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Location: Kansas City, Missouri, United States

Doing my part to irritate Republicans, fundamentalists, bigots and other lower life forms.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Sports and being gay: When worlds collide

Brace yourselves for a shocking confession: I know next to nothing about sports. Furthermore, I care next to nothing about sports. The total time my television has been tuned to a sporting event is roughly the equivalent of the time George W. Bush spends reading The Washington Post on any given day. In my lifetime, I have attended exactly three professional baseball games (each time having been coerced into attending by friends), no football games, no soccer games, no hockey games, no basketball games, and no any other type of sporting event you can mention. Are you starting to get the picture that sports plays absolutely no part in my life?

That's not to say that a good sports story doesn't occasionally catch my interest. By "good sports story" I mean a story about the issues around sports, not the endless statistics of win-loss records, ERAs, total yardage gained, number of rebounds, or any of the other grist for the trivia mill. Give me a story about an issue like steroid use among athletes, Pete Rose's gambling, the "bad boy" behavior of some professional athletes, or shady recruiting techniques and my interest is piqued.

This week my interest was piqued in a big way by the announcement that Sheryl Swoopes, of the Houston Comets came out as a lesbian. Since I have never heard of Sheryl Swoopes, the Comets or the WNBA, I'll let an except from a story on fill in the details:

Sheryl Swoopes is the most decorated, biggest-name athlete in American team sports history to come out of the closet. Period. And that's not over-stating it. Along with Martina, she is, overnight, one of our two biggest name in sports.

To say the Michael Jordan of women's basketball just declared that she's a lesbian is no stretch. Swoopes won four consecutive league championships with the Houston Comets. She won her third league MVP award - more than anyone else - this past season. She is in the top five on the all-time WNBA playoffs lists for points, assists, steals and rebounds. She has won three Olympic gold medals. She was the college player of the year. ...

While it may not be surprising that a lesbian plays in the WNBA, what is surprising is that one of the game's most recognizable personalities, and it's best player, has decided to share her homosexuality with the rest of the world. THAT is shocking.

Alright! Chalk one up for our team! A leading player has decided to come out.

But while we celebrate one sports star coming out, it begs the question, so where are all the gay male sports stars?

Sure, there are sports figures like former football player David Kopay and former baseball player Billy Bean. They came out - but they waited until their careers were over before penning their stories. Even among male figure skaters (where the percentage of gay males is way above the standard "10 percent" model), most wait to come out until their competitive days are over and they are on the "Champions on Ice" circuitit.

The reality is that for gay men in competitive sports, coming out is far more difficult than it is for their lesbian counterparts.

Some might argue that women's sports draws a smaller share of fans than men's sports (and a larger percentage of lesbian fans), so a lesbian sports figure coming out is not as surprising as a male sports star announcing he's gay. While that may be true, it's certainly far from the whole story.

To get the whole picture you have to take into account the skewed view of gender and sex role stereotypes we as a culture have had pounded into us ever since we're wrapped in blue baby blankets if we have a penis or pink blankets if we don't.

Boys are supposed to be rambunctious, aggressive and competitive. Girls are meant to be quiet, submissive and adverse to rough play. But when we get to grade school, we discovered that sometimes those rules just don't apply. A girl who is adept at climbing trees and throwing a ball and wrestling a competitor to the ground is called a tomboy. As such she's welcomed - somewhat reluctantly, sometimes - into the fraterity of "one of the guys." A boy who'd rather spend his recess reading a book, helping the teacher clean the chalkboard or playing quietly by himself is called a sissy. As such he is shunned by the boys for being "just like a girl."

Not all tomboys grow up to be lesbians, but men - at least the predominantly straight men who make up the bulk of sports viewers - find it easy to relate to tough female sports stars. They play aggressively in a competitive sports and they are "just one of the guys" for the average straight male. Once such a star comes out there's the extra titillation factor for straight guys obsessed with lesbians. (Why do you think so many "straight" porno movies have an obligatory girl-on-girl scene?)

The former "sissies" who become male sports players are faced with two choices: they can focus their talents on individual sports like figure skating, diving, etc., where they don't have to worry about fitting in with teammates, or they can bury themselves deep in the closet and compete in team sports like football, basketball or baseball where the bad-ass macho male is the top of the pecking order.

Sadly, the overwhelming majority find it easier to go with the flow and play along with the glorified extension of high school gym class version of professional male sports. While that the quickest solution, it's not the healthiest. Parsing out portions of your life to determine which can be publicly viewed seldom is.

Over my life I've dated a couple of guys who could reasonably be considered "sports figures." (Don't get excited. I won't be outing anyone here.)

The first was a college football player while I was in college, though using the term "dating" to describe the relationship is stretching the definition. We were in several of the same classes and he was aware I was gay. At first I thought his overtures of friendship were an attempt to show me he had a sensitive, accepting side and wasn't just a typical "jock." His after-practice visits evolved into complaints of soreness which evolved into massages which evolved into foreplay. Eventually the "would you mind massaging my back" ruse was eliminated all together and his visits became a wordless game of sex driven by desperate need followed by stammers and long pauses as he got dressed to leave. After a year of this I was ready for a change. He visits quit feeling like those of a boyfriend; boyfriends, afterall, weren't repulsed by the idea of kissing another man (though, oddly, he never raised a complaint about having my penis in his mouth).

After that first year I lost track of him, seeing him only a few times on campus from a distance. I don't think he went any further with his football, but I did see him mentioned in a classnote in our alumni magazine several years after graduation. The announcement concerned the birth of his first child to he and his wife. I've often wondered if he's still married - living out the life script he was supposed to live out.

The other "jock" in my life was a former professional soccer player with whom I lived for a few excruciating months that seemed like years. He had no problem kissing another man (or doing anything else with another man). Especially after a couple of beers - or a few dozen. What he did have a problem with was in justifying his life as a macho sports figure with his life as someone who went home to a same-sex partner. To overcome that chasm, he filled it with alcohol, and gambling, and sometimes cocaine. He was "out" as long as he was around other gay people, but with his family and his work he resolutely maintained a strict barrier. That barrier made sense to him. After all, it had served him well while playing sports. It didn't occur to him that it was killing him now though.

I wonder if either of my "jocks" are happy. Chances are they never think about it. They are too busy surviving and trying to remember which mask they are wearing.

As long as the culture of machismo reigns in men's sports, the likelihood of a male sports celebrity at the top of his game coming out will remain small. It will happen some day. And whether it happens a second time will depend on how ready the fans and his teammates are to accept him as "just one of the guys."

(For a list of "out" sports figures, check out this link to a list compiled by