Orlando Cruz is a hero.
He's a world-class professional boxer who, with one more win, could be fighting for a version of the featherweight title. He aspires to be a role model, hoping to inspire children to ignore the naysayers and reach for their dreams. He plans to begin a campaign to end bullying.
He's also gay.
It's a sad sign of the lack of progress in our society that, when Cruz issued a statement on Wednesday admitting his sexual orientation, it was news.
There are, and have been, scores of lesbian and gay athletes in professional sports. Some of the greatest stars in sports history are or were gay, such as tennis players Bill Tilden, Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King, diver Greg Louganis and boxer Emile Griffith.
It remains so rare, though, particularly in male sports, that when an athlete comes out of the closet mid-career, it's big news.
Cruz wasn't available Wednesday to speak about his decision. He plans to give what he called "a tell-all" interview to Telemundo next week in which he'll explain his thought process and why he chose to make public his secret.
He explained himself quite well in his statement, however, even though the cost of doing so could be quite painful.
Cruz, who fights Jorge Pazos on Oct. 19 in Kissimmee, Fla., is closing in on a shot at the WBO featherweight title. He is believed to be the first openly gay active male boxer.
Women's boxing star Christy Martin announced she is gay as her legendary career was ending.
But Cruz, a 2000 Puerto Rican Olympian, is still in the midst of his career. It took an enormous amount of courage to make his statement in this far-too-often hate-filled world.
People dislike others for many reasons, but their race, their religion or their sexual orientation should not be among those.
Worst, of course, will be the verbal taunts he'll receive from some factions of the fan base. They'll feel the need to prove their machismo by denouncing Cruz for his sexual orientation.
What they will be missing, clearly, is that they lack the courage Cruz has shown, first by becoming an elite professional boxer and then by having the courage to admit he is gay in an all-too homophobic world.
He undoubtedly knew all of that, yet still made the decision to announce his sexual orientation.
"I don't want to hide any of my identities," Cruz said in his statement. "I want people to look at me for the human being that I am. I am a professional sportsman [who] always brings his best to the ring. I want for people to continue to see me for my boxing skills, my character, my sportsmanship.
"But I also want kids who suffer from bullying to know that you can be whoever you want to be in life, including a professional boxer [and] that anything is possible and that who you are or whom you love should not be impediment to achieving anything in life." He went on to say, "I am and will always be a proud Puerto Rican gay man."
Cruz's decision to out himself will help a generation of athletes, boxers and non-boxers alike. And with the valor he's shown by standing up to the scorn of the narrow-minded who will mock him, he's made himself a role model to those he seeks to aid.
Despite the proliferation of weight classes and sanctioning organizations, winning a world championship still is a cherished accomplishment reached only by an elite few.
Orlando Cruz may never get that big fight and the opportunity to strap on the title belt.
There's no question, though, that as a man, Orlando Cruz has proven himself a top-notch world champion.
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