Kobe BryantJust four years ago, Kobe Bryant tossed around the “other” F-word as an insult. Now he openly and enthusiastically supports fellow NBA player Jason Collins‘ decision to come out.

How quickly things change.

Bryant’s shift shows as well as anything how far acceptance of gay, lesbian and transgender individuals has come is a few short years. In announcing his homosexuality in a Sports Illustrated story, Collins admitted that he is glad he is going public in 2013, as opposed to 2003, when LGBT rights were still a fringe issue. He could just as easily have said 2010 instead of 2003, though.

History happens slowly, then all at once. The march toward tolerance for homosexuals has been decades in the making, and full legal personhood is still elusive. But in the realm of public opinion, the decision has already been made. A majority of Americans now approve of rights like gay marriage, and many of them count homosexuals among their relatives and best friends.

What happened? Not enough people have been born in the last 10 years to make up for the change — and they would not be old enough to show up in polls of likely voters, anyway. What happened was that people’s opinions “evolved” from open disdain to begrudging resignation to wider acceptance. By the time Collins made his statement, Bryant, one-time hurler of slurs, was “proud” of him.

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As Twitter lit up Monday morning with those, like Bryant, voicing support for Collins, it was noteworthy that the few who dared to express the opposite sentiment were dismissed or shouted down. That is how freedom of speech works — say whatever you please, but know that your words will be debated against and you will be judged for saying them.

Bryant will never get over comparisons to Michael Jordan, and if the Lakers’ struggles this season are any indication, a sixth ring for Bryant to tie Jordan’s collection is far from assured. But Jordan always shied away from making political statements, famously declaring that “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” Bryant, always opinionated on basketball matters, feels comfortable being just as outspoken on some social issues as well. In that, at least, Bryant leaves His Airness in the dust.

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