With the headline “Why NBA center Jason Collins is coming out now,” 12-season NBA veteran Collins Jason_Collins_2012_3wrote himself into the history books. Collins, who played this past season for the Washington Wizards and is now a free agent, penned an article for Sports Illustrated and, with it, became the first active male professional athlete in a major American team sport to publicly come out as gay.

In the piece, which debuted online last Monday and will run in this coming Monday’s issue of the magazine, Collins writes:

I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay.

I didn’t set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. But since I am, I’m happy to start the conversation. I wish I wasn’t the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, “I’m different.” If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I’m raising my hand.

Collins’ announcement has been lauded as a victory for the gay community and, in the few days since it was first posted online, has received a wide range of public support. Leaders of the Association for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Issues in Counseling (ALGBTIC), a division of the American Counseling Association, are also voicing their support, adding that Collins’ story may serve as a helpful tool for counselors to use with clients who may be dealing with similar experiences.

“Jason Collins’ recent announcement that he is gay highlights not only his personal convictions but also the great progress that our society has made towards acceptance of LGB individuals,” says ALGBTIC board member Samuel Sanabria. “The reception that he received as the first male athlete to come out while playing a major U.S. professional team sport, especially from fellow athletes and people involved in professional sports in this country, is very encouraging. Jason Collins serves as a role model for young LGB individuals and can be an inspiration for those young people — young athletes in particular — who are struggling with their own sexual identity or who are contemplating coming out.”

Like Sanabria, ALGBTIC President Pete Finnerty thinks Collins’ bold step will be helpful to many youths struggling with their sexuality, especially young men. However, Finnerty says he finds both positives and negatives in the media attention surrounding Collins’ coming out.

“His mostly welcomed coming out notes how times [are changing], as he is the first active male player in a major U.S. sport to come out while still playing,” Finnerty says. “This is groundbreaking for the testosterone-pumped and often homophobic atmosphere of men’s team sports. It also breaks [down] ignorant stereotypes about gay men. Collins is a tough basketball player who fouls and scrambles for loose balls. Collins defeats the notion gay men are prissy, ‘girly’ men who ‘might get hurt in a tough sport,’ as an unnamed athlete once told me.”

But on the flip side, Finnerty continues, “it also shows how sexism, genderism and heterosexism continue to not only retain prevalence but also power in the minds of Americans. Think not? Tell me why Americans do not make a big deal about [athletes] such as Brittany Griner, the first pick in this year’s WNBA draft, who came out about a month ago. Perhaps because she was often thought to be [like] a man because of her physical stature and to even progressively minded persons [it] ‘looked like she could be gay.’ This shows the continuation of the American struggle to overcome gender and orientation stereotypes.”

Richmond Wynn, multicultural consultant for ALGBTIC, is appreciative of the support Collins is receiving from prominent figures such as President Obama.

“This is huge for all of us — athletes, gay people, especially gay men of color, and our allies,” Wynn says. “Jason joins others who have decided to live openly as gay despite the backlash. I admire his courage, and I hope that his story is inspiring to athletes as well as those from other walks of life who may be struggling with how to make peace with themselves.”

Wynn suggests counselors could use Collins’ story as a way to help clients who are dealing with sexual orientation issues talk about the process of coming out and discuss the risks and benefits of living openly as gay.

“It is important for counselors to understand their clients’ difficulties within the context of their lives,” Wynn says. “While Jason is a role model for many, the challenges of living authentically as a member of a marginalized group still exist.”

Counselors might also consider discussing Collins’ story with clients, colleagues, friends and family, Wynn suggests, as a way of exploring what it means to be an ally to the gay community.

Finnerty thinks Collins’ story would be especially useful for counselors working with young, male clients.

“This man defies stereotypes and shows [that] being LGBTQQIA doesn’t mean you have to fit into what somebody else’s box is,” Finnerty says. “We can be who we are, which may be an African American, educated, physical basketball player who happens to be gay. This allows us to have a deeper conversation with those persons who often say, ‘There’s nobody out there like me to look up to.’”

 Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at hrudow@counseling.org.