Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are

The reasons athletes stay closeted and why they might consider coming out

(This story was published in May 24, 2001 and updated on July 12, 2001).

Should gay male professional athletes come out? This has been the debate that has had sports fans - gay and straight - talking for the past week.

The discussions were sparked by a column in Out Magazine by editor Brendan Lemon, who wrote about the affair he said he is having with an unnamed major league baseball player. Whatever one thinks of the article, it has had a positive impact in that the mainstream media has been forced to address the issue of male homosexuality in sports. At least everyone acknowledges there are gays in pro team sports; that in itself is progress.

I would love if some gay jocks came out. Having an out gay male athlete would be an important symbol, much as Jackie Robinsonwas to blacks. One of the great libels against gays is the idea that we're somehow less than men. Sissy. Fairy. Faggot. Throws Like a Girl. Wimp. We've all heard them. Sports, with its aura of hypermasculinity, are the last place most people would expect to find a gay athlete. Young men wrestling with a perceived conflict between being gay and being an athlete could have a role model.

Coming out, in the long run, would also be good for the particular athlete. The closet can be an ugly place to be. Always hiding, lying and skulking around. Constantly monitoring who you hang out with, where you hang out, what you're wearing, what others think. Most of us have been there. And, largely, when people do come out they find it's less of a negative than they feared. Life does go on.

An Outsports reader named Mike said it well on our Discussion Board:

"I know everyone here knows what it is like to be in the closet. I was there with boyfriends who were 'married and very happy.' But felt they had to hide who they loved. I kept my secret for all the reasons used to fool ourselves. You name it. That was my reason for lying to myself and to others who supposedly loved me. Coming out has taught me a lot. Yes there are people who are no longer in my life, because they believe I'm not a good person or I'm some how a defective human. In the end it matter most to me. I can live my life without fear, and that no one has control except me. AND THAT'S WHAT MATTERS MOST!''


Not My Call

I acknowledge anyone's right to decide when and if they come out, athletes or not. I can be supportive, a resource and encouraging, but it's ultimately not my call. This is a very private decision that each has to make for himself. Besides, dragging an athlete kicking and screaming out of the closet would only buy into the idea that being gay is somehow bad.

The irony is that there are dozens of gay men playing sports at the professional level. As an openly gay sports editor for 10 years I heard names all the time, many of the reports of which I'm 99% certain are valid. Some were superstars, others role players; all were in the closet. At Outsports we get fed names regularly. We firmly don't believe in outing anyone so these names stay private. But they remind us that gays are everywhere, even in our most macho of arenas.

This is not a new phenomenon. In his marvelous biography of Vince Lombardi ("When Pride Still Mattered''), author David Maranissdiscusses Lombardi's support for his gay brother and how the coach privately rooted for the Packers he knew were gay to make the team each season to prove they belonged


Why They Stay Closeted

There are several reasons why athletes stay closeted and understanding them is important to the debate.

The Coming Out Process.

This has been neglected by the mainstream media when discussing closeted athletes. Coming out is not a one-day process; a person doesn't get up one day and decide to tell everyone at once: family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, the postman. It happens gradually and can often take years.

My own experience is not atypical. I met my first boyfriend when I was 18, was fairly comfortable with my orientation I didn't come out to my parents for five more years, even though they knew Bill very well and treated him as part of the family. I came out professionally to one or two people at a time until 1990, when I sold T-shirts to raise money to send my flag football team to Gay Games III. Since then, I've been totally out.

Since most pro athletes are in their 20s, they can't be expected to be any more advanced about dealing with their sexual orientation than the public at large; they might even be less so since life as a pro athlete can be an all-consuming job and distractions of any kind are not welcome. Why give management one more reason to cut you?

It's hard to imagine an athlete deciding to come out without first having tested the waters with family, friends, and a supportive teammate or person in management. Given the relatively short careers of most pros, it might be easier on the psyche to just deal with it after retirement.

Fear

Being the first is scary, especially when you're unsure what kind of support is out there. Few people want to be a pioneer for a cause. Closeted gays often imagine the worst when deciding whether to be open. Former baseball player Billy Bean left the sport because he could no longer lie to himself and the world and didn't think baseball would accept him.

Adding to the fear is the often-sophomoric attitude found in most locker rooms, especially when it comes to matters of sex. A player considering coming out would have to weigh the potential reaction on his team. It must have been hard to be a gay Green Bay Packer during the time when Reggie White was spouting his hateful, homophobic diatribes to anyone who would listen. The combination of the religious holy-rollers (heavily represented in sports) and the ignorant who fear taking a shower with an openly gay teammate has to be a powerful incentive to stay closeted.

While we can guess at the reaction from teammates, we really don't know how bad it would be. Bean, who continues to love the game, may have given up the opportunity for a longer career because of the fear. He has stated that he was pleasantly surprised by the positive reaction since he came out. While Bean has been a terrific spokesman since, his view that it would be professional suicide is not the only one.

What's been strange in this debate has been the "I'm OK with it but everybody else is not'' attitude found among players, fans and the media. Dodger pitcher Matt Hedges told the Los Angeles Times: "I would feel bad for that person because he would be a pariah. He would have to deal with a lot crap.''

And Scott Spiezio of the Anaheim Angels said, "Some guys would probably be all right. Some guys would probably be in the middle-they'd say it was his choice, but they really wouldn't want to be around him too much. But I think there could be some guys who would say, 'I don't like him and I don't want him on my team.' "

Pitcher Mike Timlin had this gem, when asked by ESPN.com how he would feel about having a gay teammate: "I already have, knowingly, and it wasn't a problem.''

These comments represent progress because they show that the reaction would not be uniformly hostile. There could even be a bonding element that might occur. Teammates might rally around a popular gay player if he was peppered with abuse on the road. ``He may be a faggot, but he's our faggot'' might become the rallying cry.

The public and the media.

These two groups would be less of a concern to a gay player. Society has changed and is much more accepting of gays and lesbians. ESPN.com reported the following reaction to its package of stories on gays in sports: ``Of the 874 letters received, 75% said they would support a gay athlete, 22% said they would not and 3% percent did not offer an opinion.''

Of course there would be hecklers flapping their gums at an out jock, but athletes deal with verbal fan abuse all of the time. It comes with the territory. But there would also be a countervailing reaction to any fan who got too abusive; he'd likely be roundly booed by other fans, and maybe cold-cocked by the gay guy sitting next to him. As the Republican Party found out after the 1992 election, overt homophobia doesn't sell any more.

The media, I'm certain, would be very supportive. What has been great about this debate is the almost total unanimity among sports journalists that gay is OK (even when they caution that society is not ready for an out athlete). Talk show host Jim Rome has been aces on the issue, and he reaches a demographic (young, macho, straight men) that might have the most problem with it.

In the print media, the excellent Robert Lypsyte of the New York Times has been at the forefront in writing about gay athletes. His reporting on Bean and gay high school linebacker Corey Johnson made the front page of the Times twice in six months in late 1999 and early 2000. Lypsyte has also moderated several Times' panels on homosexuality in sports. Columnists in New York, Dallas, Hartford, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Providence were also very gay-positive in their stories about the Out editor's gay baseball player.

Money.

Despite being the premier women's tennis player of her generation, Martina Navratilova was asked to endorse very few products. She's certain it was because she was open about being a lesbian. She received her first TV endorsement deal only last year from Subaru.

Is Madison Avenue ready for an openly gay male jock to endorse a product? Probably not, with some exceptions. (Speedo has an endorsement deal with Olympic diver David Pichler. Former athletes Bruce Hayes, Navratilova and Corey Johnson all have recent ad deals.) Most advertisers hate controversy and might feel they're stepping into a quagmire if they take on such an athlete. I know of at least one instance where a gold medal winner was talked out of coming out by his agent for fear of losing endorsements. This athlete has never come out despite now being retired.

Athletes have such short careers that the get-as-much-while-you-can mentality is strong. There is an interesting twist to this, however. Bean and others say that only an established superstar would have the clout to come out and still stay at the top of their sport. At the same time, the lion's share of endorsements go to these superstars. One could argue that fear of losing endorsements would not be a compelling reason for a non-superstar to stay closeted. On the other hand, any advertiser that dropped a high-profile jock who just came out would unleash a firestorm of criticism.

Ignorance.

Athletes have never been at the forefront of social change. The great social movements of our time (Civil Rights, women's rights, gay rights, the Vietnam War protests) were noticeable for the almost total absence of athletes. Michael Jordan lost my respect when he refused to take a stand in a North Carolina Senate race, where his influence might have ended the career of troglodyte Jesse Helms. ``Republicans buy shoes, too,'' was Jordan's shameful reason. In my experience, most athletes exhibit a lack of curiosity about politics or larger social trends; they're jocks, after all. Being the Gay Jackie Robinson might have zero appeal to an athlete who would prefer to be out without it being a cause celebre (''openly closeted'' as someone said).


When Will It Happen?

It's inevitable that we will know the identity of an active gay male team athlete. This may be by the athlete's choice; this may because he's outed. Society, though, has changed enough for this to happen eventually.

My sense is that this future pro is now in high school or junior high and his coming out will be an organic process. By the time he reaches the big leagues his sexuality will be fairly old news. Eric Anderson, a gay track coach and sociologist, is doing his doctoral thesis on out teenage athletes. He's told me that some of them are very talented and have pro potential; all of them are out in one fashion or the other. It's only a matter of time.

As for current pro athletes, I'm dubious as to anyone bursting out of the closet any time soon. For it to succeed it would take a man of strong convictions, courage, unassailable character and talent.


How It Should Be Done

If an athlete wanted to come out, this is what I would recommend:

Time it right. A baseball player coming out while his team was in the World Series would not be smart. He'd be better to wait until the offseason when his announcement could get a flurry of attention and die down prior to the start of the season.

Preparation. Letting key teammates and management know ahead of time would be crucial to lining up their support. No one wants to be blindsided.

Media. Calling a press conference would be a no-no. Too much, too soon. Pick a friendly media source and steer the story to your best advantage. Afterwards, be prepared for a flurry of interviews and attention and be able to deal with it. Don't just issue a statement and jet off to Tahiti.

Be strong. There is still a lot of homophobia out there, though it stays more hidden. Supportive friends, family and teammates would be crucial.

When David Kopay came out in 1975 after retiring from the NFL he expected a parade of gay pro athletes to follow; he's been waiting 26 years and it's been a short parade. In our overheated media world, where no subject stays hidden very long ("How many blow jobs have you had today, Mr. President?"), I'm certain he will not have to wait another 26.

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