I never liked sports growing up. I only pretended to be a fan of traditional "turns-boy-into-man sports," like baseball, when I had to be, to fit in with the other kids, when I slept over at my friends' houses and their entire families sat drooling in front of the games on TV.
In my most radically anti-sports phase -- oh, just a few years back in college -- I thought that all sports should be outlawed, laid to rest. Queers who played sports were just trying too hard to fit in. Just like people who wanted to get married. But then I met some gay athletes and got over myself. And realized that insisting you have the right to be, say, do, indulge in, and explore whatever you please is the truly radical thing. That a same-gender marriage is not just buying into an exclusive institution. That it's all much more complicated than that.
So I stopped hating sports (and religion, and Democrats, and other things), but it's not like I'd suddenly found a reason to start liking sports, either. That is, until my co-worker, Ariana, introduced me to the Red Sox. Who, of course, just swept the World Series. (You'll excuse my obligatory WOOOO!)
Ariana is a diehard Red Sox fan; her fanaticism animates her, in a good way. Watching her talk about the team showed me her passion and her connection to a city she's lived in for almost 8 years. Everybody in Boston loves the Red Sox, she assured me. It's not just about baseball. It's about the people this team brings together. All walks of life. All over the city, the suburbs, beyond.
Sports, for all their drawbacks, have an uncanny ability in this culture to build bridges across differences. From an organizer's perspective, it baffles the mind.
I started watching the Red Sox with Ariana so I could learn the game from someone who would be able to teach me things without tripping my gay alarm system. You know, the screeching sounds we queers hear when put in situations that usually signal imminent danger and/or ridicule and harassment. The thought of simply waltzing into a random Boston sports bar, alone, to sit at the bar and watch the game was out of the question. I needed ally-assisted toe-dipping on this one. And once I brushed off what little baseball knowledge I had from forcibly growing up in it and found my motivation (making friends, becoming a Bostonian), I got hooked.
I became the Woo Hoo Guy.
At first, I was embarrassed to tell friends, especially my gay ones. And my boyfriend was beside himself. "You like what," he said. "No, really? Do I have to watch it, too?"
"Only if they win the Championship and go on to the World Series, 'cause then there'll be games when you're visiting, but I'll only make you watch one...or two...of the three days you're here..."
Don't get me wrong. I was still just as gay watching the Red Sox as I am watching the Food Network at 2am. Ariana and I dished about which players were cute (Mike Lowell, for instance, is baseball's George Clooney). Though we certainly put that aside to hoot, holler and high five when So-and-So made that WICKED AWESOME double play! We watched the game at her house and at low-key bars, places where we would otherwise comfortably hang out. And for the majority of the time -- the two weeks or so of my immediate (post-season) fandom -- I felt GREAT being a baseball fan. A big, gay baseball fan.
And then I got a little zealous, and decided to spend the last two innings of the World Series at the sports bar you might envision in your worst gay nightmare. Red Sox gear from head-to-toe. Packed to the hilt. Beer bellies taking up half the space. Constant clapping and bar-beating and whistling and stomping on the floor. Side comments hitting you in the head like, what else, mini-baseball bats:
"Come on, So-and-So, don't be a f*cking p*ssy!"
You can imagine the rest.
These are the people that have always made me hate sports, the ones whose very presence and boisterous behavior made me think not of revelry and good, clean fun, but of hate crimes and heads bashed in. I questioned, as I watched the last few beautiful minutes of World Series Game 4, the climactic moment of my transformative Red Sox weeks, whether I had just been fooling myself. Could I really enjoy this, not to mention embrace it? Had I been trying too hard to belong to a group of people that, by and large, would rather have me as a post-game punching bag than a fellow fan?
Back at the bar, Johnathan Papelbon, the Sox amazing closer, struck out the last of the Rockie's as we stood there, awe-struck and sardine-packed in that tiny, beat-up bar. Ecstatic fans sprayed cold beer over the crowd and we all got wet. I'd never had the pleasure of participating in a post-win celebration before; feeling the foam splatter my face was equal parts thrilling and terrifying. Ariana agreed. She signaled it was time to go before the real crazy shit started happening, so we shoved our way to the door.
My Red Sox moment had been robbed from me -- or had I robbed it from myself? Instead of feeling like a citizen of Red Sox Nation, I felt like the enemy at the gates. I've been thinking a lot these past few days about my place as a big, gay Red Sox fan, and it occurs to me now that my ultimate feelings of exclusion parallel quite well with "our" overall place in American society today.
I wanted to become a Red Sox fan like any person trying to tie into the fabric of their new community might. And I felt good and comfortable doing that because there are enough safe spaces and enough good people, in the Boston-area, at least, to make that possible. No need to watch the games alone in my apartment, fearing that I'd be called our for being un-gay or too gay, etc.
And I wanted to finish that amazing Red Sox game at this stereotypical, alarm-sounding, never-would-I-otherwise-feel-welcome-entering sports bar because, well, I should be able to, for crying out loud. I should be able, as a gay person or any kind of person, to be in the sportiest of sports environments when something as monumental as a Red Sox World Series Sweep occurs. So I went. And I stood there with pride. And fear...
As a community, we've come a long way, in terms of social acceptance. More and more LGBTQ people are feeling that they can be LGBTQ plus...LGBTQ and a person of color, for instance; LGBTQ and a sports enthusiast; LGBTQ and a Republican, even. The point is, we more and more feel that we can embrace and foreground the many aspects of our lives, both social and personal, without having to put one above the other. And we've created allies and safe enough spaces to do and be those things in the public eye. And we are emboldened to take the progress everywhere, to claim rights on spaces that have historically not been "our own." And yet still we are not safe in those spaces, and we must daily decide whether and when to put ourselves in danger. Sometimes it's for something as "silly" as a sports fan experience. Sometimes it's for our very lives.
I'll keep wearing my Red Sox t-shirt (cute, tight and green). And I'll drink beer and eat cheese fries and call the ump ugly names. And sometimes I'll go to the sports bar for the "authentic" sports fan experience. But I won't go alone. I'll go with friends like Ariana -- our ambassadors to the often scary world of heterosexuals -- and I'll feel better knowing they're there.