By Dan Woog
Two words with long histories of hatred fly around every professional locker room. One – so odious that mainstream media often will not print it, calling it “the ‘n’ word” – is nonetheless used with abandon by African-Americans, the people once oppressed by it. The other – “fag” – is powerful in another way. It is the most damning insult any athlete can hurl.
Both words resonate with LZ Granderson. As a black bisexual sportswriter, he may not be unique – but he certainly is as rare as a Boston Red Sox World Series ring.
“Those words carry a lot of pain for a lot of people,” Granderson says. “But you can call a black man the ‘n’ word, and he won’t bat an eye. If you call an athlete a ‘faggot,’ he’ll say or do anything to refute it.”
As a double minority, Granderson says life has been harder because of his race than his sexuality. “People don’t necessarily see you as gay or bisexual,” he says. “But the first thing they notice is you’re a black male.”
There’s one world, however, in which that is not true. In sports, Granderson says, “it’s almost a bonus being black. You’re assumed to have more talent or skill. No one ever assumes you’re a good athlete because you’re gay.”
Though some young boys sense they’re different sexually, Granderson felt separated from others because he loved to write. Growing up in Detroit he was passionate about the Pistons, Lions, Tigers, and Red Wings. But rather than playing for those teams, he wanted to cover them. His hero was Detroit Free Press sports writer Mitch Albom.
Granderson’s dreams took a detour in fourth grade, when he won a citywide playwriting contest and caught the drama bug. He acted and modeled until he was 21. Tiring of that lifestyle, he returned to school and his first love, journalism. Like a professional athlete, he worked his way up from the minors to the big leagues: first the South Bend Tribune, then the Grand Rapids Press, and finally the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
He was out of the closet most of the way. That was not a problem on the city desk or writing features. When he proposed a sports story, however, editors hesitated. The message was clear: Gay men did not cover athletes.
His current employer, ESPN The Magazine, is different. “Being out has never been a problem here,” Granderson – now a senior writer – says. “It’s a wonderfully supportive place. People realize my sexual orientation has nothing to do with my ability to get things done. There’s no time for phobias. We have a magazine to put out.”
Athletes, too, have been “very cool,” he says. A group of hockey players he went drinking with one night kept pointing out attractive women. Granderson remained silent.
“What are you, gay?” one asked.
“Yeah,” he said.
The hockey players said they never would have guessed, then went back to their beers.
Several All-Pro football players have met his partner. They, too, are very accepting.
“On an individual basis, nearly every athlete knows someone who’s gay,” Granderson notes. However, in the larger locker-room environment, “they have to posture and make sure no one questions anything about them. So they can’t say positive things about gay people. That’s where the negative quotes come from.”
There are plenty to choose from. Last year, for example, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Joey Porter called Cleveland Browns tight end Kellen Winslow “soft…a fag.”
“I totally understood where Porter was coming from,” Granderson says. “It doesn’t make it right, but I get that mentality of equating ‘gay’ with ‘weak.’ Until a professional athlete comes out, they’ll hold onto that belief.”
And until a pro athlete comes out, the gay sports world will have to be represented by open sportswriters like Granderson. He has written about lesbianism in the WNBA, and blasted Utah Jazz owner Larry Miller for pulling “Brokeback Mountain” from a movie theater he also owned. Reactions to his gay-related pieces have included both heartfelt thanks from closeted gay athletes and death threats.
There is one gay story Granderson would like to cover that has not yet been done. He dreams of trailing a professional athlete through the coming-out process. “I’d like to be there when he tells the owner, the coaches, and his teammates,” Granderson says. “I want to see him visit the Human Rights Campaign. And it would be pretty interesting to see what happens to him at gay clubs on road trips.”
However, Granderson cautions, “I don’t know if that will happen anytime soon. I’m not trolling for that story. Quite honestly, I’m tired of writing about gay issues.” However, he admits, “That would be a good one!”