“All I know is you’re going to hell.”
Made enough sense at the time. We were kids back then, and the fact that we were even discussing the topic seemed odd. Then again, we were Berkeley students so the topic was forced upon us by our professor.
“I mean, I don’t really know what else to say,” my buddy continued, “I don’t do that gay shit.”
It was actually kind of a big statement. He was an athlete like me, but even still, at Berkeley such words were not taken lightly by any who heard them. Arguments broke out, as some of the more outspoken students proposed a slew of arguments to try and change his mind.
I could feel both sides, really. I didn’t really understand homosexuality whatsoever. I was 18 and I don’t think I had ever really met a gay person. I just knew, even then, that accepting any pro-gay argument essentially left my own sexuality open to questioning. As a goofy kid who already had enough trouble figuring out how to talk to women, fit in socially, and gain the trust of my teammates, that would be the last thing I needed. I knew that my buddy felt the same way, even though we would both never admit it out loud. Neither of us were gay. Neither of us had an anti-gay agenda. We just both understood, without having ever spoken a word of it to one another, that the best way for him to assert his manhood was to proclaim as loud as possible that he didn’t “do that gay shit.”
I kept quiet in the middle of class, but around the team I can’t say I was much better than he was. Basically, any opportunity one could take to show how masculine they were was seized with enthusiasm. Those who left even a split second of doubt were laughed at either publicly or behind their backs.
The thing about it was that we were caught between the age of high school where any tiny thing that made us different was open season, and the age of manhood where you have yourself figured out and nobody’s laughter can make you want act like you’re something you’re not. Did that mean that we were all homophobic? No. I don’t think any of us were, really. Did it excuse our behavior? No.
What if a dude showed up in a pink shirt? Gay. A guy takes a little long in the shower? Gay. A guy is a little too friendly with a dude who doesn’t play sports? Gay. Oh you don’t smash a lot of women? Gay. Anything that we didn’t understand, we hadn’t seen before, or we couldn’t explain must have been gay. It was a very narrow minded way of socializing, but that’s what we forced ourselves into. If anything it just gave us another reason to laugh at someone.
Because of this, most of us tried not to stray too far from the center, at least not when we were around one another. But I can only imagine if one of us had been homosexual. He would never have said a word about it in such an environment. I think he would have confused more people than angered them, but the confusion wouldn’t be solved with an attempt to understand, it would be solved with a complete rejection. It would be social suicide.
What I realized after college, is that the “don’t play that” mindset finds its way into the professional mind even though it really doesn’t have to. Nobody has anything to lose by being different. In fact, many of us are really off the wall and different. I’m not saying it is an environment that supports an openly gay professional, but that the reasons that made us behave in such a homophobic manner seem to fall by the wayside as we get older. We’re men. We shouldn’t be so concerned with operating within our circle of comfort, but more within our circle of influence. We can openly support marriage equality, gay teammates, and lifestyles other than our own. There’s no way we should still be so worried about what others think. We can choose to be comfortable with something we may not have been before.
How do I know that we athletes can learn to change and accept things that we previously thought were things we “don’t do?” Well, for starters, I’ve seen it. I had the pleasure of joining the NBADL in 2006. This was also the first year that the NBA changed the dress code policy. I had to buy all new clothes that “fit” so I could be within the D-League dress policy guidelines. Every single article of clothing I wore was something that a year before would have been called “gay” by most people I knew, but since everyone was doing it, it wasn’t gay. Today, everyone is wearing “skinny” jeans that aren’t that skinny, shirts that fit, and thick-rimmed glasses. The entire culture changed in a couple of years, and what was previously gay is now “hot.”
Let’s take it a step further. I don’t think any basketball player who has ever played overseas can look at himself in the mirror and not admit that he has done a myriad of things he never thought he’d be comfortable with. Let’s just take Korea for an example. I watch grown men cuddle, hold hands, etcetera, on a daily basis. These grown men are my teammates. Do I think they’re gay? No. Could they be? Yes. Do I care? No. Why? Because I’m getting paid, and what they do doesn’t affect my life.
But maybe that’s just me, right? Wrong. It’s the same with all teams and players here. All the Americans in this league are exposed to it. In Korean culture, that kind of male-male interaction is entirely normal, if not expected. It leads many foreign players here to assume that their teammates are gay. Koreans will literally check out your package and comment on it; comparing it to other Americans they’ve seen. So why do we not hear about these Americans trying to get out of here, about their discomfort, and about how they “don’t play that gay shit?” Because they realize at some point that they really don’t care. There’s no one around to judge them on a daily basis for accepting something new. There’s no alternative that’s based in bias, fear, and hate. There’s no audience. There’s no fan base to judge them. There’s just a team and a paycheck. Without all the non-sense, these guys become friends with one another. Shocking right? The biggest, macho-est, tough guy you ever met is perfectly friendly with another man who tried to cuddle him earlier that day during a video session.
These are extreme examples, though. In American sports, I doubt anyone would have to deal with such actions. As Dan Grunfeld put it, “To assume that a gay teammate would make things awkward in the locker room is to assume that he would survey his surroundings in sexual and unprofessional terms, instead of respecting the sanctity of his work environment, and that just seems incredibly presumptuous.”
What, then, does it matter if athletes abroad have proven they can change and handle situations they previously thought they couldn’t? It means that all of us athletes have the ability to break free of the childishness inside of us. We can let go of the fear of being judged by those who may not agree with us. This is important, because I’m not asking homosexual athletes to come forward, I’m asking all of us athletes to create an environment of acceptance so that we can make it easier for those who may one day choose to come out. Only when we realize that there’s no reason to blindly fear, can we stop manifesting that fear in the form of hate.
Once we do that, we will not only create teams that would welcome players of any race, preference, or demographic, but we can also continue (like many have begun) using our position as pop culture icons to make lasting change in the world. If David Stern can single-handedly change what clothes are considered gay by forcing us to wear them, imagine what we can do simply by continuing to show that we can change, that the world can change, that “injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.”
So whatever happened to my buddy from college? A year or two after that class with him, he and I were with a larger group playing PlayStation. We were all close. His brother had just started college and his Facebook page began to produce some “questionable” photos. It seemed that his brother was dating another man. His brother was also a great athlete so it was clearly eating away at my homie’s pride.
Everyone in the room began grilling him about the photos, including me. I think this time the tone was much different than what we had dealt with that day as freshmen. Everyone there had been in school for a while. Maybe their perceptions had changed. Maybe it hit too close to home. Whatever it was, we weren’t really making fun of him. We were more inquisitive.
“So your brother is going to hell?” someone asked.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” he snapped.
“But you said –“
“All of you can shut the #$% up or get out of my house.”
He was clearly dealing with conflicting emotions, so we took the hint and left him alone. It wasn’t until after graduation that I was able to speak with him about it again. He didn’t care anymore. He felt stupid for harboring the hate he once had. He wasn’t sure about some things, but he loved his brother, and he knew that his brother was the same to him as he had ever been. He created an environment that allowed his brother to feel comfortable coming out to him, and they have been closer ever since.
On this week where the Supreme Court decides the fate of many Americans who just want the same legal rights as everyone else, let’s stand on the side that encourages equality. Let’s show that athletes welcome the change.
(Pictures of John Amaechi, the first NBA player to come out publicly. He received an Officer of the British Empire Medal from the Prince of Wales at an Investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace on October 26, 2011 in London, England).