Editors' Note: Guest blogger Bill Konigsberg is the Lambda Literary Award-winning author of Out of the Pocket and a GLAAD Media Award-winning sports writer. Bill came out on the front page of ESPN.com in 2001 with his essay "Sports World Still a Struggle for Gays." The article won the GLAAD Media Award for digital journalism the following year.
I am a reasonably good softball player.
I say this not to brag (if this is the thing I have to brag about, I'm in serious trouble!) but to be as objective as possible about my skill level in a game I have played for most of my life. I'm neither Billy Bean, nor Mr. Bean. Somewhere in the middle. Able to hit a ball a long ways on occasion, able to throw the ball where I want it to go, but unlikely to make any diving stops at shortstop worthy of ESPN's Plays of the Week.
Nearly two decades ago, when I first gathered the courage to play in the gay softball league in New York City, I was certain that this level of adequate-ness would make me the best player in the league. I didn't know any athletic gay guys yet, at 20, and with youthful bravado I joined the Spike Black Sox, one of two "A" teams in New York. I figured a bunch of brunch-loving, Eagle-going, Madonna-worshipping queers wouldn't be able to swing a bat. They'd see me and just fawn over my acceptable level of talent.
This was the beginning of a humbling summer.
As it turned out, I was one of the worst players on the team. My penchant for popping out to the catcher, and my inability to consistently catch 90 mile per hour bullets at first base earned me a frequent spot on the bench. On the positive side, it was a great awakening for me, to witness for the first time the exceptional gay athletes all around me.
That summer was the start of me learning to be the man I am today. I began the journey of embracing the fact that I was gay, and realizing that being gay was no more shameful than being left-handed. (But way more fun).
Sports did that for me. Seeing men who were like me, who shared my sexual orientation, excel on the field.
I mention all of this because of a comment I heard recently at a gay bar. I was chatting with a guy in his 40s, and when I mentioned that my first novel was about a gay football player, and that I was a sports writer, he rolled his eyes and made the same, sad joke I've heard thousands of times. The one where you'll be talking about football and they'll say "I hope someone hits a home run," or you'll be talking basketball, and they'll ask a question about touchdowns. "Are you a pitcher, or a catcher," is a third one.
They're weak lines, but I've always laughed politely anyway, and half-heartedly apologized for being exactly who I am.
But this time it really made me think. It made me think about the internalized homophobia many of us have when it comes to team sports.
I think we come by this internalized prejudice honestly. How many of us didn't hear, when we were younger, comments about what sissies gay men were? I'd be surprised if any of us avoided hearing all that; even those who were busy spewing those comments heard them. And it's hard not to take those comments personally. And then there's the matter of bullying, which is often associated with teams of male athletes. My husband, to this day, kicks up his leg in self defense whenever I throw a ball to him. He says it's a reflex reaction based on having basketballs hurled at his head by bullies when he was a kid. It makes me furious. Anything that hurt the man I love angers me.
Let's face it. Boys are often cruel. And packs of boys are worse. They jump on perceived weakness. Anything that doesn't conform to a macho, heterosexual norm. Even if I wasn't made fun of for being a weak athlete growing up, I certainly was made fun of when it was learned that I had Sylvester 45s, and loved listening to Donna Summer.
We all faced this junk. It's a commonality among nearly all gay men. Not because we're less masculine, but because inside, we knew we were different. While some men have worked through this, others seem to have counteracted the bullying and chiding by going to the gym, and getting outrageously large; some have tried to overcompensate by being ultra-masculine; some have used camp and cutting wit; and some have simply shied away from athletics and instead make jokes that underline their disdain for team sports.
I am sure I'm not alone in saying that I simply internalized the hatred.
My point is that it's a new day. No, homophobia is not a thing of the past; not by a long shot. But we now live in a world where 37 cities across North America have gay softball leagues. Just as many have volleyball leagues, and flag football and basketball and hockey are also thriving in some cities. By and large, these leagues are accepting and nurturing of people of every talent level. Just because the great rewards of camaraderie and fellowship that come along with team sports were stolen from many of us as kids is no reason to allow those things to fester into our adulthoods.
So to that guy in the bar, I say: buck up. This isn't 1968 any longer. We can wear the limitations foisted upon us, or we can reclaim the joys taken from us. Team sports are fun, whether you're on the bench for an "A" team or, twenty years later, a starting catcher for a "D" team. And you don't have to be a straight guy to claim them as a passion.