“What are you doing this weekend?”
My heart drops whenever I get this question. It happens all the time. Sure, the intent may be innocuous, but for a gay man working at the NFL, this question threatens to integrate aspects of my identity that I so desperately try to keep apart.
In the corporate sports world, the subject of homosexuality does not exist. One is presumed to be straight. So how do I reconcile this as a gay man?
I play along.
If you’re my coworker and you’re inquiring about my weekend plans, you’ll get a generic response, one that evades both lying and telling the truth.
“I’m just hanging around the city. I’ll probably see friends, maybe hit up a few bars.” That answer keeps the anxiety level high. Friends, bars – I can’t provide a window for more specific follow-ups. I must turn the tables, and turn them now.
“Yeah, nothing exciting. What are you doing?”
And, breathe. The pressure is now lifted. I can just smile and listen with no fear of having to explain exactly what friends or exactly what bars.
I’ve mastered the art of avoidance, of omitting the details. When I get this question, I craft my response carefully to steer the conversation into something forgettable, reducing it to an ember that dies with apathy.
It’s not that I believe that my coworkers are homophobic. They’re great people. We bond over anything from our fantasy football team rivalries to the liberation of tie-free Fridays.
In my two years of working at the NFL, I’ve never witnessed bigotry in the office. Yet still, I strategically tiptoe around the subject of my sexuality, maintaining a strong boundary between my work and personal lives.
It has nothing to do with the NFL, either. It’s just that the larger institution of sports—particularly football— is one of machismo. It extols masculinity. It’s uncommon, and certainly not expected, for a man who loves football to be gay. Since I don’t fit the effeminate gay stereotype, these cultural expectations squeeze my psyche like a python and dissuade me from dismantling my guard.
When I was a 23-year-old New York City resident I had one foot in and the other out of the closet. Some in my life knew I was gay, some didn’t. My friends were all straight. I had no one to lead me into the foreign “homosexual” world, no guidebook to follow. So I took it upon myself and began to frequent gay bars.
I started as an observer. I stood against the back wall with a cold lager in my hand. I saw middle-aged men by themselves on barstools. Some chatted with bartenders. Others stared at nothing. A few were glued to their phones. A palpable loneliness surrounded them all.
I saw men in their 20s—maybe 30s—standing around tables with cocktails. Most seemed quite effeminate, gossiping and giggling.
The juxtaposition between the older and younger men was fascinating, but also terrifying. I felt I could not talk to anyone. It was unnerving. Everyone seemed to conform to a stereotype to which I couldn’t relate.
Yet despite my anxiety, I wanted to be there. There was an inexplicable lure to this tableau before me. And so I remained and observed, sipping my beer.
That is, until I became a participant.
I started talking to men, going on dates and having fun. My anxiety grew less paralyzing as I marched further into the gay world.
These experiences provided isolated moments of connection. However, the gratification I received was fleeting as I lacked meaningful community. I longed for something more permanently fulfilling.
After about a year, I sought to fill this void. I found a means to entrench myself in the larger gay community and connect with others similar to me.
I integrated gay Michael and football-loving Michael into, well, Michael.
All it took was a Google search: “Gay sports leagues in New York.”
Two years later the New York Gay Football League is the most important part of my personal life. We play every weekend—hundreds of us. Some play for the love of football, some for the camaraderie, and some, like me, for both. It’s such a quality all-around league that even a handful of straight people play.
I’ve been a team captain, and I’ll continue to lead for years to come. My enthusiastic attitude and game knowledge have made me a quality teammate and leader.
Local gay bars and businesses sponsor each team. Every season, I play with different teammates and wear a different bar’s logo. All the teams gather at sponsor bars after games for drinks, music and company.
Even more amazing is that dozens of gay leagues exist in cities nationwide. The National Gay Flag Football League hosts tournaments throughout the year across the country. My travels have taken me to Florida, San Diego, Chicago and D.C., where I’ve met thousands of others who’ve found outlets in gay football.
At this point in my life, my best friends are primarily others in the league. We play football. We talk football. We talk men. We take summer vacations to Fire Island.
This is who I’ve always wanted to be, and now I’m living it.
Except not in the office. At work, I’m just football-loving Michael.
One Saturday night I was in a gay bar with a friend from the flag football league. It was dark. Lady Gaga blared as disco lights illuminated smiles, vodka sodas, and bartender six-packs. Amid the beautiful chaos, I heard a deep voice in my right ear.
“Do you work at the NFL?”
Stunned, I turned my head. Sure enough, standing in front of me was a colleague from my office. Standing beside him? His husband.
I’m not alone. I’m not the only person who fears shedding light on his sexuality in a workplace where it’s taboo. And to preempt your retort—yes, it is taboo. Just because homosexuality isn’t condemned doesn’t mean it’s lauded; the lack of homophobia is paralleled by a lack of positive or meaningful conversation about the LGBTQ community.
This seemingly trivial encounter with my coworker has planted in me a strong desire to shift my attitude. I no longer want to be an ordinary workplace body. I no longer want to exhaust myself by hiding an integral piece of my identity. And I don’t plan to do it for much longer.
They say one in 10 people is gay, which means there are bound to be many others in the corporate sports world—and other corporate environments, as well—who remain in the shadows due to expectations of heterosexuality.
It’s imperative to create networks, to start conversations and illuminate the dark spaces. We must make our presence known and take pride in being who we are. Sharing my story is just the beginning.
So, what am I really doing this weekend? I’m hanging around the city, seeing friends, and hitting up bars.
Gay friends, that is, and gay bars, too.
You can find Michael Castor on Facebook. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor: Cyd Zeigler