Paul: Somewhere, a gay kid's in a better place because Carl Nassib came out

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

I've been given some great advice over the years.

And the gold standard might just be: "Don't read the comments."

Unfortunately, that's often unavoidable, especially in this era of social media, and especially when reporting on topics that still, in 2021, turn so many people off — such as a professional athlete coming out as gay.

Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib

Every once in a while, though, a keyboard warrior actually will help prove a point, even if unintentionally. Like this one fella Monday, who responded to Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib coming out as gay with this: "It should be one's character and abilities on the field (that matter), not their lifestyle choice."

That word right there, "choice," did more to validate the importance of Nassib's historic announcement than anything I can or will say in this column. This ignorant idea that being gay is a choice brilliantly proves why Nassib's coming-out is very, very newsworthy.

Let's be clear here: The only choice in this story was Nassib's to speak and live his truth. Being gay isn't a choice, any more than Jim Abbott chose to be born without a right hand, or that you chose to be straight.  Being gay is who you are; coming to terms with it is the journey, for which everyone has their own time frame.

The problem is, there remains far too much ignorance on this topic. So much so, in fact, that in 30 states, including most of Michigan — outside of Metro Detroit municipalities such as Huntington Woods, Ferndale, Royal Oak, Berkley and Madison Heights, plus East Lansing — conversion therapy, the cruel, primitive program which has a sole purpose of turning gay people, usually young people, into straight people, is still allowed. Conversion therapy doesn't work one lick, but it's alarmingly dangerous, doing nothing more than adding to the stigma that if you're gay, there's something wrong with you.

It creates confusion, and often depression, which can have devastating effects. Consider these statistics: Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among youths age 10 to 24. According to The Trevor Project and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, LGBTQ+ youth consider suicide three times more than straight youth. LGBTQ+ youth are nearly five times as likely to have attempted suicide.

(In making his announcement Monday, becoming the first active NFL player in history to come out as gay, Nassib pledged a $100,000 donation to The Trevor Project.)

There have been other noteworthy coming-out stories in sports. In men's sports, there's been Michael Sam, Jason Collins, Robbie Rogers, Gus Kenworthy, Adam Rippon and more, including many post-career.

And every time one of those stories gets reported, the refrain from the turned-off crowd is "Who cares," or "Why is this newsworthy." The first response also makes me laugh, because odds are if they took the time to comment in the first place, then, well, they probably care to some degree. The second, why is this newsworthy, I wish it wasn't. But the answer can be found in those damning statistics above.

As NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said Monday, "Representation matters." (It's not lost on me it took Goodell less than four hours to publicly support Nassib, and nearly four years to support Colin Kaepernick.) Lots of gay kids watch sports, and every time an athlete, amateur, collegiate or professional, publicly comes out, you best believe they notice. And there's a damn good chance the revelation will, in some way small or more likely big, positively impact those gay kids — gay kids, again, far more likely to contemplate suicide, because they feel they're not right, or, worse, that they're all alone.

If athletes are supposed to be role models, then this is a touchdown that actually matters. Pride Nights, like ones held annually by the Tigers, Pistons and Red Wings, help big-time, too. They increase visibility, visibility leads to inclusion, and inclusion might just a make a gay kid feel like he or she belongs in this world. Role models can have the opposite effect, too, which is why it's a big problem and, yes, newsworthy every time a golfer, or NBA player, or soccer crowd, uses a homophobic slur, for all the world — and gay kids — to hear.

Raiders owner Mark Davis told ESPN on Monday night that, "It's 2021," which is another popular response to stories like these. As if, we should be so beyond stories like this. And it's true. We should be. But, it was only in 2015 when the Supreme Court of the United States legalized gay marriage. It was only 2020 when the Supreme Court made it illegal to fire somebody because they're gay. Heck, it was just last week that a homeowners association in Florida threatened to fine residents just for flying a rainbow flag.

Progress has been made, significantly in recent years. But the fight for true equality is far from over — and, "until then, I'm gonna do my best and do my part to cultivate a culture that's accepting and that's compassionate," Nassib said Monday night.

Now, I'm lucky. Coming to the realization that I was gay was scary, as it is for everyone, especially those from practicing-Catholic families like mine. But, as it turned out, I have a super-supportive family, so coming out in college was smooth sailing for me. Not every kid is as fortunate. In fact, most aren't.

So, yes, seeing a Nassib or a Sam or a Rogers come out remains very important, and newsworthy. It reinforces to gay kids, or questioning kids, that you're OK; being yourself is a blessing, and not a barrier. And yes, things do indeed get better. I certainly didn't want to be gay. As a questioning kid, I'd often spend hours putting on an indoor mat, telling myself if I made the putt, I was straight. (I'm a bad putter today; these two facts cannot be unrelated.) I tried not to be gay, clumsily dating girls in high school. I didn't choose to be gay, anymore than I chose to go gray at 16. Think about it. Who would choose to be gay? But, I've come to be glad that I'm gay, because that's my truth, truth leads to happiness, and everyone has the right to be happy.

I'll also gladly second Nassib's message from his Instragram post Monday, in that we all hope there comes a day where coming-out videos like his aren't necessary. That being gay is no more a thing than being born deaf, or a red-head. But we're simply not there. The sad suicide statistics say as much, as does society (don't read the comments, but, take my word for it). It was barely five years ago 49 people were slaughtered at a gay club in Florida. There remains hate in this world, and ignorance, both of which are equally dangerous.

And both of which are, actually, a choice.

Twitter: @tonypaul1984