(This story was published in 2001).

“Mental malfunction.” “Gays are going to hell.” “As bad as drug-dealers.”

These anti-gay slurs were typical of much listener response to the gays in baseball issue on radio talk shows in the Heartland and Bible Belt in the past week. Cyd Zeigler and myself were separately interviewed on two sports talk shows-me on “The Matt Perrault” show on WUMP in Huntsville, Ala., and Zeigler on “The Big Sexy” show with Jason Whitlock on WHB in Kansas City.

The response of listeners to the topic of gays in sports-via their calls to the stations, e-mails and on discussion boards-was generally negative and showed the ignorance, fear and hatred that is all too prevalent in many parts of the country. There were also some signs of support, especially from the two hosts.

Perrault and Whitlock took different tacks, with the former giving the subject a serious hearing. Whitlock, a columnist for the Kansas City Star, was a bit more edgy and playful, trying unsuccessfully, for example, to get Zeigler to divulge the names of gay athletes.

Perrault, though now living in the Bible Belt, has a diverse background, having grown up in Massachusetts in what he described as a very homo-tolerant environment. Known as the token liberal at his AM station, he said he thought he needed to confront his listeners with the fact that gay pro athletes do exist. Not that most who called wanted to accept it.

“I named my kid after Peyton Manning–and if he came out as gay, I’d have to rename my child,” one caller said. He was seconded by another, who noted, “Maybe [a gay athlete] would be accepted in other parts of the world, but not the South …. I don’t think he’d last a week if he came out.”

This was typical of many. One equated homosexuals to drug abusers and would not back down even when challenged by Perrault. Another, who said he had a gay brother, had a novel medical theory for what causes homosexuality–“it’s a mental malfunction — a mental disorder,” the caller said. His family reunions must be pretty interesting. Through it all Perrault was terrific, trying to dig deeper into his listeners’ ingrained prejudices.

An e-mail to the Alabama station after the show was typical.

“I don’t hate anyone and I don’t teach or advocate hatred,” one listener wrote to Perrault. “Steering my child away from what I view as sinful influences has nothing to do with hate. I am not clear on your statement about “lumping” drug dealers and gays together. It’s not as black and white as you are seeming to make it. I lump them together as a sin (that is my belief and not a “cop-out”–I respect your and other’s religious beliefs so I hope others would do the same)–just like I add thieves, adulterers, etc. to that mix too. …

“It all comes down to respect. As long as we respect each other’s views, then we all can get along fine. I respect your view of accepting homosexuality and I hope you respect mine of not accepting it as a normal lifestyle.”

However, not everyone in Huntsville was ready to send gays to hell. One man had a rather thoughtful take:

“If a NASCAR driver were to come out, the element who sent death threats to the lap belt manufacturer [in the death of Dale Ernhardt] and Sterling Marlin would probably react in the same way. I think in the long term (generations) that it would be a good thing, but there is going to be a minority who would react badly in the short term even if it were, say, Dale Jr.

“I doubt that divisions between strangers (whether due to race, sexual orientation, or any other difference between groups of people) will ever go away. The producer/writer of the sci-fi series “Babylon 5” noted that the actors made up as different alien races tended to associate based on their (alien) race during lunch breaks.

“A fear of the unknown is the thing which seems to be programmed into our genes, made worse by being reinforced in teaching from parents to children. Talking about the issue as you did can do nothing but help.”

All in all, Perrault is to be applauded for devoting his show to the topic, especially in the South, though Huntsville, with its NASA and research facilities, is not exactly Hooterville. As a lesbian wrote him: “t’s nice when someone in your position has the ability to reach out to the `macho guys’ who are probably the most threatened by gay men.”

In Kansas City, Whitlock had Zeigler and Bill Belzer of GLAAD as his guests for an hour of back-and-forth banter, alternating between the serious and the gossipy. The host revisited a controversy of his own in 1998, when he held a handmade sign in the New England Patriots press box that said “Bledsoe gay?”, an action that got him suspended from the paper. He asked Zeigler if this made him a bad person.

“Not at all,” Ziegler said. “We all make mistakes, and I don’t think you’ll ever do that again.”

Whitlock, who is African American, said a gay pro athlete could have an impact comparable to that of Jackie Robinson. A gay athlete has advantages Robinson didn’t in 1947, Whitlock argued, including more legal protection and media coverage.

In the week since Zeigler’s appearance, Whitlock’s message board has been rife with comments about the segment. Most have been either negative or thought the show was a waste of time. Some were critical for Whitlock’s on-air comments that there is a well-known wide receiver who is gay. Whitlock answered these critics:

“What is so criminal about suggesting that there was a dominant NFL receiver who was believed to be gay by most of his teammates and that he was accepted by his teammates and treated properly? I didn’t accuse the receiver of a crime. I was trying to make the point that maybe sexual preference isn’t a big deal in the locker room as long as you’re handling your business on the field. I wasn’t making some negative point. I wasn’t trying to cast someone in a negative light.”

The existence of homophobia, especially on talk radio, is no surprise. The fact that two hosts in diverse locales thought it was important to discuss gays in sports, whether some of their listeners liked it or not, is a sign of progress and lends legitimacy to an issue that has stayed in the shadows for too long. Oprah, have your people call ours.