Jason Collins, twelve-year veteran of the Boston Celtics, came out as a gay man. He is the first major league athlete to do so.
I have to admire the man’s courage. Coming out is no big deal in the circles I run in, but in the context of the hyper-macho world of the Sports Big Show, it is headline news.
For a number of people, the notion of someone coming out is unremarkable, it ought to be unremarkable for everyone. I believe the number of Americans that favor gay marriage is now about double of those who oppose it.
Leon, my best friend all through high school, announced to me in our senior year he was a homosexual. Thi word was more neutral than the other common reference of the time–queer–and long before gay came to be the designated descriptor. When Leon came out to me, nothing changed for me. He was still a man of good character, and our friendship was undiminished. I was blessed with the instant lesson that being homosexual did not an evil person make, and I was spared having to plod through the intellectual exercises to unlearn the parochial school yard misinformation of the time
The next several decades were tough for him. He wrestled with alcohol, drugs, and suicide. His first marriage failed in a matter of days. Many years later he tried again, with a measure of success that produced two children.
He lived most of his life around New York City. We would exchange a phone call every year or two, a letter every decade or two. We visited for coffee maybe three times in the 40 years after high school. I was always glad to see him and our meetups were upbeat. I looked past his thinning hair and the teeth that were absenting themselves.
He got to our 50th high school reunion. In a small knot of people I stood next to him and did not recognize him until he spoke. I turned to look at him, a man four inches shorter and thirty pounds lighter than the last time I saw him. I said his name and he turned to me and smiled toothlessly.
We had a good visit and before he left, I asked him to find out what a set of teeth would cost and to find a dentist or dental school that would make them. Although this was a period when I had no cash surplus, when I got the information, I gave the school my credit card number and told them to go ahead.
A few weeks later I got a smiling photograph with a note with telling me the first thing he did after getting his teeth was something he had not done for years–he had a salad.
In late 2010 when my gypsy life was still young, I called Leon to tell him I was heading east and planned to see him sometime within the next year. The voice in the phone was a bit woozy and the conversation spacey. He said he was pretty doped up, in late stages of cancer treatment, and was just waiting to die.
With little else to say, he simply hung up the phone. And my longest standing friendship dialed its way down to OFF.
A few months later a letter from one of his grandkids caught up with me to tell me he was gone. And she would always remember me as the man who gave her grandfather his smile back to him.