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Mahler: Coming Out Is a Daily Occurrence

Krista Perry knows just what Jason Collins is going through these days. It’s not easy putting questions of gender identity and sexual orientation on the table for everyone to see ... and judge.

But that’s how change occurs — through the bravery and dedication of single individuals making a stand.

It wasn’t so long ago that Perry, a 2006 Dartmouth College graduate and former women’s basketball captain was one of those special people, coming out and proudly declaring she was gay during her sophomore summer at the college. For Collins, a former Boston Celtics center, his defining moment came this week in a Sports Illustrated article, making him the first active male athlete in major U.S. sports team to come out of the closet.

“Finally!” said Perry, discussing the news this week during a phone interview from her job in Boston. “It’s not much of an issue in women’s athletics. We were really just waiting to see who would be the first (on the men’s side). And now it has happened.

“Hopefully this will help push people forward.”

In her case, Perry was not alone. Along with the track record and large number of female athletes who had already come out, Perry was embraced by her family, her school and her team.

Today, Perry works as a health care consultant in the Boston area for a company called Trinity Partners. She also co-chairs the Idaho Safe Schools Coalition, where her group offers workshops and training for organizations that work directly with youth who are struggling with gender identity and sexual orientation.

She sees Collins as a potential role model for young adults in Idaho and around the rest of the country. “I hope people will look at this and say, ‘Well, he didn’t fall apart after he came out. Maybe it’s OK for me,’ ” she said.

“This could be a turning point. My hope is that in the next few months, more feel empowered to come out.”

In a lot of ways, America has shown indications of embracing alternative lifestyles since Perry was at Dartmouth. Just this week, Rhode Island became the 10th state to legalize gay marriage. In the National Hockey League, a program called “You Can Play” was built to change the culture of the locker room and educate fans, using the help of 60 players last year to create videos asking for awareness and understanding.

Their mission statement reads, in part, “You Can Play is dedicated to ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation. You Can Play works to guarantee that athletes are given a fair opportunity to compete, judged by other athletes and fans alike, only by what they contribute to the sport or their team’s success.”

But these, sadly, are just some isolated examples of small steps heading forward. Before we declare victory on the social battlefield, there are still more doors to open and more battles to be won. There are still issues to be dealt with, issues that have combined to keep people from feeling comfortable enough to come out — the stigma, the isolation, the fear.

Perry calls it internalized homophobia. “There is still a lack of understanding that forces people to fear their sexuality might cost them a job,” she said. “That fear forces people back in the closet.”

An example would be, what happens next season if Collins, an NBA free agent, doesn’t sign with a team? The question of his sexuality immediately takes precedence over his athletic resume. That sort of negative press can possibly inhibit someone from coming out.

“How do we reach that person?” Perry said. “They need to see that admitting their sexual orientation is only a part of who they are, not how they define themselves.”

Then there is the more obvious ... and perhaps more insidious because it sort of hides under the radar.

When you read coaching bios in team press guides, the last line usually pertains to the coach’s family — naming the wife and the kids, the dog etc.

“But,” as Perry points out, “you never see something like that when the coach is gay. These little things mean a lot. To people who are struggling to come out, they notice little things like this. These little things perpetuate fear.

“I remember I felt I had to hide everything I was. And by not mentioning the partner, is perpetuating it.”

It is for that reason why Perry works with young kids and maintains a positive and vibrant visibility. To be seen is to help break down barriers and encourage dialogue. Anything to shine a light through the darkness and give hope to those looking for a way out of the closet.

The path Jason Collins now walks needs an army of enlightened followers. This is just the first step on a long march. Someday, perhaps, this won’t be a story. Someday, perhaps, this won’t be an issue. But that day is still far off.

Some believe the cause needs a more popular or visible spokesman. Others believe the weight of numbers will spur the social change and eventual acceptance. So to that end, speak up to give voice; stand up to give support. While it’s great to get out and wave that rainbow flag, it’s going to take visible action to change the world.

Krista Perry knows.

“People are always asking me, ‘When did you come out?’ ” says Perry. “I have a simple answer: Every day.”

Don Mahler can be reached at dmahler@vnews.com or 603-727-3225.