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Sports and Gay Visibility

Why Coming Out Is Such a Powerful Statement

(This story was published in 2002).

By: Dave Lohse

(This is the text of a speech Dave Lohse gave Aug. 16 to the Triangle Business and Professional Guild in North Carolina).

I want to thank the Board of Directors of the Triangle Business and Professional Guild for allowing me the privilege of speaking to this group tonight. Let me assure you this is a great thrill for me. I have a real passion for the subject upon which I will speak tonight and although I know that sports may not be at the top of the list of favorite subjects for a GLBT audience I am thrilled to have the opportunity to convey a message about an area in which the closet is still all too pervasive I am afraid to say. And for you sports fans out there, hopefully this will be a treat.

Over the past several years I’ve had opportunities like this to speak to different groups about my life in sports and about my observations about how the sports culture treats gays, lesbians and bisexuals. I don’t want to slight transgendered people in this speech but I would say that if a transgendered person can successfully hide in the sports closet that individual has some amazing skills. The task seems overwhelming.

Many of the target audiences of my talks have been predominantly straight. I had a chance last summer to attend the annual conference on Sports, Media and Ethics held at the University of Rhode Island. They had a panel discussion on “Homophobia in Sports” and the crowd was made up of an overwhelmingly straight, male and white audience. It was a thrill to reach that segment of the media and expose them to these important issues, but I can also say I am blessed tonight to be able to talk to many of my own kind. It’s nice to see a lot of familiar faces out there.

The Cubbies and "Oklahoma"

Over the past 28 years I have devoted myself to a profession that is a dream for me. My love of sports dates back to my formative years in Griffith, Indiana, a town of about 20,000 people in Northwest Indiana. Growing up a mere 35-minute drive from downtown Chicago I got to see my beloved Chicago Cubs play on a regular basis from the age of 8 and my love affair with sports began then, long before I had any inkling that I was gay. Of course a second monumental moment in my life also came at the age of 8 when my parents allowed me to purchase my first ever album at a discount store in suburban Chicago. I somehow think there was some handwriting on the wall when I chose the soundtrack to the 1956 movie musical “Oklahoma,” but I’ll allow you to be the judge of that.

My love for sports, my passion for sports never left me and even though I eventually figured out I was gay—I was a slow learner on this one--the idea of forsaking my first love never occurred to me. In fact, I found a way to turn that love affair into a job. And luckily it is the only job I have ever had in my life, full-time that is, as the associate sports information director at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. My apologies go out now to all the State, Duke, Wake and ECU fans in the room and I hope this won’t be too painful an experience for you.

Moving to Chapel Hill in August 1977 to take my position at Carolina after completing my undergraduate degree at Purdue University, I had pretty well come to grips with the fact that I favored men in my life—at least I thought they were the real hotties. I think my true passion for men in sports was kindled by Olympic gold medal winning swimmer Don Schollander, a blonde from Yale, who was one of many American stars at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Of course I was only 9 at the time but still I was smart enough to know blond, Ivy League and swimmer equaled a winning combination.

Regardless, reconciling that fact I was gay with a career as a publicist in a major NCAA Division I athletic program was far more daunting a task, particularly since my personality is Type A, open, inquisitive, prone to say anything that pops into my mind and far from conducive to living a life in the closet.

I never really assumed however that I was in the closet. I don’t have any illusions that people did not know about my sexual orientation long before I made the decision to come out of the closet in 1992. Some associates viewed me as asexual or simply sexually repressed and it was fine with me whatever they thought.

A Time to Come Out

But by 1992, as a new administration was about to be inaugurated in Washington, D.C. after 12 years of right-wing Republican rule, I sensed the country was changing and it was time for me to come out. For me it was a matter of survival. I knew then that I either needed to come out of the closet and live my life as whom I am or pursue other options. Some options were career like in nature and the other options involved something that would have taken me to a far darker place. Thankfully I did not choose the latter option or even the former. I came to the conclusion, maybe even arrogantly, that a person could work in sports and be openly gay. It was my Midwestern German stubbornness driving me into the teeth of an impending storm. Or so I thought.

When I came out at UNC, it went amazingly well. Of course there were some people who were uncomfortable and they’re entitled to whatever they want to think, as I said to myself. I can’t change everyone’s opinion. But the overwhelming number of folks were supportive. After working at a place for 15 years I believe one builds up a certain amount of capital and folks viewed me as Dave Lohse the person, not Dave Lohse the new gay guy. Nevertheless, it certainly fascinated some of them. The athletic director at UNC at that time was John Swofford and I am thrilled to report that he could not have been more supportive. When I first had the chance to talk to him about the subject, he asked me all the right questions and he put his arm around me and assured me that should anyone in the athletic department at UNC make trouble for me he would deal with the situation swiftly. That was a far different take than I probably would have gotten from Swofford’s predecessor, Bill Cobey, who actually hired me for the job back in the 1970s. I respect Bill Cobey immensely as a person but he is a committed Christian conservative who now works as executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party where he regularly vilifies gays in press releases issued by the state GOP.

When I came out I simply did not know how many other out of the closet people there were in sports. I found out very quickly there weren’t a lot. Although I was at a point in my life where I was completely comfortable being out on the job in college athletics I discovered that there weren’t a whole heck of a lot of other folks doing the same. A few years after I came out a gentleman by the name of Mike Muska was named the athletic director at Oberlin College, a wonderful NCAA Division III school and small liberal arts college in Ohio. During the course of Muska’s hiring he was inadvertently outed but Mike handled the situation with aplomb. At that point I knew there was one other openly gay man in the world of college sports. Since then I have been waiting another six years for the floodgates to open and I have now reached a conclusion. Based on the empirical evidence available it is an absolute known fact that Mike Muska and I are categorically not only the only two openly gay men working in all of college sports but the only two gay men period.

Lack of Visibility

Now of course that is absurd but the situation illustrates perfectly the lack of visibility of gay men and lesbians in sports. There are not many of us and the closet in the sports world appears to remain to this day as oppressive as it ever was. While great gains have been made in amassing out role models in other prominent professions like the arts, the theatre, even politics, government and the business world, the closet in sports is still salient. The only other area that I can think of where the closet remains as all consuming is the sphere of Hollywood entertainment where the accusations of being gay or lesbian sends any star or mogul running for his or her publicist to immediately assume the damage control position.

Now we could say so what. Who cares? And maybe nobody does. But if my coming out experience was anything like most of yours one of the most germane things to those experiences is the way it affects our sphere of relationships. One of the great things about coming out is hearing from a friend or a relative the fact that knowing me in this way has forced them to revisit their long held views about homosexuality in America. We have all been there. That small gift of visibility that you offer the people in your life really does make a difference. Not always for the better I admit but for the most part our honesty really can change the world.

And so in reference to that we look at why the closets in sports and Hollywood make such a difference. They simply do. While I can think of a thousand professions where gay role models are important, and arguably more important than in entertainment venues like sports, movies and TV, there is no arguing that high profile role models in these professions would do so much good for the gay community at large. The benefits would come not only in the sphere of public opinion where we as a community would continue to make great strides but also in the fact that gay and lesbian role models who have a modicum of fame would be so illuminating for gay and lesbian youth across the country. How wonderful it would be to sit in South Bend, Indiana, or Pueblo, Colorado, and know as a gay kid that a favorite athlete or coach or TV character or movie star was just like you. The good that could do is boundless.

In that regard, this afternoon I went to a wonderful Web site run by two friends from California. The Web site is Outsports.com and Jim and Cyd do a magnificent job of covering the gay sports world and the sports world in general. On their site, they have compiled a fairly comprehensive list of out gay men and women in sports, past and present, living and dead, still active and retired. I printed out the list and brought it with me tonight. Now for a sports junkie like myself, who also happens to be gay, most of the names on this list are familiar. But for the average sports fan it would take more than a passing knowledge to find this list friendly in nature.

The most prominent names include tennis stars Martina Navratilova, Gigi Fernandez, Conchita Martinez, Billie Jean King, Amelie Mauresmo and the late Bill Tilden, Olympic gold medal winning diver Greg Louganis, professional women’s golfers Patty Sheehan and Muffin Spencer-Devlin, former major league baseball players Billy Bean and the late Glenn Burke, former professional football players Dave Kopay and the late Jerry Smith, figure skaters Rudy Galindo and Brian Orser, bodybuilder Bob Paris and former major league umpire Dave Pallone. And then there are many more on this list who are hardly household names, including two outstanding young collegiate athletes who were “out” on their teams last year—Ryan Quinn, a member of the skiing team at the University of Utah, and Jen Moore, a softball player at the University of Pennsylvania.

Most of the names on the Outsports list are people who are out now but were not so when they competed in their chosen sports. And that is fine. It does not diminish the importance of their decisions to be openly proud about their sexual orientation. But other than our cult hero, Martina, very few have ever been openly gay while competing. That takes an enormous amount of courage but the benefits to the gay community of having more role models like Ms. Navratilova was cannot be underestimated.

I am often asked by media people why there are not more openly gay people in sports. They seem genuinely fascinated why more people don’t come out. In fact, I was encouraged just a couple of days ago when two white, straight, male sports reporters for the Raleigh News & Observer approached me about helping them with a story they have wanted to write for at least two years—what it’s like to be gay and in sports in the Triangle of North Carolina. In talking to them I was impressed by the maturity with which they have approached the potential of the story and obviously because it is my job to be a liaison with the media they made contact with me as the local gay guy in sports. Certainly I am going to talk with them more thoroughly about the subject but as much as I would want such a story to run in the News and Observer because of the positive visibility it would bring, I honestly don’t have a clue where they will find people willing to go on the record with them. And that, I am afraid, would kill such a story.

Over the past several years it has become more apparent to me that I don’t think our problem is with the media. Sure, there are some virulent scribes working out there for places like the New York Post or the Washington Times, but as someone who reads voraciously any national columns and stories that impinge on this subject area I can honestly say that I believe the overwhelming majority of the sports media community would be fair and supportive of prominent openly gay athletes. As sports controversies surrounding “gay” rumors have popped up from time to time, I think you will find that most columns are well written, fact-filled, well researched and fair. And one thing I will say for the sports media that I don’t necessarily think holds true for the media at large is that when sports reporters write on the subject not every one of them goes running to some national or local homophobic spokesman to get the other side of the story. I can’t say the same holds true for the media at large where they froth at the mouth to cull comments from the James Dobsons, John Ashcroft, Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons of the world as “balance” for their stories. These are men who historically have rebuked our very existence as human beings much less forgotten the fact that most of us are United States citizens who pay taxes just like everyone else, unless you work in the higher echelons of Enron or WorldCom.

Inner Homophobia

So why won’t more sports figures come out? First, I do believe there is a lot of innate homophobia in the world of sports. To deny that would be foolish. Most folks in sports intellectually know there are gays among them but they just don’t want to know about it. And when confronted with someone who is open about their sexual orientation the macho drive kicks in and the initial response is enormous discomfort.

That is particularly so in team sports. But I don’t think we as a community can sit back and simply say that straight people are so homophobic that they make it impossible for someone openly gay to compete. My experiences at UNC have indicated to me that most student athletes in this day and age are increasing their tolerance of sexual minorities.

Whether it is the effect of the MTV Generation or an increased interest in sexual experimentation, you find fewer and fewer strict 1’s and 6’s on the Kinsey scale amongst college students today. And I think that extends even to the more conservative culture in college athletics. The way I’ve been treated by student athletes over the last 10 years, even more so than the way I’ve been treated by adults in that time, gives me enormous hope that things truly are changing in the culture. Many of the athletes I deal with are not only tolerant but they also think it is eminently cool to know gay people.

And one must also say that even after coming out, Martina Navratilova was a beloved player on the professional tennis circuit. And although he came out after his career was over I don’t think Greg Louganis’ truthfulness diminished his star as a true Olympic golden boy. Now again those two competed in individual sports and the whole atmosphere around team sports would be very different. We could spend hours here talking about that.

So sure there is homophobia. But GLBT people in sports also tend to be more conservative human beings than the gay population in general. The sports community is more conservative overall and it provides a safe haven for closeted gays to do something they like and still have their sexuality remain below the radar. Trust me, not everyone is as liberal or as outspoken as me. I have met so many closeted gay coaches, athletes and administrators in my life that if I had a dollar for each one, well folks I wouldn’t be here talking to you, I’d be at some beach house somewhere. I have talked to these people and I understand where they come from. As much as I would love for them to come out, I know that for most of them they have convinced themselves that their honesty would have nothing but deleterious effects on their livelihood.

Often times, this fear can be palpable. I have two wonderful friends who coach college softball. I met them several years ago while on vacation in Provincetown. They coach at one of America’s most conservative universities and they fear what exposure may do to their coaching situation. I was supposed to visit with them in July in PTown but was

disappointed to find out upon my arrival that they would not be coming. Apparently the situation back home was getting a little tense. The head coach in this head/assistant coach duo told me last year in PTown that she was so proud of what I have done in being visible and being a spokesperson, including writing a 2001 guest editorial for the NCAA’s biweekly newspaper in which I pleaded for schools to institute formal programs to combat homophobia in their athletic departments. But the praise from my friend made me feel empty rather than proud. I have done what I felt I had to do for myself, first and foremost. But for my two friends I feel so much pain that they so strongly feel the need to hide who they are. I simply cannot see the fairness in that. And it makes me mad that they cannot live their lives more openly and more honestly.

Despite that less than uplifting story, visibility for gays in sports is certainly increasing. In May 2001, Brendan Lemon, the editor of Out Magazine, wrote an editorial in which he talked at length about his lover, a major league baseball player for an East Coast franchise. It is over a year later and we don’t know the identity of the player but both the gay and the mainstream media jumped on that story like dogs in heat. Maybe that is a poor choice of words but it accurately describes the furor Lemon’s words caused. Earlier this summer Bobby Valentine, the adept manager of the New York Mets, told Details magazine that he felt the environment was now ripe for a major league baseball player to come out of the closet. Again, it was like throwing gasoline on an already burning fire. And within days, handsome Mike Piazza, the All-Star catcher and very eligible 30-something bachelor for the Mets, felt compelled to call a press conference in which he stated unilaterally that he digs chicks.

In July, "Arliss" on the HBO network featured an episode centered on the possibility of a closeted gay major league baseball player, acted ably by former "Melrose Place" hunk Grant Show, to come out. It was a reasonably well written and sympathetic story in which former San Diego Padre and Detroit Tiger Billy Bean, who has since come out following his baseball career, is called upon by the title character Arliss to offer advice of what it might be like to be gay and out of the closet in major league baseball. Bean’s advice on the show was that is was not the right time. Those thoughts are consistent with what Billy Bean has felt for a long time and since he was there in his life I respect what he says even if it disappoints me.

The World Is Changing

But when will it be the right time? When is the gay community going to have the person who steps up to the plate to be our Jackie Robinson, the Hall of Famer who broke the major league baseball color barrier in 1948? And will the sport be baseball, football, hockey or basketball. Or a combination of the above where there are openly gay athletes in all of our major American professional sports. It seems inevitable doesn’t it? But when will it happen?

For that I have no easy answer other than to say that in my heart I truly believe that the time is ripe. I think the world is changing every day and the antics of a homophobe like major league baseball pitcher John Rocker are less accepted than they ever were. Nevertheless, it will take enormous courage for the individual or individuals who step

forward and proclaim with honesty their same sex affections. I don’t presuppose it will be easy. But I pray it will happen sooner rather than later. And I don’t believe that the worse case scenarios have to happen when this does happen. The success of such an endeavor will in large measure be situational. But if a coming out works out for the best its effects would be legendary.

Not only do the young people in our community need such role models but the benefits of the visibility of these courageous gays, lesbians and bisexuals will do so much to advance the cause of gay rights that the possibilities seem endless. In the search for fairness and for gay equality under the law these kinds of celebrities could go far in convincing even more people in America that any kind of discrimination against homosexuals is fundamentally wrong.

As I close, I do admit that I have one dream that I want to share with all of you. While I grew up in Indiana, I have called North Carolina my home for the past 25 years. In that time I have grown to love my adopted state and my chosen school. When I retire from UNC one of my goals is to establish an athletic scholarship through the University’s Educational Foundation. Specifically I am going to ask that the grant in aid be endowed in such a way that it could only be granted to an openly gay, lesbian or bisexual student athlete at Carolina. Now since I don’t plan to be retiring for a few years yet, my greatest hope is that when this scholarship is put into place there will be more than just a few eligible candidates each year out of the 750 student-athletes on Carolina’s 28 sports teams. Can you imagine? There might actually be competition for an athletic scholarship given specifically to an openly GLBT athlete. Makes the mind boggle doesn’t it?

But there is work to be done before that can come to pass. In fact I would say a lot of work. But the task is not impossible. I understand that my particular passion for more gay visibility in sports is not something everyone shares. But I do think the rewards the entire gay community can reap from such visibility make the effort worthwhile and it inspires not only myself but also many others around the country who have toiled so hard in this endeavor. I don’t believe our work is in vain. The times are changing. Our role models are out there and we will know who they are someday. And I’m optimistic enough to think the time will be sooner rather than later.

Thank you so much for your attention. It was a thrill to be able to address you tonight. Thanks for everything you do to make the Guild a great organization and I hope I can come back some time in the future with even better news about being an insider in the world of sports. And maybe at that point we’ll even have a celebrity athlete as part of the program too. Thanks so much for this chance to address you and good evening.

(Since 1977, Dave Lohse has worked as the associate athletic communications director at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Prior to that he worked as a student assistant in the athletic communications office at Purdue University while an undergraduate.)