This Sunday's episode of Lifetime's hit show Drop Dead Diva will revolve around a closeted gay professional baseball player struggling to balance his relationship and his career. While other shows have tackled the issue in the past, this will be the first to do so after Jason Collins' historic announcement in April, and the episode reflects that.
As a story consultant for the episode, I was able to witness its conception, development and birth. Creator and executive producer Josh Berman brought me in for a session with the writers to break the story in February. At the time the storyline was headed in a different direction, focusing on homophobia in Caribbean countries as a motivating force (the lead character was set to be from the Caribbean). As we talked, the writers saw the depth of story - homophobia in sports, both perceived and real - right here in America. Some were surprised that (at the time) no active pro athlete in one of the big four American leagues had come out publicly (that has since changed).
"Certainly nothing is more topical right now than gays in major league sports," Josh told me. "Even before this became the year of the gay athlete, I knew the time was right and we had to do it."
The episode, titled "Secret Lives," features actor Derek Smith as a professional baseball player in Los Angeles accused of murdering his girlfriend. When Jane (played by Brooke Elliott) lands the defendant as her new client, she must navigate the world of professional sports she knows little about while respecting her new client´s desperate need for privacy.
It was at a dinner at my house last year that Josh met former Major League Baseball player Billy Bean. Billy's autobiography Going The Other Way also helped inspire Josh to purse the storyline. Playing for the San Diego Padres at the time, Billy practiced with his team that day and missed his partner's funeral so he could stay closeted and play in a baseball game that night. The anguish Josh felt reading about Billy's heartbreak the day his partner died in the early Nineties stuck with him since reading the book.
"Athletes like Billy Bean were an inspiration for this character," Josh told me, saying he read about many gay athletes during his research. Josh was a baseball fan when he was a kid, collecting baseball cards pretty seriously even before the business exploded with the birth of Upper Deck and Ken Griffey Jr.
When Josh and I first began talking about the episode, his was the same mindset as so many others not engrossed in this work: Pro sports is a desperately homophobic environment, and it's impossible to come out unless outed. As he researched the issues, he saw the true paradigm of pro sports: While it certainly exists, the power of homophobia in pro sports is way overblown.
"The greatest accomplishment for me would be to get more people to talk about this issue," Josh told me. "I hope this episode shines a light on the fact that I think some of the fears of closeted athletes are unwarranted and steeped in past prejudices."
Billy welcomed the news of a positively portrayed gay pro baseball player on TV. He´s hopeful that shows like Drop Dead Diva can continue the movement toward full acceptance of LGBT people in sports.
"Today's young athletes that happen to be gay are fortunate to be living in an era with progressive filmmakers challenging us with timely subjects," Billy said. "They're able to see story lines and images that parallel our lives. I think back to my career, and never seeing one image on TV or in film of an athlete contemplating coming out or sharing their hidden truth. Consistent positive images help educate us and move the conversation in a direction that gives young men and women confidence to live their truth."
Billy is currently the vice chairman of the StandUp Foundation, which targets bullying and homophobia in sports.
Past TV shows tackling gay pro athletes have either necessitated big leaps of faith in the story or portrayed their coming out in a false manner. For example, we at Outsports have long preached the importance of athletes coming out in the offseason, yet TV and film portray them coming out during the season for dramatic purposes. The Diva writers made a real commitment to tell the story in a compelling way that also portrays a real, possible scenario of how and (just as importantly) when the first professional baseball player could and should come out. It also offers a flair for the Hollywood drama.
Drop Dead Diva has been nominated for a GLAAD Award for Best TV Episode each of its last three seasons. Here's hoping they go four-for-four.
The gay ballplayer episode of Drop Dead Diva, "Secret Lives," airs on Lifetime this Sunday night at 9pm/8c. As an added bonus, the guest judge this week is none other than Sandra Bernhardt (whom I used to watch wander her apartment topless in New York City, but that's a whole other story).