Last April, NBA veteran Jason Collins publicly announced he was gay in what many supporters, myself and President Barack Obama included, heralded as a courageous leap in the right direction. As the first openly gay male athlete on a major professional team, Collins' deeply personal essay in Sports Illustrated detailing his "double life" was nothing short of trailblazing.
But buried underneath all his well-deserved applause was another important story, a story that runs parallel to Collins' and other closeted adults' private sagas -- that of those who believed the mask.
Carolyn Moos was in a long-term relationship with Collins for eight years. The two got engaged in 2008, and just one month before their wedding, Collins called the whole thing off without explanation. Moos paints the picture of the man she knew in a story for Cosmopolitan magazine entitled "Jason Collins Is My Ex-Fiance, and I Had No Idea He Was Gay."
The juxtaposition between Collins' essay in Sports Illustrated and Moos' first-person retelling of their life together is a bit jarring. She gets only a brief nod in Collins' original piece.
In that SI article, Collins wrote, "When I was younger, I dated women. I even got engaged. I thought I had to live a certain way. I thought I needed to marry a woman and raise kids with her. I kept telling myself the sky was red, but I always knew it was blue." This is the only time he alludes to Moos, the woman he'd known since college and to whom he spent nearly a decade essentially lying.
I was all set to defend Collins here. His story didn't have to include Moos because by definition it was his own. Collins even admits in his essay that "It takes an enormous amount of energy to guard such a big secret. I've endured years of misery and gone to enormous lengths to live a lie." Struggling with one's personal truth, especially in a world where that truth is vilified by society and the state, is a daily battle most of us can hardly imagine. The body count, the butcher's bill, is inevitable. People are going to get hurt.
But is the pain of living a lie somehow more poignant than that of being forced into one?
"When I couldn't get answers from Jason on what had gone wrong, I questioned myself and what I could have done better or differently," said Moos. "I should have been questioning him, but I didn't think to do so at all."
Nearly four years later when Collins finally provided Moos with the answer she could never have found on her own, her response was equal parts class and compassion. "I had no idea. I'm sure a huge weight is off your shoulders," she told him.
"I empathize with Jason," Moos said, "and support him. But at the same time, I remain deeply hurt by him."
That's a strong and truthful statement -- one that too often gets obscured under the praise heaped on our newly out and proud heroes who've undoubtedly hurt people. To be clear, Moos' admission that she'd been heartbroken in no way negates Collins' bravery, but it does provide a different lens through which to view it.
Coming out as an adult with a suitcase full of more baggage is hardly an easy journey. But the bumps on the road -- like an ex-fiance -- are more than just fleeting inconveniences. They should warrant more than a phone call or a heads-up the very same day a groundbreaking essay hits newsstands. Compassion, after all, is a two-way street.
In her Cosmo exclusive, Moos makes clear that she's telling her side of the story in the hopes that it might help other people. But I don't think she means other women scorned. Nowhere in the piece does she outline salacious gotcha or aha! moments. The idiotic term "gaydar" is thankfully absent.
She trusted her former fiance when he said he wanted to raise a family with her. "He told me that I was his soul mate," Moos recalled, "and I was meant for him." She had no idea Collins was gay and doesn't try to piece together hidden clues as a blueprint for other men and women in similar situations. Instead, Moos tells the story of being forced into a closet and how searching for answers in the dark leaves people feeling hurt and confused.
So I believe the cautionary tale Moos tells is truly intended for other closeted adults. Not by shaming or guilting them out of hiding but by presenting an aerial shot of the battlefield. There are almost always more casualties than early reports reveal.
Helena Andrews, contributing editor at The Root, a daily online magazine of commentary from a variety of black perspectives; www.theroot.com.