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Sunday, January 18, 2009

How Many Famous Athletes Are Gay?

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How many current professional athletes are gay? An intriguing question, which for many reasons will probably never find reliable answers. Here's just a few good ones to consider. . .

From early on in high school sports, most athletic adolescent boys tend to seek out the weak in gym class to pick on, bully, and give verbal and physical abuse to. To them anyone who didn’t play sports were sissies and "fags" to be beaten up in school parking lots in front of their friends, so it was no wonder that openly gay pro athletes are rarely heard of, or from.

One of the heroes of Flight 93-September 11, 2001, was an out and proud athlete...
After learning of Mark Bingham's story (The gay rugby player that helped bring down Flight 93 before it hit the U. S. Capitol) I wondered what other sports pros out of the approximately 4,000 active in the U. S. had the guts to face the inevitable judgment and fan hatred by coming out. I was appalled to discover most had to wait till after their careers were over.

There’s no doubt in my mind that in all corners of professional and college athletics from boxing to football, the ranks are full of gays. You’ve just never heard of them. This also includes the ranks of coaches, owners or general managers.

The most plausible reason would be constant speculation of an opposing team’s sexuality as an insult among sports fans, some of which comb the web and enter discussion boards not only for information, but to start damaging rumors. A good example of this would be when sportswriter Skip Bayless publicly (and unfoundedly) speculated that Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman was gay.

More examples can be found in professional sports athletes like Dave Kopay and Esera Tuaolo (football), Martina Navratilova, and of course the great Billie Jean King (tennis). Unfortunately because of the overzealous Taliban-style "religious-right"'s influence imposed on the U.S. in recent history, American athletes such as Aikman have suffered unfounded fan judgment whether they actually were gay or not. The situation has become just as serious as when entertainers and politicians were accused of being communists in the 1950s McCarthy "witch hunts". Just the mere mention of the word "commie" back then was enough for regular folk such as famous comedic actress Lucille Ball to lose their friends, and sometimes their jobs and homes.

The best illustration of why more don’t come out is shown by just looking at what one of the best athletes in history-Magic Johnson went through in 1991. He summoned the courage to announce that he had AIDS. Religious fanatics and hate mongers like Jerry Falwell loudly branded the virus as God's exclusive judgment on homosexuals. Suddenly Magic's fans didn’t care that he had a death-sentence disease. No, they were more obsessed with gasping repeatedly “Magic’s Gay?... a fag!?!” Which of course, he wasn’t.

A good example of how misguided hatred of gays in sports can affect the athletes themselves comes in the form of 6'6" 275-lb offensive lineman Ed Gallagher who played at the University of Pittsburgh from 1977-79. After years of fighting homosexual urges, in 1985 he gave in and slept with another athlete. The gut wrenching decision to finally admit to himself that he was gay was too much for him and two weeks later he tried and failed to take his own life by leaping off Valhalla's Kensico Dam on March 1, 1985.

The attempt left him a paraplegic. In an interview afterward, he said that he couldn’t resolve his inner conflicts of what he’d always been taught that a sports athlete was supposed to be versus his sexual urges, so rather than face his own self-loathing and the expected rejection and judgment of his fans, he decided to end his own life. He later went on to found “Alive to Thrive” to help others in his position. He died May, 4th 2005 of a heart condition.

Here is an honor roll of brave men and women who deserve respect for not only being honest with themselves and their fans about their sexuality, but whose lives were nearly destroyed because of that honesty.

Roy Simmons was an offensive guard between 1979 and 1983 for the New York Giants and Washington Redskins, who came out on The Donahue Show. He is one of only three NFL pros to acknowledge his homosexuality.

Back in 1975 David Kopay, a running back in the NFL between 1964 and 1972, came out of the closet three years after he retired. His 1977 autobiography The David Kopay Story became an instant best seller and flew off the shelves as sports fans got their first glimpse of a gay football star.

Kopay’s first lover was Washington Redskins all-star tight end Jerry Smith. From 1965-77 Smith caught 421 career passes and scored 60 touchdowns. He remained in the closet until he died in 1987, even after his affair was revealed in Kopay’s autobiography. Despite that revelation, he was still voted one of the greatest Redskins of all time in 2002.

In baseball, former A's/Dodgers outfielder Glenn Burke is credited with being one of the inventors of the “high five.”

NBA player Jason Collins' coming out is notable, but the pioneer "Jackie Robinson" of sports gay rights belongs to Glenn. He tried to change sports culture three decades ago "but back then, unlike now, sports culture wasn't ready for a change.

Burke made no secret of his sexual orientation to the Dodgers front office, his teammates, or friends in either league. He also talked freely with sportswriters, though all of them ended up shaking their heads and telling him they couldn't write that in their papers. Burke was so open about his sexuality that the Dodgers tried to talk him into participating in a sham marriage. (He wrote in his autobiography that the team offered him $75,000 to go along with the ruse.) He refused. In a bit of irony that would seem farcical if it wasn't so tragic, one of the Dodgers who tried to talk Burke into getting "married," was his manager, Tommy Lasorda, whose son Tom Jr. died from AIDS complications in 1991. To this day, Lasorda Sr. refuses to acknowledge his son's homosexuality.

Burke also died of AIDS-related causes in 1995.

Glenn came out publicly in a 1982 Sports Illustrated article — three years after he was released from his contract with the A’s. It was rumored that he was traded to the A’s because he was gay. The hatred and depression of being forced to end his career at 26 led to drugs and he wound up a street person in the San Francisco Bay area, dying alone and broke.

Other needless past tragedies include:

Big Bill” Tilden, who was considered a tennis legend, an athlete on par with the likes of Tiger Woods today, and a much sought-after celebrity in the 1920s. In 1949 he was declared one of the most outstanding athletes of the first half-century by the National Sports Writers Association. He won seven U. S. clay court titles, seven U. S. Opens, three Wimbledons, six U. S. doubles championships and holds the Davis Cup record for eleven appearances in a challenge or final round.

Behind the scenes Tilden wasn’t careful enough with his “secret” and in his celebrity and fame thought he was secure with his fans’ support. He began intimating to his close friends that he was gay and soon after a behind the scenes conspiracy began to discredit him and ruin his reputation.

In 1953 he died dirt poor in a one-room walk-up apartment alone and forgotten.

In 1988 Justin Fashanu was a British star soccer player. Bigots began spreading rumors that he had an ongoing sexual affair with two British cabinet ministers in an attempt to ruin both their careers-not caring what it did to his. Justin's career and self-worth were so devastated that 10 years later they found him in an abandoned garage in East London; the 36-year-old master athlete hung himself after an obsessed fan in Maryland claimed he assaulted him. The charges later were proven false.

On the other hand there have actually been some semi-happy endings:

Esera Tuaolo, the huge veteran of the Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, and Atlanta Falcons appeared on an October 2002 episode of HBO's Real Sports. Upon seeing this, San Francisco 49ers running back Garrison Hearst was quoted as publicly announcing “I don’t want any faggots on my team,” and later had to apologize for it.

Before making peace with the negative reactions Tuaolo had considered suicide after bouts of depression and intense loneliness. Fortunately with the help of some of his former teammates, a concerted effort of the gay and lesbian community to stand by him, and his lover, Esera now leads a happy life.

Does anyone not know the name Martina Navratilova the tennis great who came out as a lesbian in the New York Daily News in 1982?

Billie Jean King has been a household name for decades, and rightfully so.

The unmatched and incredible Billie won twenty Wimbledon titles, helped create and start the Women’s Tennis Association, was named the Associated Press’s Woman Athlete of the year in 1967 and 1973, was named "Sports Illustrated’s 1972 “Sportsperson of the Year,” and Time Magazine’s Woman of the Year for 1976. In front of 30,472 cheering fans packing the Houston Astrodome and 50 million TV viewers, she beat tennis hustler and former champion Bobby Riggs in what was billed as the ultimate tennis “Battle of the Sexes.”

She was forced out into the Gay Rights forum when her ex-lover sued her for “Galimony,” which fortunately didn’t seem to hurt her career at all.

According to an April 12, 2005 Sports Illustrated poll, sports fans are far more accepting of lesbians in sports than gay men. Overall though, in the same poll 86 percent of Americans think that openly gay male athletes should be able to play in team sports. However, the poll went on to say that 68 percent of respondents think it hurts an athlete’s career to be openly gay.

Thankfully and apparently, outside the borders of the United States, the religious bible beaters have a lot less influence. With rare exceptions these days, most overseas gay men have found acceptance in the world of sports.

Voted fourth in “Total Sport’s” 10 Toughest Men Of Sport list, popular Australian gay rugby star/turned actor Ian Roberts came out in 1995 while still currently at the top of his macho game. He’d played front rower in 85 games for South Sydney, over 100 in Manly, and at the age of 23 was the highest paid rugby league player in the world.

The other players on the North Queensland Cowboys shrugged his sexual revelation off as no big deal and his fans followed suit. In a 1996 interview Roberts is quoted as saying:

"I take offense at the old locker room argument which assumes a man cannot, in any circumstances, control his urges. Any self-respecting human being can respect the rights and ways of another human being. The idea, then, that gays can convert, or want, heterosexual guys, is ludicrous. We want to play the game, not the field."

Despite expectations of a drop in his popularity, Roberts held/has several well-paid endorsement contracts. He even posed nude in a gay magazine, with no ill effects to his career, becoming a sex symbol “down under” for both men and women, and has gone on to a successful acting career after retiring from sports.

Greg Louganis is arguably one of the best male divers of all time, winning four gold medals between the 1984 and 1988 Olympics. His career ended after famously hitting his head on a diving board at the 88 Olympics, forcing him to reveal he had AIDS out of concern for the other athletes. His autobiography "Breaking the Surface" and subsequent movie have made him a legend and a sought after celebrity.

In 1968 army physician Dr. Tom Waddell came in sixth at the Olympic decathlon. He and his lover Charles Deaton were thrust into the spotlight in 1976 by being the first gay partner/lovers to appear in the “Couples” section of People magazine. Tom went on to form plans for the “Gay Olympic Games” stirring up controversy and lawsuits because of the use of the word “Olympics” in the title. Renamed the “Gay Games,” they first took place in San Francisco in 1982 and since then has grown to feature officially recognized athletic events and record holders, and it boasts participation of thousands of gay and straight registered athletes every four years.

Laughably many straight athletes entered thinking they’d have an easy time of it, only to be proven wrong, then later joined because of the challenge.

A gold medallist in the 800-meter freestyle relay at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, Bruce Hayes came out of the closet at the 1994 Gay Games winning seven gold medals there and setting several recognized master’s swimming records.

Body building legend Bob Paris from Indiana won the 1983 Mr. America and Mr. Universe bodybuilding titles. He went on to marry his long-time lover Rod Jackson changing their names to Jackson-Paris and appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show to discuss it after coming out of the closet in the July 1989 issue of Ironman magazine. He went on to write several books including his autobiography "Gorilla Suit: My Adventures in Body Building" in 1997.

24-year-old Dutch swimming sensation Johan Kenkhuis, a silver metal winner in the Athens Summer Olympics in the four-man 100-meter freestyle relay, came out in 2004 by mentioning to the press that his boyfriend of four years would be watching him compete.

In all nine other athletes came out of the closet during the games in support. For him it wasn’t a big deal, nor was it in his homeland where gays have been treated equally for decades.

It’s refreshing to see that in other parts of the world the only thing that matters is how you do your job, perform your task, or excel in your sport. If only that were the case in the sports world here in the up-tight United States, but sadly it's not.

This article continues with more famous athletes in Vol II-CLICK HERE to go to it!

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1 comment:

  1. I am a devotee of gossip columns and some of the most notable icons ion in their sport are high on the suspect' list! About three of them are in the NFlbut the clubs they are members of have instituted the usual PDA and PR publicity route to set the fans mind at ease! In one case, one is married to a high profile person after having a "acrimonious" (his quote) with a actress (need I say more....?) I will give them this, out, because they do jeopardize their endorsements and other financial perrks. If the rumors are right on, some of them are still active in both 'camps!' So, why don't they be honest and cut out the BS they are str8 when enjoying the arms of their boyfriends? I guess living the lie beats courage!


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