You haven't told your parents you're gay?" my friend asked.
"Nope, and why should I? I'm a dormant gay, like a volcano that doesn't work. Until something happens, until I actually get out there and live it, it doesn't matter to them. It's as interesting as telling them I had chocolate-chip pancakes for breakfast this morning."
The fact that I'm gay really isn't that much more interesting than my choice of breakfast food. At least, it shouldn't be. Hundreds of millions of other people are gay, too, but aside from the occasional pride parade, their lives are just as boring as anyone else's. Yet, questions of sexuality still cause newsrooms to flood with the saliva of rabid gossip columnists, and "marriage defenders" still show up at polling places to cast their votes against equal rights. So, even though 9 out of 10 people may not have a shred of interest in what I do with my own time and space, one of those people is trying to hammer away at my bedroom door. The hammering may not be loud enough to concern everyone, but it's enough to send me out of my 22-year dormancy.
There was no good reason for me to take that long. My parents are far from members of The 700 Club; I knew they wouldn't kick me out onto the street or send me to Pastor Joe's Cleansing Camp for Troubled Boys when I told them what I'd been hiding. But even when I was 4 years old, they knew me as a sports fan. They knew me as the kid who made them put quarter after quarter into those vending machines with the mini NFL helmets, in a futile quest to collect every team. The kid who could turn on a basketball game between Southeast Alaska State and Northern Georgia, and quickly find himself in tears over the result. Or the second-grader who beat out 11 adults for a fantasy football championship, on the back of late-round sleeper Mike Anderson. That kid couldn't possibly be gay, could he?
In elementary school, being a sports fan made it easy to fit in with the other boys in my upstate New York town. Most of the barns that dotted the hills were abandoned and crumbling, but elements of the farming culture remained. Boys were expected to be tough, fear God, and play football. A medical condition kept me off the roster, but that just gave me plenty of time to learn more about the batting averages of backup MLB catchers (what's up, Henry Blanco?) than a little kid should ever know. My sports knowledge was essentially a party trick I could use to wow my young friends. It got me invitations to play dates and birthday celebrations aplenty, but it established certain expectations about who I was, even when I was nowhere near figuring that out for myself.
When my teen years arrived, my friends and I began to feel differently about some things. Suffice it to say that I didn't appreciate all the work my buddies did to get past their parents' firewalls and show me their favorite websites. But being a sports fan meant that these feelings would pass, I told myself. I wasn't like that. Gay men danced in ballets and cooed over women's dye jobs in hair salons. I spoke with a low voice, preferred Led Zeppelin to Lady Gaga, and had the fashion sense of Bill Belichick.
It wasn't until I got to college that my rural America view of gay culture faded away. The first time I saw two men holding hands on the campus paths, I did a double take (to this day, I still worry that they mistook my look of amazement for a look of disapproval). I realized I was just as likely to make gay friends at a basketball game as I was at a black-box theater production. Being gay was no longer something I needed (or wanted) to hide, but I didn't have much practice expressing it. If you've never approached a man by asking him what he thinks of Roger Federer's serving performance in grass-court tournaments, I don't recommend trying that one out.
Throughout college, I managed to brainstorm some better conversation topics. But even six months after graduation, my coming-out process was still fraught with all the pain and apprehension of a gradual Band-Aid removal. Until the all-powerful overlords of Outsports decided they wanted to press "publish" on this article, I had only managed tell the truth to a few close friends. Now, as I put my story out there for friends, family, and strangers to read, I'm glad my days of coming out through shakily typed text messages are over. The Band-Aid is off, and I'm relieved to finally throw that gross old thing in the trash. It may not always be a good feeling. I suppose it's within the realm of possibility that all of my sports-loving friends could shun me, and doom me to a life of watching figure skating and softball. It is not, however, likely. The worst that could happen is I'll have a couple fewer Facebook friends tomorrow, and I think we could all afford to lose a few of those.
What makes it tough for gay athletes and sports fans to be honest about themselves is that most people don't like to have their expectations subverted. It is treated as a given that people like Tom Brady will have blonde supermodels hanging on their arms. When people like Michael Sam and Jason Collins skirt these expectations, they draw a collective gasp from society. Sometimes, the biggest barrier to coming out is not fear of hate or ostracism, but discomfort over delivering a surprise. Sure, sometimes it's nice to surprise someone, maybe by showing up on their porch and handing them an oversized lottery check. But even then, there's that moment when you approach the doorstep, fearing you could be mistaken for a burglar and stopped dead in your tracks. No matter how supportive the recipient of a coming out may be, the phrase "I have to tell you something" is always going to fray a few nerves.
The good news, though, is that gay sportspeople have the power to alter expectations. Each time one of us steps forward, we reinforce the idea that homosexuality and sports can coexist. If that jack-in-the-box springs up enough times, even the most simple-minded folks will find themselves unsurprised and unfazed by his arrival. Maybe, a couple dozen Michael Sams from now, the news of an athlete coming out will not provoke "tiger eats guests at zoo" levels of shock. Jason Collins may have set off those shockwaves, but then he played 22 games in the NBA, and lived to tell about it. His teammates and opponents went about their business, and not a single angel came down from the rafters of the Barclays Center to condemn him to Hell. He made the idea of an openly gay athlete a lot more normal than it was a year ago. Every gay person who is involved in sports (yes, even this athletically hopeless sportswriter) can shift public perception by speaking out.
When my friends and I co-founded Crooked Scoreboard, we did so because we felt that other sports media outlets weren't always having the challenging conversations they needed to have. Sports and culture are always intersecting, and when we look for meaning in their confluence, we become better fans and better people. But my co-writers and I can be just as guilty of avoiding the topics that make us squirm. Sometimes we'd rather not risk offending anyone, or maybe we just can't find the words, so we write a silly satirical piece instead. But when we build the resolve to confront the issues that really matter, we're better for it. Coming out isn't just an individualized liberation; it's a conversation. When gay sports fans make the choice not to be dormant, we wake up more than just ourselves.
Dustin Petzold, 22, is a writer based in Washington DC. He co-founded Crooked Scoreboard, a blog of sports, humor, and culture, with two of his George Washington University classmates. He wants to hear from you via e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org), especially if you can explain Major League Baseball's balk rule. He still doesn't quite get that. He is also on Twitter (@CrookedScore) and Facebook.