by Dan Woog
January 8, 2007
As last summer’s dueling Gay Games and Outgames proved, gay sports in the 21st century are more than skating (for the guys) and softball (for, you know…). Gay men play football and ice hockey, and win Triple Ironman competitions. Lesbians play rugby and lacrosse, and would win Triple Ironwomyn competitions if such things existed.
In the months to come, this column will cover all that, and more. We’ll highlight superstar gay athletes and 15-year-old lesbian stars-to-be. We’ll feature a wide variety of sports, leagues, and teams, from the rainbow streets of the Castro to the less-noticed (but quietly queer) lanes of the heartland. We welcome your story ideas, and look forward to your feedback.
But first, let’s talk about me.
In high school, back in 19mumblemumble, I was a soccer player. Not a very good one, but our team was perennially the state champs, and I hung out with the guys who were the best athletes, the most popular – and coolest – kids in school.
Naturally, as a jock, I became homophobic. I was the first person to put down anyone I perceived to be weak: “He’s gay,” I’d say. “What a fag.” It was hardly the proudest period of my life, but I did what I felt I had to do so no one would know my deep, dark secret: I was a gay athlete.
I graduated from Brown University – where I had my first, fevered same-sex experiences – and, after moving into the real world, began coaching the sport I loved. I was pretty good – our teams won state championships, and I was named National Youth Coach of the Year – but the longer I coached, the deeper I crawled into the locker room closet.
I was ready to come out in all areas of my life, except athletics. I worried that players would lose respect for me, that parents would pull their sons off my teams, that opponents would mock us as “the fag team with the fag coach.” I continued to talk about the importance of respect – respect your teammates, your opponents, even (God help us)
the referees – and I always chastised any player who mocked another person’s race or ethnicity, or called his girlfriend “my bitch.”
But whenever I heard gay slurs – and it was often – I kept silent. I feared the response – “How come you care, Dan? Are you a fag?” – that might arise.
That hardly showed respect, of course – not for gay athletes, their straight teammates who looked to their coach to model integrity, or myself. My only excuse is the one I used when I was younger: I thought it was the way I, as a jock, was supposed to act.
When I finally came out 15 years ago – far later than I should have – I found my fears were unfounded. My athletes were not surprised – it turns out my locker room closet was actually a glass one – but, more importantly, they acted with the understanding, grace, and compassion I realized they possessed all along.
Since that time, several incidents proved my decision to come out was correct. Individually they seem like small gestures; taken together, they paint a broad picture of the importance of trusting people to do the right thing.
For example, a player once casually used the all-purpose put-down “that’s so gay.” Suddenly, he stopped. He put his hand on my shoulder, looked me in the eye, and said, “Sorry, Dan.” That was exactly the right response. He did not grovel, nor did he ignore his own comment. He simply acknowledged the power of language, and moved on.
Early on, I thought coming out would be a one-time event. Every year, however, new freshmen try out not knowing the coach is gay. When they utter their first boneheaded comment, an upperclassman rushes over. I watch as the ninth grader’s eyes widen. My players do my coming out for me – and hearing the news in a “who-cares” tone from respected peers means far more than if it came from me.
My favorite moment came when a senior asked for help with a “personal problem.” I wondered if he would come out. Instead he said, “This chick I’m hooking up with is a bad kisser. What should I do?”
Yikes! I thought for a second, then babbled something about the importance of communication. (“Ask her what she likes, and tell her what feels good to you.”) He thanked me, and left. I have no idea whether my answer was a good one or not, but that’s not the issue. The point is, he understood it’s not about guys and guys, or guys and girls; it’s about who you love. Or, in his case, who you’re hooking up with.
That’s my story. I look forward to telling many others – and yours. The door to the locker room closet is now wide open.