Of course, she understands the guts it took. Kitty Lambert knows how to calculate the price of honesty, the cost of peace of mind.

She remembers how people pointed at her and her then-partner, now spouse, walking hand in hand at the mall. She remembers the last time, a couple of years ago, when she and Cheryle Rudd were followed into a parking lot, called “dyke” and worse by a guy who – for whatever indefensible reason – felt threatened by their love and appalled by their honesty.

There is not much in common physically between a roundish, graying 55-year-old white woman and a 7-foot, 34-year-old black pro basketball player. But Lambert, whose union with Rudd on July 24, 2011, was the first legal gay marriage in New York State, and Jason Collins, the National Basketball Association player who came out this week, are soul mates of a pioneering sort.

Lambert appreciates how tough this was for Collins. She knows that life just got easier for countless gay athletes. She celebrates the freeing of a man’s being.

“You can’t be happy unless you are honest about who you are,” she told me. “It takes a huge weight off of your back.”

I met with Lambert and Rudd – who let her spouse do most of the talking – Wednesday at a downtown restaurant. Like Collins, Lambert – who once had a husband – for years hid her true self.

“You have to pre-think everything you say,” she said. “You have to pretend your lover is just somebody you know. … It’s exhausting, lying about who you are.”

Time passes, fences fall. Collins’ coming-out – he’s the first active player in the four major pro sports to do so – does not hit with the seismic force of, say, Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier. But it’s huge in its own way, an assault on the Neanderthal culture of the male sports locker room – pro, college and high school – and all of its suppositions and stereotypes.

It is a macho, testosterone-fueled culture beset with wrongheaded notions. Perhaps the worst is the presumption that guys who are gay will “prey” on straight teammates. It ignores the fact that gay athletes have showered and dressed with straight guys in high school, college and pro locker rooms since the days of peach-basket buckets and leather helmets. Self-control is second nature.

“His being gay does not affect anyone else in the world, or in a locker room, unless that person is interested in him,” Lambert said. “He’s been showering with other guys all of his life.”

Make no mistake, Collins’ coming-out is a big deal. If it was not, someone would have done it long ago. Even as Collins sheds a lie, dozens of other gay pro football, basketball, baseball and hockey players stay silent, locked within themselves. And those are adult males. Think about how tough it must be for a gay high school jock.

“This is a beginning,” Lambert said. “He’s a brave guy, being the first.”

Collins did more than free himself. His honesty gives aid and comfort to every pro, college and high school gay athlete who lives a lie because he fears the consequences of the truth. Lambert knows what that is like.

“I guarantee you, a lot of young [gay] athletes went to bed the other night feeling proud about who they are,” Lambert said. “Their futures look a lot less bleak.”

Role models matter. Lambert remembers how monumental it was for her when mainstream entertainer Ellen DeGeneres came out. “I was watching on TV in a restaurant filled with gays,” Lambert recalled. “When she took the microphone, the place erupted. It was like the earth moved beneath our feet.”

Collins’ step is a similar giant leap. By freeing himself from a lie, he helps the rest of us see the truth.