On Monday, Jason Collins made history as the first openly gay, active male athlete on a major sports team. In his coming-out piece for Sports Illustrated, Collins acknowledged that he wore the number 98 while playing for the Boston Celtics as a tribute to Matthew Shepard, the 21-year-old University of Wyoming student who was murdered for being gay in October 1998.
In an interview with Fox Sports, Shepard’s parents, Dennis and Judy, revealed that they were moved to tears by the news of Collins’ tribute:
“It made me cry,” Judy Shepard told FOXSports.com during an interview Monday afternoon. “It was really quite a tribute, and I was very honored. And I know Matt would be thrilled…”
“I would really love to speak to him, because I know Judy and I would just like to thank him,” Dennis Shepard said. “Because, No. 1, he had the courage to come out, period, and No. 2 that he wore 98 in honor of Matt, the year that he died.
“(Collins) couldn’t have been that old (when it happened), so it must have had a tremendous impact on him, the story behind Matt, for him to want to do that. And then to wear it all this time without telling people why until today, that’s incredible.”
Judy Shepard went on to say that she is hopeful that Collins’ presence in sports can inspire a new conversation about gay rights with a new audience, calling his coming out “a remarkable step forward”:
“It’s a whole different world now from when we first started doing this,” Judy Shepard said. “It’s remarkable in the big picture how fast things have changed, especially since Obama became president. It’s just moved right along at light speed, and it’s really been quite remarkable.”
But to see that motion toward change come in the world of sports, an arena that’s somewhat lacking when it comes to gay rights, was particularly meaningful.
“Hopefully this will start the conversation saying there’s no difference, as long as my team wins, who cares if they’re straight or gay?” Dennis Shepard said. “There have been a lot of athletes that played and were gay, and I have a feeling their teammates knew it and they just didn’t care.”
Added Judy Shepard: “It’s always more challenging in team sports to have the courage to (come out), and I think that once the doors open, the floodgates will literally open. And not just in pro sports, but college and all down the line. It’s just a remarkable step forward.”