Much hubbub is being made today about NBA basketball player Jason Collins, and his courageous decision to come out as gay in a cover story he penned for Sports Illustrated.
He is being widely lauded as North America’s “first openly gay sports star,” which, depending on your definition of “sports,” is not entirely true.
If you include so-called “sports entertainment,” which is a gussied-up euphemism for pro wrestling, then you can credit the late professional wrestler Chris Kanyon as the first professional athlete to come out of the closet in a male-dominated North American sports organization.
Kanyon’s story, however, isn’t nearly as uplifting or inspirational as Collins’ coming-out saga.
Although Kanyon never became a household name like Hulk Hogan, he was a recognized star during the late-1990s boom period of professional wrestling, performing with the hugely popular World Championship Wrestling (WCW), which at the time had higher television ratings than practically any other programming in the world.
When WCW imploded and was bought by World Wrestling Entertainment in 2001, Kanyon made the switch to WWE, performing in a prominent “invasion” angle with fellow WCW alumni.
He struggled with his sexual identity — struggles that were exacerbated by the strangely homophobic-yet-homoerotic world of professional wrestling.
In 2003, he pitched an idea to WWE honcho Vince McMahon: he wanted to become the first openly gay professional wrestler. The idea apparently didn’t fly with the boss (although Kanyon performed one peculiar skit on WWE Smackdown imitating gay pop star Boy George), and he was unemployed within a year.
Kanyon was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was known for increasingly erratic behavior. At one point, he waged a publicity stunt in which he asserted that he was fired from WWE precisely because he was gay, but then later recanted and insisted he was straight (then recanted again and confirmed he was indeed gay).
Far from getting a hero’s celebration, which is what Jason Collins is enjoying now, Kanyon was ostracized and marginalized.
In April 2010, he was found dead in his apartment with an empty bottle of pills and a suicide note in which he apologized to his family.
It has been 10 years since Kanyon tried to become the first openly gay pro athlete in his sport. Clearly, a lot of important progress has been made in the past decade, given how positive the reception has been for Jeff Collins.