When I went to my first New York Giants game in 20 years last season, the last thing I expected to hear was a flurry of gay slurs from a fellow fan.
Yet somehow, I’m glad I did.
I’ve been a football fan my entire life. I knew I loved football way before I knew that I was gay. Growing up in a predominately male family – I have four brothers and two sisters – sports was a total passion in our house.
My brothers and I spent so much time around the television and occasionally in a stadium no matter what the sport. A bit awkward myself, I was never very athletic despite trying my best at PAL football. Often the last kid picked for a squad in gym class, I never really found my athletic self until I took up tennis in my late 40s.
But I was always a fan of sports and loved to talk sports strategy. I loved being dedicated to a team and living the ups and downs of fanhood. Back in the day, I had the opportunity to go a lot of match-ups in the Meadowlands and always enjoyed the experience. Yet for two decades, getting to a game had eluded me.
On that night in Giants stadium this past season, the rush of emotions were strong and immediate. We were seated close to the field with an incredible view of the game. Proximity makes football feel smaller somehow than the way television presents it – But it also makes it more real.
The electricity in the air was palpable and I became aware quickly that I was a member of a tribe of Giants fans who share the intense emotions about this team with me. I was part of something. I found people just like me.
In an NFL stadium, there is a connection that occurs between fans of the same team. People around you high-five every time your team scores. The row of people in front of you turns around and offers the hand slap; You turn and greet the folks behind you with the same glee. You comment on aspects of the game and people in the area chime in about a statistic, a player’s ability, or a strategy for the win. A tribal feel runs deep.
As the game went on that night, one young guy in the row right behind me started talking trash on the other team.
Eventually, he used the word “faggot” several times. I froze up. My nephews looked at me, and I stayed silent. I didn’t let my reaction fuel anger. I didn’t want to create an unhappy altercation. I was able to get past it to continue to enjoy the game.
The Giants scored again. I turned around and slapped the hands of the folks behind me, including the one who made the offensive remark. This time I chatted with them about the game and we started to build a bond with them. They were from a place in Connecticut where my cousin lives, and we marveled that they would happen to be seated together in a stadium of 70,000 fans.
My nephews connected with them over talk of football strategy. We had fun with them. It was a nail-biter of a game, like every other Giants win seems to be, and eventually our two groups merged completely, even taking photos together as the game neared the end.
There we were at the end of the game with the happy result of a Giants victory. As we packed up our stuff, I turned to the one who yelled the gay slurs and let him how much I enjoyed sitting with them. I also told him that that remark offended me as a gay man, and I wish he would be more considerate in the future about the inappropriateness of that pejorative term. My nephews watched me say it with shock in their eyes, ready for trouble.
The young man’s jaw dropped, stunned that he had even said the word to begin with. He didn’t deny it.
“I’m so sorry,” he said, looking me straight in the eye. He was clearly mortified that he had done it. Even worse, he had been caught doing it by someone who was offended.
I thanked him for his response and told him again that I was glad that we shared the game with him.
I’m pretty confident he won’t do that again.
Too often, we don’t confront homophobia, especially in situations where we don’t feel safe. Some might claim that a testosterone-induced stadium of rabid football fans is such a place.
Not for me. I was with my tribe, and this fellow member of that tribe needed to know that what he was saying hit some of his fellow fans pretty hard. I think all of us were better from the experience.
If I hear that language again from a fan, I’ll again share my feelings with them. After all, we Giants fans have to stick together.
You can find Paul Gorrell on Twitter @PaulGorrell.
Story editor: Cyd Zeigler