. ESPN devoted an hour-long episode of Outside The Lines to discussing the basketball player’s words. Collins was booked to appear on Tuesday’s edition of the popular ABC breakfast show Good Morning America.

He would prefer it not to be this way. Collins would love to live in a world where his sexuality did not matter to other people, where he could get on with living his life as he saw fit. But he knew that could never be the case. As the first-ever athlete to come out publically as gay while still active in one of America’s four major sports leagues, he would inevitably be thrust into the role of spokesman and pioneer.

Collins did not relish that position, but he knew it was a necessary one. “I wish I wasn't the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, ‘I'm different’,” he continued in Sports Illustrated. “If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I'm raising my hand.”

Within minutes of the article being published online, messages of support began to flood in. “Proud of @jasoncollins34,” tweeted the LA Lakers star Kobe Bryant. “Don’t suffocate who u r because of the ignorance of others.” The NBA’s commissioner, David Stern, thanked Collins for “assuming the leadership mantle on this very important issue”.

A few hours later, Collins was reported to have received a personal phone call from Barack Obama, who praised the player for his courage. The former president Bill Clinton released a statement defining this as an “important moment” for the equal rights campaign, while his daughter Chelsea – who studied with Collins at Stanford – offered further encouragement on Twitter.

Such positive responses did not tell the full story, however. The evidence from elsewhere suggested that the path ahead for Collins and other gay players would not be an easy one.

Discussing the topic on Outside the Lines, Chris Broussard – a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine – said he had spoken to players who felt uncomfortable about sharing a shower or a locker room with a gay team-mate. A similar sentiment had been expressed by an NFL player, Chris Culliver, in the build-up to this year’s Super Bowl.

Broussard said no team would reject Collins on the basis of his sexuality, but suggested that some might favour another player if there was not much to choose between the two. If true, then Collins could already have played his last game. At 34 years old, he is out of contract and will be seeking a new team when free agency begins in July. Even before this announcement, there was no guarantee of him finding one.

The fear among Collins’s supporters is that any failure on his part could put other gay players off speaking honestly about their sexuality in the future. On the other hand, it is possible that a strong enough message has already been sent. If Collins’s article drew unprecedented coverage on Monday it was not only because he happened to be an active player but also because the sporting world was ready to hear what he had to say.

Rumours that at least one leading American sportsman was preparing to come out had been swirling around for months. The former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, an outspoken advocate of equal rights, had even claimed that four NFL players were preparing to do so together through a jointly-published announcement.

As the Supreme Court deliberated on the topic of equal marriage, influential figures from both inside and outside the world of sport insisted that the time was right for new role models to step forward. In a piece for Grantland, Wesley Morris observed that: “the media is conducting a comical stakeout of closet doors across all professional sports.” 

And yet it was against this same backdrop that another basketball player, Brittney Griner, managed to tell the world that she was gay without creating too much of a splash. Perhaps that was down to the manner in which she went public, Griner casually referring to herself as “out” during a brief media appearance alongside two other players.

More likely it was because of her gender. Women’s basketball is nothing like as big a draw for supporters as the men’s equivalent, even if Griner – touted by some as the greatest-ever female prospect – does enjoy a respectable personal following.

And then there is the influence of straightforward stereotyping, the kind which presumes all gay men to be effeminate and gay women to be butch. It is precisely such flawed expectations which have allowed some male athletes and coaches to convince themselves in the past that gay players simply did not exist in their sports.

Jason Collins has now shown them otherwise. He is not really the first, but he might just be the one who makes America take notice.

Jason Collins playing for the Boston Celtics in November 2012. Photograph: Getty Images
The Science & Society Picture Library
Show Hide image

This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.