Commentary: Swinging for the fence on gay rights

When a federal judge struck down California's voter-approved gay marriage ban Wednesday, I was listening to Ken Burns talk baseball and civil rights.

The heralded filmmaker was telling the story of how Jackie Robinson kick-started the civil rights movement by breaking baseball's color barrier in 1947. He spoke about racial progress being marked by how far we've come since Robinson donned Dodger blue.

In 1948, for example, the California Supreme Court struck down anti-miscegenation laws banning interracial marriage.

How ironic, then, that in the current civil rights struggle — the fight to secure gay marriage — baseball is a symbol of how far we need to go.

Unlike most every other American profession, no gay ballplayer has dared come out of the closet while actively playing.

Progress in gay rights is being marked in the courts while baseball lags behind.

Burns was in Beverly Hills last week with co-director Lynn Novick to promote "The Tenth Inning," their latest documentary.

The film charts a compelling narrative of steroid-era baseball from the early 1990s to today.

As a writer who covered baseball then, I'm in the film, which PBS will air on Sept. 28-29.

On Wednesday, most of the TV critics listening to Burns wanted to talk steroids.

The obvious historical connection between Robinson's struggle and the struggle for marriage equality was left unsaid.

It often is. Some African Americans resent gay rights being equated with the civil rights of Robinson's era.

But after a federal judge struck down Proposition 8 — and with the issue of marriage equality seemingly destined for the U.S. Supreme Court — what else can this struggle be called?

In his day, Robinson slid into the teeth of bigotry entrenched in every phase of American life.

In a different way, gay people confront religious, political and social resistance every day. Homophobes preach hate and create a climate for violence against gay people.

Mainstream religious leaders claim to love gay people yet consign them to spiritual purgatory because of the way they love.

Double-talking politicians, including President Barack Obama, oppose Proposition 8 but don't support marriage equality.

Social conservatives claim to abhor government intrusion at the expense of personal freedoms, and yet they support the government telling gays they can't get married.

And then there is the biggest group of all – the masses who stand passively by while same-sex bigotry swirls around them.

Right now, legal minds are chipping away at this mountain.

But if history is any judge, we will know progress is at hand when a big-league baseball star comes out of the closet and takes his own swing at homophobia.