Gays in sports approach a milestone… and so much has changes

Eric “Gumby” Anderson was a high school cross-country coach. Near the end of school, one of his runners was beaten by three classmates — one of them a football player. Calling the runner a “faggot,” they fractured his jaw and damaged his eardrum.

It was not the first incident involving a member of the Huntington Beach High School cross-country team. It had been happening ever since Anderson came out as gay.

The coach’s announcement — earth-shaking at the time — occurred in 1993. The vicious beating took place three years later. The incident framed the first story in the book Jocks: True Stories of America’s Gay Male Athletes. It was published in 1998.

I wrote that book. Nearly 20 years ago, it was as groundbreaking as Anderson’s announcement had been. It was the first book-length compilation of the experiences of gay male athletes — the first time, really, that there was a public acknowledgment that such people existed.

Gay athletes had been around forever, of course. Ancient Greek men, I noted in the introduction, had used sports as an opportunity to meet boys. (The root word for “gymnasium” — “gymnos” — has nothing to do with athletics. It means “nude.”)

Football players Dave Kopay and Jerry Smith, baseball outfielder Glenn Burke, and diving champion Greg Louganis had all come out of the closet already — though not always of their own volition. Only two male athletes, however, had done so during their active careers: figure skating star Rudy Galindo and soccer player Justin Fashanu.

The 1990s were still a fearful time to be a gay athlete.

Yet something else was stirring. Across America — in rural towns, faceless suburbs and large cities — teenagers and 20-something gay males were shooting hoops, kicking soccer balls, handling hockey sticks, running, swimming and biking. They were working hard, and working out. Every day they sweated, trained, competed — and showered — in the most macho of all environments: high school and college sports.

They were nowhere near as visible as their classmates who were gay actors, musicians or even student government leaders. They heard slurs from teammates and coaches. They listened quietly as their teammates rated (and often denigrated) girls; detailed their sexual conquests, and passed along the still-accepted sports culture that exalted “manliness” (heterosexuality) and despised “femininity” (homosexuality).

But those gay athletes were there. They were finding themselves, finding their places on their teams, finding their places in society. And finding each other.

That was the landscape I set out to explore two decades ago. Jocks was filled with stories of the boys and young men who — unnoticed, but in ever-increasing numbers — were changing both the sports landscape, and the way all Americans looked at the image of “gay men.”

Many of the stories involved sports like track, tennis and swimming. It was a lot easier then to come out as an “individual” athlete than a “team” player. Something about training on one’s own — and not having to worry about the detrimental effect on closely-bonded teammates — seemed to draw gay athletes to solo sports.

Some of the tales were tough ones. The stress of hiding one’s sexuality led to drug and alcohol abuse, or thoughts of suicide (as had been true for years with gay non-athletes too). An interviewee described the anguish of being the boyfriend of a Division I basketball player: After games, the athlete went to parties and showed off his “masculinity” by picking up girls, while the boyfriend sat home alone. An Ivy League runner talked about track as a metaphor for not being out: His life was going around in circles.

But many of the stories were positive. When a football coach’s son — who played for him — came out, the man’s world changed. He realized the impact he could have on every player. By being more open about all kinds of differences, he became a better coach.

A wrestler mentored younger boys, helping them gain both physical and emotional strength.

And two straight athletes spoke up when gay kids in their school were bullied. People respect us for no reason other than we were born a certain way — with the gift of athletics, they said. Well, they added, we’ve all got to respect everyone else too, no matter how they were born.

Four years after Jocks, I wrote a sequel: Jocks 2: Coming Out to Play. By then, the stories were far more positive and wide-ranging. The ripples of young athletes coming out had already begun to spread.

In 2017, it’s difficult to imagine a time when “gay male athlete” seemed almost an oxymoron. It’s almost as if that was a different century entirely.    

— Dan Woog  



The gender games

Dystopian cosplay or gender-fluid allegory? ‘Mask’ is both


Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller (Sourcebooks 2017) $18; 352 pp.

At first, Sallot Leon thought the scrap of paper might be money. Erland nobles had been doing that — making money — ever since the war, when Nacea was obliterated. But no, this bit of paper was worth more than money: it was an open call for a replacement member of the Queen’s Left Hand, an elite group of assassin-guards. “Come by invitation or by skill,” the poster said.

Sal had the skill, for sure. Since age 8, Sal worked as a street fighter and could climb anything. There was nothing Sal couldn’t steal, no lock Sal couldn’t pick. Those were skills the Queen needed, just as much as Sal needed to be Opal for the Left Hand and so, to get into the audition, committed the first murder of many.

That, as it turned out, was the easy part: after passing the first interview, Sal was accepted and given a mask to wear at all times — the last mask awarded. Twenty-three people were in the competition, for which the rules were simple: kill your competitors without being seen or getting caught, but don’t hurt anyone not competing. Nine competitors were killed the first night.

As other Opal Wanna-Be’s fell almost hourly, Sal had to rely on past experience and new skills to stay alive. Core-strength training helped Sal dodge spears and arrows from other competitors. Tutoring eliminated illiteracy. Medical training kept Sal from death by poisoning. But there was no way to avoid falling in love with someone forbidden, nor the aftermath that was sure to come.

Though it starts out a little on the clunky side, and it may take a minute to get your bearings, Mask of Shadows quickly becomes a pretty good novel. And a unique one, too: it’s rare to find a gender-fluid character in a main position, but that’s where author Linsey Miller places hers — and yet, though unusual, fluidity isn’t the driving force behind this story. We don’t know, in fact, that Sal doesn’t gender-identify until later in the novel. That’s uncommon, too.

As for character development, there’s where Miller shines. Sal starts out a bit feral, a street-wise petty thief, uncivilized but with hungry focus. There’s a lot of selfishness in that early Sal, but as they mature into a trained assassin, egotism is replaced by allegiance and a much finer character. Add in a cast that could, one-by-one, die at any minute and, well, you’ll be hooked.

For fans of The Hunger Games-type fiction, that’s gonna be too appealing to pass up. It’s gonna be too delicious to deny yourself. Mask of Shadows, for
readers ages 15 and up, is gonna be a dream book.                                             

— Terri Schlichenmeyer