Personal Voices: Team Sports Not Very Sporting

Sometimes I get confused about not only what day of the week it is, but what year. I recently received an email from a friend that directed me to an article that began: "Should gay athletes, more particularly, should gay men be accepted as teammates? Should they have the same privileges of a heterosexual person in a locker room, or the same shower privileges? Should they be allowed to sleep in the same hotel room with their teammates?"

At first I thought it was some article from the 1950s dredged up and reprinted. But somewhat to my shock, but mainly my dismay, the article was written in November 2002. As they say, the more things change, the more they stay the same. It was at least a throwback to the 1993 U.S. military policy of "don't ask, don't tell."

As an out African-American lesbian and mother, sometimes I think that the world, or at least the rest of the United States, sees life through my lenses, which are accepting of folks regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, sexual orientation or any other identity.

But then I am snapped back into reality. The quote above was written by Demetrious Johnson for the St. Louis American, a free weekly newspaper (circ. 68,500) covering the African American community. Johnson wrote a column titled, "Parameters need to be set on gay athletes."

The background is that former professional football player Esera Tuaolo came out as a gay man a full two years after retiring from football. Tuaolo was a nose tackle and weighed 300 pounds -- far from anyone's stereotype of a gay man. This guy was in the closet during his nine years of professional play, and of course long before that.

In a print interview he spoke of his fear of coming out while an active player and said: "I'd wind up cut or injured. I was sure that if a GM didn't get rid of me for the sake of team chemistry, another player would intentionally hurt me, to keep up the image, because the NFL is a supermacho culture."

Johnson and others basically stated that in general they don't have a problem with gay folks or gay athletes, but that they should be in the closet if they play team sports or are in the locker rooms. Certainly a lot of journalists, athletes and other folks feel that way. But actions speak louder than statements. Johnson and others do have a problem with gay athletes and for that matter, gay people.

Somehow if you are gay and talk about your relationships or even have a picture of your partner you are "flaunting your lifestyle" but it is perfectly acceptable to talk about heterosexual relationships - even inappropriate ones. Rape, unprotected sex, cheating, and physical and emotional violence are appropriate locker room talk, but just don't be gay.

Tuaolo came out in October 2002 in a media blitz on HBO's Real Sports, Inside NFL, CNN and Good Morning America. But the real aftermath is being felt now with the homophobic reactions.

Charles Barkley, former professional basketball player, put it best: "First of all, there are a lot of people in here that don't like gay people. It's not just athletes. Athletes are insecure. Man, we got the testosterone rolling. We don't want to be around gay men, that's just how it is. But it's not just in the locker room. I mean, people just don't like gay people in this country. And that's sad."

Sad indeed, but Barkley is right, it's not just sports. Is there any wonder folks from all walks of life are reluctant to come out? I applaud Tuaolo for coming out, and I remain saddened that a 34-year-old man cannot be out as a gay man. No male professional athlete has come out while playing a team sport. I don't blame them. (To her credit, Sue Wicks, a player for the WNBA New York Liberty came out last season during an interview with the magazine Time Out New York.)

Until we all see that lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered folks have a "life" and not a "lifestyle" -- and "sexual orientations," not "preferences" we will continue to be driven into the closet. And that certainly is no way to live one's life.

One big step journalists can take in general in covering lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered folks is to not accept and reprint homophobic statements. Another very simple thing is to question language used to describe LGBTs and apply that same language to heterosexuals. LGBT are like heterosexuals in how we live our lives and form our families. Using distinguishing words minimizes our lives.

But Tuaolo hopefully will have the last laugh. He is out of football and out in life and lives with his partner and their 23-month-old twins. Thank you, Esera, for breaking the silence and coming out of the closet.

Akilah Monifa is a freelance writer and a media trainer/public relations strategist with the SPIN Project.

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