When I was fourteen, I made the worst decision of my life: joining my middle school wrestling team.
It wasn’t the weight cutting or rolling around on dirty mats with sweaty boys that made it so bad. It wasn’t even the humiliation of wearing a singlet. It was what happened when the team decided I was gay.
At fourteen I was a chubby, slow, asthmatic. I never won a match, barely made it through practices, and served as the team’s poster child for pathetic.
After one particularly grueling practice, I sat propped against a wall in the locker room, wheezing, puffing on my inhaler, and staring off into space.
God did I ever want to quit. But quitting was impossible. Quitters were cursed as pussies and fags and got beat on by those who didn’t quit, between classes or after school. Even my parents insisted that I stay at it, a lesson they said I needed to learn about enduring, seeing things through, and counting the cost of commitment.
As I sat absently mulling my predicament in that middle school locker room, another boy was changing. My heavy breathing and open-mouthed gawking in his direction—while he took of his underwear no less—could only be interpreted one way: I wanted his body.
Word quickly circulated among the team that I liked boys. Then, one day after practice, I was drug into the practice room by a mob of my teammates and beaten for “being gay.” I was held down and lashed across the shins and calves with a nylon jump rope until my skin bubbled and bled. I was kicked in the head and back so hard my legs went numb and my head spun under stars.
“This is what you get! This is what faggots get!” they shouted. “If you tell the coaches, you’re just gonna get it again, worse.”
It’s twenty years later. I’m thirty-four. I’m not attracted to other men, nor have I ever been. But in the course of my athletic career, both professional and amateur, I’ve been called gay hundreds of times. And, as strange as it sounds, I don’t think my sexual orientation has ever really been in question.
The term “gay” in a locker room rarely seems to directly correlate with its intended sexual definition. It almost always serves as a catchall; a stand-in for anything as obtuse as being sensitive, as trivial as being inconvenient, as degrading as being a pervert, or just a term of abuse aimed at someone who is different for any ambiguous reason outside the norm.
If you can wrap your head around this, then you can understand what a monumental milestone it is for Milwaukee Brewers’ minor leaguer David Denson to become the first openly gay minor league baseball player, and how remarkable it is for any gay athlete to let the world know that they are not only counter-cultural, but also the living punch line of virtually every joke to echo through the halls of a hetero dominated, homophobic shower room.
As a fellow pro, I wonder what Denson’s draft day was like? Mine was one of the most exciting days of my life—the ultimate moment of self-actualization eclipsed only by my Major League debut. But for Denson, was it bittersweet realizing his skill set placed him among the world’s most elite players, the same group who invoked the name of his secret sexual orientation interchangeably with weakness, cowardice, and perversion?
It had to be in the back of his head. Think of all the things he has seen in sports, all things he has heard. All the hazing and flippant comments, all the stories about sexual conquests and how the rest of the boys ate it up. All the heavily implied norms, and all the times failing to meet them caught hell. Even simple things like an older booster or fan saying, “I’ll bet a big, strong fella like you gets all the ladies, huh?”
I can’t speak to the process of coming out, but I can tell you that, for any athlete, there is a built-in belief system that, if you make it big enough or play well enough, anything that makes you odd will become trivial if not endearing—The Crash Davis on Shower Shoes effect.
If only for this reason, I’m glad Denson came out in the minors. It’s a better example for athletes to follow. It’s a better example for all of us to follow. We don’t need a mantle of fame or accomplishment to balance out any personal choices that may be contrary to the status quo. We don’t need to earn the right to be accepted. It was hard enough enduring the sense that my big league dream was slipping away when I struggled, I can’t imagine what it would feel like if my chance to safely express my sexuality were attached to it.
Considering all this, you might wonder why Denson didn’t come out sooner. Why go through so much unnecessary suffering? Why not live in the truth and walk your own path? Because the chance to play in the big leagues is a chance that only a fraction of a fraction of the population will ever experience and you’ll do whatever it takes not to jeopardize it. I’ve known players who’ve lied about injuries, about affairs, about their legal identity just to stay in contention for a big league roster spot. Keeping a secret you’ve kept for years, one that makes you a double baseball minority seems, sadly, logical.
At the highest levels of sport, teams become tighter, more elite, and more exclusive. However, even in middle school, surrounded by the foolishness of children, there was the pervasive sense that, because the majority of the team was okay with it, beating me was perfectly within the team’s rights. Hell, they were doing me a favor; toughening me up, beating the oddity out of me.
While they pass judgment on what is “playing the game the right way,” professional baseball players are not middle school children. I’ve no doubt that David Denson’s sexuality, should he make it to big leagues, will fall safely outside of that jurisdiction. There will be holdouts who look down upon his choice, but such is life. I expect he will be accepted by his teammates and respected for his decision. He will be supported through his struggles and coached like any other organizational investment the Brewers have made.
However, its highly unlikely things will stop being gay in baseball now that one active player has let the world know he truly is.
It will take more courageous homosexual athletes standing up, and, it will take time for groups of macho, hetero males to realize just how far-reaching and hurtful their unchecked behaviors can be. Change will happen. It’s happening across our culture as a whole, so it will happen in lockers and team rosters.
Making it to the big leagues is hard and, statistically speaking, Denson probably won’t. That’s a shame. Not because he’s gay and the gay community needs a major league baseball player in order to be relevant, but because we live in world wherein, unless someone or something becomes obscenely famous, we tend not to pay any attention unless we have to. Yet, big leaguer or not, Denson is worth our attention. He is worth our reflection, support, and continued conversation because somewhere, on some sports team right now, there is a young, “different” player getting pulled away and beaten by a group of athletes who feel they’re doing a useful thing.
What they’re doing is not useful. It never has been. It never will be.
The homosexual community needs more brave role models, like Denson, in sports. It needs so many, in fact, that articles about the relevance a player’s sexual orientation in a locker room never have to be written again.
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