Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Gay Athlete

by Jeff Pearlman

I wrote the following piece recently as a freelance assignment, but it never made print. Hence, I offer it below.

Obviously, the whole gay rights issue is one I feel very strongly about. I wish I had been alive for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, because I like to think (though one never knows for sure) I’d be out there marching and speaking up.

As I’ve said before, the gay rights movement is our civil rights moment.

Hence, this column …

I hope you are reading this.

You, the scared, closeted sufferer.

You, the potential trailblazer.

You, the gay major league baseball player.

No doubt, this dilemma has plagued your soul: Do I come out? Do I continue to hide? You have weighed the pros and cons of walking forth from the shadows, and they are, to understate, daunting. There will be heckles and catcalls; death threats and protests. You will be branded an outcast and a cancer; will be called “queer,” “fag” and 8,000 more heinous slurs. Teams that once craved your production will shy away. Fans once anxious to purchase your jersey will look elsewhere. Little boys and girls will snicker. Parents will warn their offspring who not to be like. The clubhouse, normally a sanctuary, will turn into a torture chamber. Teammates will avoid the shower in your presence. The team chaplain will thunderously cite Leviticus 18:22 (“Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.”) You will no longer be invited to dinner; to bars; to family barbeques; to the offseason caravan. Many within the sport will speak of you in the manner Tim Hardaway spoke of John Amaechi, the former Orlando Magic center who came out two years ago. “If he was on my team, I would really distance myself from him because, I don’t think that’s right,” Hardaway said. “And you know I don’t think he should be in the locker room while we’re in the locker room.”

So why bother coming out of the closet? Why should you subject yourself to certain torture?


Because right now, at this precise moment in 2009, there is a desperate need for leaders in the gay-rights movement; a desperate need for high-profile people to make a Rosa Parks-esque statement. Just last week, the California Supreme Court came to a jarringly narrow conclusion, voting to uphold Proposition 8, which limits marriage to only between heterosexual couples. The decision serves as Exhibit 1A on how far this country has to go when it comes to accepting gays and lesbians as equals. It also serves as Exhibit 1A on why you are being called to action.
Baseball, as you know, represents something that the other major sports do not. It is Americana—a symbol of all that is good and righteous about who we are and what we stand for. It is a warm day in the sun; a beer and a hotdog; red, white, and blue bunting and the national anthem before every first pitch. It’s a beloved blue-eyed, sandy-haired boy chasing down a long fly into the gap.

Now what if that beloved blue-eyed, sandy-haired boy happens to be … gay? How will Americans—especially those in the heartland—handle the juxtaposition? How will they respond?

Answer: I’m not sure. It could be horrific. Worse than horrific. That said, Americans have been known to surprise. Maybe, just maybe, instead of heckles and catcalls, there will be cheers and standing ovations; curtain calls and sellouts. Maybe you will be branded a groundbreaker and a hero; will be referred to as “the Jackie Robinson of gay rights.” Maybe teams that once craved your production might shy away at first—until they realize you’re baseball’s biggest draw. Maybe fans will purchase your jerseys in droves. Maybe little boys and girls will sing your name. Maybe parents will urge their offspring to be just like you. Maybe the clubhouse, normally a sanctuary, will serve this role more than ever. Maybe teammates will stand up for your right to be yourself. Maybe your manager will say, “Gay or straight, he’s my guy.” Maybe the team chaplain will thunderously cite John 13:23 (“One of his disciples, the one whom Jesus kept loving, had been sitting very close to him.”) Maybe you will still be invited to dinner; to bars; to family barbeques; to the offseason caravan. Maybe many within the sport will speak of you in the manner Ken Griffey, Jr. spoke of Joe Valentine, a former Reds pitcher who was raised by lesbian parents. “I salute his mothers, and anything negative he’s gone through because of that is garbage,” Griffey said. “I would embrace a gay teammates just like I embrace straight teammates. Some of my closest friends are gay. It makes no difference to me. People are people.”

People are people.

We find ourselves at a riveting crossroads. For the first time ever, five states allow gay marriage, and in a recent New York Times/CBS poll, 57 percent of Americans under age 40 support same-sex nuptials. When a man like Dennis Prager appears on Larry King Live and says, “I would like children to be raised to believe that when they grow up they will get married. And that they are not asked when they are six or seven years old, ‘Will you marry a boy or a girl?’” he brings to mind the soundbites of George Wallace from four decades ago.

And yet, there are still miles to go. Living in the liberal Mecca of New York, it is easy to forget that, to millions of Americans, gays are alien creatures, no less scary than Wes Craven’s latest invention. People fear the idea of gay teachers and gay neighbors; literally fear catching “The Gay”—as if it were a strand of swine flu. This is especially true in the sheltered world of professional baseball, where most competitors have devoted their lives to the singular, non-thought-provoking tasks of seeing-ball, throwing-ball, hitting-ball, catching-ball. The major leagues are the domain of Maxim and strip clubs; of long-legged, large-breasted girlfriends and “Check out the blonde eight rows up …” mid-game commentaries. In the mid-1990s, an American League superstar confided in a small number of peers that he was gay, but insisted the information never be released. His reason? Fear of banishment. “Baseball just doesn’t lend itself to accepting gays,” says Billy Bean, the former major league journeyman who came out of the closet after retiring. “There’s very little empathy for people like me.”

Indeed, it has been 10 years since Bean announced that he was gay, and any initial hopes of change within the sport have been largely dashed. Bean has waited and waited and waited for an active player to stand up and say, “I’m a homosexual. So what?” but he no longer holds his breath. “There’s just so much to lose,” he says. “Your contract, your teammates’ trust, your place. Do I wish I came out when I was active? Yes, I do. But I wanted to be accepted, just like everyone else. Who would have accepted me if they knew I was gay?”

Yet here’s the mild shocker: In the aftermath of Bean’s announcement, a handful of high-profile big leaguers—Trevor Hoffman and Brad Ausmus among them—not only embraced Bean’s words, but spoke out on his behalf. “It wouldn’t have made a difference to me [when we were teammates],” said Ausmus, “and it doesn’t bother me now.” Brian Johnson, Bean’s Triple A roommate and a future Padres catcher, called his old chum and said, “I wish you had told me back then. I would have supported you 100 percent.”

Now, a decade after Bean’s courageous step, the time is at hand. You have the opportunity to be more than a ballplayer; more than just another blah notation buried deep within the pages of the Baseball Encyclopedia. For every 10,000 Bill Brutons and Joe Sambitos, there’s a Curt Flood. For every 10,000 Paul Blairs and Jack Clarks, there’s a Robinson. The country’s ever-dwindling holdouts to logic are ready to see that homosexual doesn’t mean weird or strange or frightening. They are ready to see that the most pure and wholesome and revered among us—our baseball players—can be pure, wholesome, revered … and gay.

It is time to step out of the closet.

It is time to shine.

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