(This article was published in 2005).

I had the incredible honor of throwing out the opening pitch of the Phillies-Nationals game on “Gay Community Night” last Thursday, thanks to event organizer Larry Felzer. To be sure, it was an incredible experience. To take the field before then-20,000 people and pitch a solid ball across home plate into the awaiting mitts of the Phanatic (who, days before, was inducted into the mascot Hall of Fame) was an experience I will never forget.

I was warned by Larry before the game that they wouldn’t have “Gay Community Night” on the scoreboard while I was out there, because the Phillies didn’t know how the fans would react to me, standing alone near the pitcher’s mound, 30 yards from security, by myself.

Philadelphia fans have gotten a bad rap for years; and for good reason. From booing Santa Claus to throwing batteries at opposing players to cheering when opponents got injured, fans in the City of Brotherly Love have deserved the reputation they’ve gotten as the worst-behaved fans in sports.

Thursday night, it was different.

In the top of the fourth inning of the Philadelphia Phillies game on Gay Community Night, two men unfurled a banner in the upper decks that read “Homosexuality Is Sin / Christ Can Set You Free.” In the middle of a fun-filled evening, it was and incredible downer for many of the people in sections 307 to 309 who had bough tickets as a part of “Gay Night.”

Many of the gay people in attendance rushed over to confront the two men and their hateful banner. They were met with police and security guards telling them they could not approach the men, and that the banner was staying. In fact, a reporter for Outsports – who was carrying a press credential – was told that he could not speak to the men, simply, “because.”

It was easy to see why the gay fans in attendance were pissed; you can certainly include me in that. When I heard that the Phillies had decided to allow the banner to stay, I reached into my pocket and felt the baseball that I had used, an hour before, to throw out the opening pitch of the game. I thought about taking that baseball, getting as close to those two men as possible, and hurling it as hard as I could at one of them. From 10 yards away (that’s about as close as I could have gotten), that baseball would have stung – though still not nearly as much as their banner did.

The Phillies have a policy to not allow signs that can incite violence. I didn’t know that during the game. During the game, Larry convinced me that violence, a night in jail and an appearance before a judge the next day wasn’t such a good idea. Now, I wish I had done it. If I had, it would have been proof that the banner did, in fact, incite violence – and the Phillies would be left explaining to a judge why they broke their own policy and allowed the banner to stay.

The problem is, gay people are just too damn nice. Everybody knows that gay people won’t fight back. Sure, they may stand in front of you and kiss one another; but, they won’t fight. In the wake of the recent gay-bashing in Chelsea, I’ve started half-joking with some friends that we need to start carrying baseball bats, knives and handguns; then maybe people will start to take us more seriously. My tone is becoming less and less joking about it.

The excuses coming out of the Phillies offices aren’t just lame, they’re disheartening and disrespectful. Can you imagine if someone showed up at Jewish night with a sign that read, “Judaism Is Sin / Christ Can Set You Free”? The security guards would set a new land speed record getting to whomever held that sign, forcing them to take it down.

Instead, as we have been since the beginning of the gay-rights movement, gay people simply aren’t afforded the same respect and protections that every other group is given.

I did a radio appearance with some of the guys on ESPN-Austin radio the day after Gay Night at the Phillies. I have been interviewed by them many times before, about everything from Terrell Owens’ comments about Jeff Garcia being gay, who’s the best-looking player in the NFL, and my thoughts on the impending NCAA basketball tournament last March. They’ve always been incredibly friendly and welcoming of anything I’ve had to say. Dave Tepper, the young hot one of the bunch, even lets me flirt with him ad nauseum. This interview was no different.

Still, I brought up the notion that the Phillies would never allow an anti-Black or anti-Semetic banner to be displayed.

“Yeah, but gay isn’t a race,” they said. “It’s different.”

Even these guys, who have always seemed totally comfortable with gay people and gay issues, found it okay that this happened. “You had to know it was coming,” they said. “It’s Philadelphia.”

Except, this time, it wasn’t the Philadelphia fans who were doing it.

The straight Phillies fans in attendance, with their kids, their girlfriends, their fraternity buddies and their wives, were not just tolerant of the section of fags in the upper deck; they were downright supportive. One 20-something guy came up to me while I stood on the concourse and started talking to me about how “bullshit” it was that the Phillies let these two guys and their sign stay, how it didn’t reflect the opinions of the people of Philadelphia, how he has two great friends who are gay, and how these two evangelicals should just keep their opinions to themselves.

When those two men finally packed up their hateful message and left, the crowd of Philadelphia fans rose to its collective feet and applauded for the better part of a minute. As usual, for good or bad, there was no question what the fans thought Thursday night: gay was okay with them.

I do have to give the Phillies their props: they have been incredibly supportive of Gay Community Night. When I did a similar event with the Mets, there wasn’t nearly the embracing of the event by the team like the Phillies have done. Not only have they let Larry hand-pick the person to throw out the opening pitch each year, but this year they had the Gay Men’s Chorus sing the national anthem, they announced “Gay Community Night” on the scoreboard, and they even played “We Are Family” during the seventh inning stretch. The Phillies haven’t hidden from this event at all; it is simply disheartening that they would hide behind their lawyers when two men with a religious agenda attacked us.

Not surprisingly, we still have a long way to go. When we have people we consider our friends and allies thinking this is all okay, maybe we have further to go than we think.

I can tell you this, though: at next year’s Phillies Gay Community Night, we’ll be ready. If those two men can buy eight seats and display and anti-gay banner, we can do better than that. When I went to a World Cup game in 1994, the Brazilians in Stanford Stadium unfurled a Brazilian flag that stretched 20 seats and went 10 rows deep. I’ve got to believe that next year, when we see the “Homosexuality Is Sin” sign pop up in right field, we can do even better than the Brazilians.

No baseball bats needed.

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