Qualcomm recently hosted an event in San Diego spotlighting the Human Rights Campaign’s (HRC’s) Corporate Equality Index (CEI), the national benchmarking tool on corporate policies and practices pertinent to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) employees. Companies that have earned a 100% rating are recognized on HRC’s annual "Best Place to Work for LGBT Equality" list. Qualcomm has consistently rated 95% or higher on the CEI since 2006, and earned 100% ratings in 2011 and 2014. On November 17, Qualcomm was again honored by the HRC with a 2015 CEI rating of 100%.
With the words “Qualcomm is stronger because of our inclusive work environment, where employees see one another’s uniqueness as assets and strengths,” Qualcomm President Derek Aberle welcomed the audience and HRC Vice President and Chief Foundation Officer Jeff Krehely, who spoke about CEI’s mission, followed by a “fireside chat” with Dan Novak, Qualcomm VP of Global Marketing, PR and Communications, and NBA star Jason Collins.
An All-Pac-10 First Team player at Stanford University, Collins has played in the NBA for 13 years, including stints with the New Jersey Nets, Boston Celtics, Washington Wizards, and most recently the Brooklyn Nets. Collins is viewed by his peers (and basketball followers) as one of toughest and most intelligent players on the court—a leader skilled at reading opponents and executing defense with extreme precision. (One former teammate called him “Principal Collins” because of his discipline.)
Collins made national headlines when he came out on the May 6, 2013 cover of Sports Illustrated and became the first publicly gay athlete to play in any of North America’s four major professional sports leagues.
On stage at Qualcomm, Collins and Novak discussed what led to Collins’ decision to come out, why he did it in such a public manner—and the challenges moving forward.
On his decision to come out:
“A lot of my friends already knew, and my family knew…I had reached a point where the people that mattered the most to me—my loved ones, they loved me, they supported me, they accepted me for who I am…it was time. I wanted to come out on my own terms. So I called my agent—I think he was on a safari in Africa. And most of the time when an agent gets a call from a player out of the blue, the agent thinks, ‘I’m going to be fired.’ I told him I was tired of telling the story of ‘I have a girlfriend—who doesn’t exist—in Los Angeles, and she’s super busy and can’t come to visit me…’ I just got tired of that.”
On coming out, on the cover of Sports Illustrated:
“I was very fortunate that my agent had a great relationship with a writer at Sports Illustrated and it was a true collaboration. We had a conversation—a back and forth—for over three-and-half hours, and he came back to me a couple days later and put all of my words down on paper. And since it was my story, I got to be the editor…it was a great process. Again, it was one of those things where I wanted to tell my story in a dignified manner, on my own terms.”
About his life before coming out:
“I knew that I was gay in junior high school…when most people start developing different feelings for different individuals…I knew that my feelings were different. I did not accept that until I was 33 years old. I kept telling myself that I’m going to date this girl, and she’s going to change all my feelings magically…[but] that’s not how it works.
“[Up until I accepted I was gay,] I was one of those people, [who] when you have a major issue going on in your life, you focus it on something else. For me, basketball was my focus…In 2011, the NBA had a lockout…I got thrown off my routine. And I was forced to look at [what] the rest of my life [was] going to look like when I don’t have basketball. ‘Am I going to keep living a lie? Or am I going to reach out to someone and say the words for the first time—I’m gay?’”
Collins reached out to Dan Savage, author of It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living, who guided him on coming out.
Facing fear of rejection:
Savage initially suggested that Collins tell his twin brother, Jarron, also an NBA player. Collins was hesitant about telling his brother because Jarron, like Collins, grew up in the super-jock locker room culture, and he thought Jarron would reject him. Collins, instead turned to his aunt Terri, a judge in San Francisco. Says Collins, “She kind of knew, but was respectful not to ask—it’s one of those things [where] you just have to be patient with someone. But I knew, based on some of the questions she’d asked me before, that she’d be receptive.”
On why it took so long and what inspired him to be first:
“I could not have done what I did without Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King…In professional male sports…the playbook for male professional athletes is to wait a couple years after you retire, and then come out. But that’s not me. My family raised me to always be proud of who I am. And when I came out to them…I had that love—that support. It just goes back to that foundation that my family instilled into my brother and me, to just be proud—be proud to be African-American, be proud to be…unique. Being gay is just another aspect to be proud of. Waiting to retire was not in my playbook.”
On the reaction of other NBA players:
The weekend prior to the SI story, Collins and his brother reached out to former teammates to let them know the story was coming out on Monday. With a combined 22 years of NBA experience, the brothers reached a significant number of players. “I didn’t know what the reaction was going to be.” Collins likened it to being the canary in the mineshaft.
“’It’s safe to be who you are.’ When I got that reaction from Jerry Stackhouse…it was just so supportive. Some teammates who reached out to me with their words of support, were some of the players that, when I was coming up, were the ones that I heard use homophobic language. It’s one of those things where because I am proud enough to put myself out there…people can respect that, it changes their mind, it changes the conversation, their attitudes.”
On being jersey #98:
Most of his career, Collins was #35 or #34. But when joining the Celtics, the future hall of famer Paul Pierce already had #34. Collins opted for #31, his brother’s former number. But that was the retired jersey number of Cedric Maxwell. “So I asked myself what other numbers are significant to me? I wanted a reminder of my new identity that I was proud of. Nineteen Ninety Eight was significant to the LGBT community because that was the year the Trevor Project was founded, and that was the year Matthew Shepard was taken from us.”
A Hero in so many ways
Whether or not you’re a part of the LGBT community, the Collins event was truly inspiring. The vibe was positive. The CEI presentation from Jeff Krehely showed that attitudes are changing, slowly but surely—tolerance and acceptance are becoming the norm. Coming out was a tremendous act of courage for Collins. He risked losing everything he valued—his life as an NBA player, his friends and family. But he believed living a lie just wasn’t worth it. By coming out, Collins can live his life on his terms. And he has also become a shining example to others still in the closet, providing proof for the adage that the truth can set you free. As Jason will tell you, it just takes one brave step out into the open.