Nearly seven years after coming out, Derrick Gordon heard a slur directed his way on the court for the very first time.
A Plainfield native and former St. Patrick High School standout, Gordon became the first active, openly gay NCAA Division I men’s college basketball player in 2014 while attending UMass. He transferred to Seton Hall the following year and made history again as the first player to appear in the NCAA Tournament for three different schools; he began his collegiate career at Western Kentucky.
Gordon played professionally in Cyprus for Apollon Limassol B.C. in 2020. That December, he and an American opponent became heated midgame, and the player used a six-letter epithet multiple times, Gordon says.
Gordon, now 30, had seen such language hurled his way on social media, but the in-person encounter “shocked me a little bit,” he tells New Jersey Monthly over Zoom. “Regardless of wherever you go, there are always going to be those select few people.”
Gordon was reminded of that again in March 2022, when a young, gay NBA fan uncovered dozens of homophobic tweets from several active players. All of the tweets, mostly sent between 2009 and 2013, remained online until Outsports published them in full and brought the subject to light.
Gordon, who most recently played for Germany’s Römerstrom Gladiators Trier, acknowledged that people change, but he did not excuse the years that have passed since those tweets were sent. Rather, he noted the damaging impact they could have had on aspiring LGBTQ+ athletes who may already question their place in the sports world.
“Yeah, that would have bothered me big-time,” Gordon says of reading such a story when he was growing up in New Jersey with NBA dreams. “It sucks. It’s 2022, and we’re still having this conversation…The fact that this is still a topic—it can be very draining, but it has to be talked about.”
And so, all these years later, we’re talking about it this Pride Month.
A defense-first guard with an unpolished shot, Gordon was not considered an NBA prospect coming out of college in 2016. He declared for the draft anyway. No team called his name—or even invited him to a workout.
Gordon felt he didn’t get a fair shake. He still does. “For a player that took three teams to the NCAA Tournament and not get a tryout based off of that? Yeah, I kind of felt like that was a slap in the face,” he says.
The NBA was home to the first active, openly gay athlete to play a major North American sport. Jason Collins came out in April 2013 while he was a 34-year-old free agent. The Nets signed him the following February. The journeyman center played 22 games for Brooklyn that season and retired in November 2014.
Collins helped push Gordon “over the cliff” that was coming out, a three-year, “roller-coaster” process that was complicated by Gordon’s UMass teammates. Gordon says they teased him and voiced their suspicions while he was closeted, and he isolated himself whenever he could.
One night, Gordon says teammates called him while he was at Paradise, a gay nightclub in Asbury Park. When they asked where the background music was coming from, Gordon answered without thinking. The truth was met with laughter, and Gordon immediately hung up.
He didn’t want to return to school after that and thought about quitting basketball. But conversations with Collins and others helped him forge a different path.
Collins bluntly told Gordon that coming out could negatively impact his career, that there was risk involved. But Gordon knew there was more to his identity than basketball, and Collins also offered reassurances.
“You’re gonna see pushback. Just be prepared for that pushback and know that there is a community of support to help you, so that you aren’t going through this journey alone,” Collins now tells New Jersey Monthly when asked to relay his advice to Gordon or anyone in his shoes.
Gordon now says, “I chose happiness.”
Gordon came out to his teammates and the world, though problems persisted at UMass. A few days after breaking the news, he recalls his teammates bolting for the shower exit when he walked in. “They impacted me in a way that I had to leave UMass,” Gordon says.
So he returned home to New Jersey. Gordon’s transfer to Seton Hall in 2015 came just after a popular priest at the Catholic university says he was removed from his post by the Archdiocese of Newark after he showed support for the LGBTQ+ community. The priest ultimately came out.
Gordon, however, felt at home in South Orange, a mere 25 minutes from his hometown of Plainfield. He was embraced as a veteran leader on a sophomore-laden team. He joined his teammates when they went to the movies and hung out. There weren’t issues in the locker room. “It was a family there,” Gordon says—a family that won the Big East Tournament before losing in the first round of March Madness.
“We all just cared more about winning,” Gordon adds. “Everyone knew I was gay, but it wasn’t an issue.”
Gordon believes sexual orientation or gender identity shouldn’t matter, as long as a person can play the sport and help a team win. Collins agrees. He sees strides being made along those lines, at least for certain members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Pride nights and inclusivity initiatives have become commonplace in sports, and Collins feels that coverage of cisgender, gay, female athletes generally focuses on their performance instead of their personal lives. That’s the goal for everyone, he says. Collins also thinks the sports world is now more accepting of cisgender, gay, male athletes, even if news coverage still tends to focus on their sexual orientation; he cited NFL player Carl Nassib, who came out in June 2021 while a member of the Raiders. Players who have already come out, Collins says, have “made it a lot easier for those athletes now stepping forward.”
That idea partly inspired Gordon to resume his basketball career overseas after a three-year post-college hiatus that included acting and firefighting pursuits. “I can be that example for not just the younger generation, but anybody who just needs that motivation,” Gordon says. “I want them to be able to look at me.”
While some progress has been made in athletics since Gordon and Collins came out, their comments come at a time when various states, politicians and school systems across the country are taking measures that have outraged members of the LGBTQ+ community and allies. Florida’s so-called Don’t Say Gay bill “baffles” Gordon, and multiple laws have been passed targeting transgender athletes in youth sports. “The next big step for inclusivity is obviously trans athletes and, in particular, trans women,” Collins says. “That is where there needs to be some more work and education that takes place.”
Regardless of how a person identifies, Gordon does not want any young LGBTQ+ athlete to go through the “dark time” that he did prior to coming out. That is why Gordon has embraced being a mentor when given the chance, just as Collins helped him.
Gordon has advised a number of up-and-coming athletes, and he plans to participate in more speaking events. Last December, Gordon became an ambassador for Athlete Ally, a nonprofit, LGBTQ+ athletic-advocacy group. He intends to get more involved when he’s not in season. He frequently shares messages of support on social media, something Athlete Ally strongly encourages.
“They have to see it to be it,” Joanna Hoffman, Athlete Ally’s director of communications, says of young athletes seeing such posts. “For them to envision themselves having a place in sports and being fully themselves, they have to see visible role models doing just that.”
Happy Pride Month 🏳️🌈. It’s important to me to be very open about my identity so that those who are struggling with their own can see someone who has been able to overcome that struggle. It’s OK to be different and that social norms do not need to be followed. #BeTrue #Pride2021 pic.twitter.com/t3qU3Tqe9a
— Derrick Gordon (@flash2gordon) June 1, 2021
On a similar note, Gordon feels progress will continue as more and more athletes come out, though he says that “you have to do it on your own terms.” Collins concurs, but adds that leagues, conferences and teams should have clear policies and easily accessible resources pertaining to inclusivity, if they don’t already. Hoffman says the same of coaches and athletic departments, which can also apply zero-tolerance policies to fan behavior.
As an ambassador for NBA Cares, the league’s program that addresses a number of social issues, Collins now speaks to players about such topics. He believes in the power of education—that simple conversations can “open people’s eyes.” Collins noted how, when he was still closeted, he heard players use homophobic language. Some of those same players, he says, became his biggest supporters after he came out.
“These conversations need to continue to happen,” Collins says. “It’s not like we can have progress, and then sort of just throw a big party and think that the fight is over. We see this in every single civil rights act, whether it comes down to race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity. There’s progress, and there’s almost immediate pushback and a try to repeal something. It’s mind-boggling, some of the stuff that is happening across our country.”
It would be understandable if members of the LGBTQ+ community felt burdened by the continued need for these conversations or exhausted from an endless fight. Like anyone else, they just want to live, or, in the case of athletics, play the sport that they love.
Gordon, however, knew that speaking out and getting involved would come with the territory when he made his decision to publicly come out. He wanted that responsibility and still does, because he sees a need for more improvement.
“I’ve had plenty of college players reach out to me that were thinking about [coming out],” Gordon says. “But they never came out. It just sucks that we live in a society where people can’t even come out to be their true selves, because they’re worried about what this person is going to say or that person is going to say. It’s unfortunate.”Click here to leave a comment