Boston Herald columnist and sports-radio personality Steve Buckley had his ‘coming-out party’ earlier this month. We talk about the reaction he’s received from the Boston sports world, from the fan on the street to the owner of the Patriots.
On the morning of Thursday, January 6, I got a text from my buddy John, a fellow Boston sports fan: Steve Buckley = Gay. He announced it in today’s paper. It took me a second for the significance of this news to sink in.
Steve Buckley has been a columnist at the Boston Herald since the mid-’90s, and is a regular on WEEI, Boston’s sports talk radio station. These days, it’s not all that surprising when you learn that so-and-so is gay. And had it been, say, a Globe reporter, John wouldn’t have bothered to alert me first thing in the morning.
But I knew why this was text-worthy. Seriously? The guys at EEI are probably taking hazmat showers right now, I texted back, mostly—but not completely—joking.
Around the country, Boston is known as a liberal place. But the Herald and WEEI aren’t exactly famous for their open-mindedness. The morning (Dennis & Callahan) and afternoon (The Big Show) drive-time programming is an echo-chamber of regressive masculine banter. When the subject turns to politics, as it often does, these guys could make Rush Limbaugh cringe.
John: They already saw him as a liberal, and now this. Imagine how many uncomfortable moments he has kept to himself over the years.
I was thinking the same thing. So I emailed him with hearty congratulations—and a request for an interview. After the hubbub around his revelation died down, we talked about his years in the closet, his coming-out party, and the reaction from the sports world.
Buck, as he’s known to friends, has a reputation as a storyteller and a historian, and he didn’t disappoint. The conversation was wide-ranging—we talked about his sexual identity, the recent teen suicides, how Patriots owner Robert Kraft championed his cause. Harry Truman came up at one point.
By the end, Buck, a down-to-earth guy’s guy, convinced me that maybe I was the one who needed to be a little more open-minded, and give Boston sports fans—and the guys at WEEI—a little more credit.
The other day on Outside the Lines, you said you were “the happiest guy on the planet.” Really?
I’ve had a lot of emails on that, including some from people who doubt me. “How can you be so happy?” But I am.
What’s been the best aspect of the whole experience?
The short answer is that so many people have been very nice to me. And I’m very humbled and flattered by some very kind emails from people. And a lot of the emails would say, “Hey, there are going to be some detractors out there. There are gonna be some knuckle-draggers out there. There are gonna be some jerks out there.” But surprisingly, pleasantly, there have been very few of those people.
If there was any negativity about your column, it was of the “So what?” or “Keep it to yourself” variety. Why did you choose to come out in such a public way?
Well, I had already told everyone who’s close to me. So I had already bridged that gap. To the people who would say, “Why do you have to write about this? Why is this a big deal? Why can’t you stick to sports?” Well, if you listen to sports talk radio in any 24- to 48-hour window, you will pick up certain aspects of the various hosts’ private lives … aspects of your personal life spill out over the airwaves. And I had been reticent in the past to do that because, though I was out to my personal friends and family and so forth, I wasn’t out publicly. I couldn’t be as carefree and casual with the listeners as other hosts.
And there are a lot of activities in Boston’s gay community that I want to take part in. You’re either in the closet or you’re out of the closet. And you run the risk of someone calling in the show and saying, “Hey, I saw you with the gay softball league,” or this that and the other thing. And this way I remove all that. I can just be who I am and just say—you know, I didn’t take an activist stand here. I simply said, “I’m gay.”
So for all those years, what was it like carrying around the fear of being outed on the air?
You used the word fear, not me. I feel I need to keep telling people. It’s not as though I was unhappy before I wrote that column. I’m certainly happier, but it wasn’t like the previous seven years I was dragging myself around.
Rather than use the word fear, I would use the words awkwardness and clumsiness. It just seemed an unnecessary impediment to me doing my job to have to sort of not share myself fully. And I’m not saying I have to go on the radio and say, “This is where I’m going and who I’m dating.” It’s just getting it out of the way.
You mentioned that you were sometimes wary of going to parties among your gay friends. You preferred to have dinner with a few buddies.
When it came to somebody saying, “Hey, I’m having a cookout,” and that particular friend’s gay and there are going to be 40 gay people there or whatever, yeah, I was reticent about attending those just because I wanted to keep my private life private.
If I go to those cookouts and whatnot, then anyone at that party has every right to go and say, “Hey, Steve Buckley was at this cookout with 40 gay guys.” And that’s fine. They have that right. But then the person who was told that story says, “Oh, I didn’t know he was gay or I did know he was gay.” And, you know, let’s just remove the mystery. Yes, I’m gay.
What was it like the day before the column ran?
That was a long kind of day filled with tension. And then the day after, the day that it ran was the happiest day of my life. And you go from fear of the unknown—and that’s the one time I can use fear—because I just don’t know how it’s going to play out, to the next day where everything is fine. And the people who read my column and listen to me and watch me and so forth were very nice to me and I’m very much in their debt for that.
How do you account for the outpouring of support?
If I really thought it out I would have made this realization, but reading all these emails in the last couple weeks, everybody’s got a lesbian sister. Everyone’s got a nephew’s who gay. Everyone’s got somebody in their lives who’s gay. And it’s not a question. People say, “Well, can a Major League baseball player be out? Would his teammates accept him?” And that misses the point. It’s not a question of whether those teammates will accept him. It’s a question of whether those teammates have already accepted other people in their lives who are gay or lesbian or transgendered.
And that’s the education that I’ve had because I can now walk into a press box and point to 20 people who have somebody in their lives who’s gay, because they told me. They came up to me and told me or they emailed me or they called me. And how can it be any different from the athletes? They’ve got people in their lives—brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, parents maybe, who are gay—So they’ve already had to deal with it and question whether or not they do embrace that person. So now it’s gonna be a question of embracing somebody else. And that’s why I think it’s not that big a deal … it will be a big deal when an athlete comes out, because he’ll be the first—but I don’t think it’ll be as dramatic as people think.
You’ve mentioned that the recent suicides among young gay students had an impact on you, and informed the decision to come out—how so?
I mean that really devastated me. I think this outing people is pretty heinous because it makes a lot of assumptions. People who are outed, are they really gay or are they just questioning? … There are people who go very deep into their lives questioning their sexual orientation.
When I read about this young person from Rutgers it just floored me. I remember calling a friend in New York, a good friend of mine, and just talking about it for like an hour.
What was your experience growing up, in high school?
Probably garden variety … I always questioned it as I think most people do. And then went merrily on my way dating women in high school and college and beyond. And, you know, I think as I got older it became more and more of a—something to be addressed and mulled by me. But it really wasn’t until I was in my 30s that it became sort of a part of my life. And I never wrestled then with the idea of coming out. I just figured it was my personal business and I’d let it go at that.
So it wasn’t til you were in your 30s that you fully embraced the idea that you were gay?
I’m not gonna give you specifics. But, I mean, yes—I started to meet people and acquire friendships, and I was in a few relationships. I mean, there was no burning bush or defining moment or anything that dramatic. It was all done at a glacial pace. And, like a lot of people, as I grew old, I matured and defined and redefined who I am and what I’m all about, and wanted to enjoy life to the fullest and also contribute to society in my job and my career, my family, and so forth. So everything, you know, with each passing week, month, and year, you grow a little. You learn a little. You make mistakes. You also make progress, and that doesn’t make me any different from anybody else.
How did being closeted affect your relationships?
Well it didn’t. That’s probably the short answer. It didn’t. Again, closeted is a funny word because you can be closeted to your family. You can be closeted to the whole world. Or you can be closeted to, in my case, being out among my friends and family but not out “publicly.” So in the ’90s when I was in that relationship, it wasn’t like we were sneaking around, so it wasn’t a factor at all.
You’ve said that coming out was more important than your job. Knowing how much you love your job, and how long you put this off, that’s surprising. Can you talk about that?
Yeah. I mean I haven’t quite said this to anybody yet, but you’re the fist person who’s zeroed in on that one aspect. Even when I said that I was frankly surprised that more people didn’t ask me how I stand on that. I guess I have to admit, for too many years I allowed the tail to wag the dog in that I put the career first and the personal life second, as far as coming out.
Career’s not that important. Career’s just a small part of who I am. And what I said was if I come out and for some reason it causes me to not be able to do what I do—which as things are right now it turns out to have been alarmist—but should that happen then, yeah, I’d rather be out and pursuing a different line of work than to remain closeted and continue doing what I was doing. I can only tell you how I feel. And I feel younger and happier and refreshed and eager. Excited about what lies ahead, whereas before it was just one day cascading into the next.
Have you ever thought about coming out as a moral or ethical issue? You’ve talked about its impact on your social life, but did you ever think about it as a moral imperative?
It’s just a question of being happy. It’s just a question of being happy and involved and being participatory. That’s all it is. And, you know, it is about joining these different groups and meeting people and being involved in the community. I don’t think that what I did was taking a stand.
You must have had some pretty uncomfortable moments on WEEI over the years—I mean, those guys don’t exactly come off as open-minded.
How often do you listen to WEEI? How often have you listened to it recently? I think it’s gotten much, much better. I think even these people have people in their lives that are important to them who might be gay. And, you know, have I had some uncomfortable moments? Yeah, sure. But nothing so heinous that I felt I had to go running away with my arms extended.
How about in locker rooms?
I mean I’ve heard comments in the locker room but most of it was juvenile as opposed to political. It was just locker-room banter. It hasn’t been directed at me, per se. And, you know, it’s funny because you got to be careful. If I’m in a locker room talking to a bunch of athletes and somebody 20 feet away yells something to another teammate 20 feet in the other direction, you know, I’m not going to go running down there because I’m on their turf. And I understand that I can’t just sit idly by until everything gets said. But if it’s just a little comment …
I mean I heard nastier stuff 20, 25 years ago than I’ve heard recently because, again, these people they have the same social pecking order that we do. They have people in their lives and they have families and friends and so forth. I hate to burst people’s bubbles, but the locker room isn’t as big a story as people want to make it out to be.
Have you been back in locker rooms since?
Oh, yeah. Very uneventful.
I will tell you a funny story that I haven’t told anybody. If the locker room is open to the media from 10:15 to 11:00, that means at 11:00 they clear people out of there. You’re not supposed to be there.
So on one particular day at like four minutes to 11:00, I walked toward the far end of the locker room. As it’s coming up on 11:00, [Patriots Owner] Robert [Kraft] saw me and came walking in. And I’ve known Robert for 20 years. He said, “Steve, how are you? I read the piece. It’s great.” We were just making idle chitchat.
Now I’m aware that it’s 11:00 and the locker room is supposed to be closed to media—and so now it’s 11:01. It’s 11:02. … So finally I took it upon myself, and Robert was saying, “Is everything OK? Is everything going great?” I said, “Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.” And I said to him, “But I can’t be in here anymore.” And he says, “Who told you that? You come in here.” I said, “No, no, no, no. You misunderstood. I can’t be in here now it’s 11:00. It’s closed to the media.”
He thought that I was saying, like, I can’t come in here anymore. I’ve been told “You are not allowed here anymore.” And Robert was all up in arms and ready to champion my cause. That was one of the funnier moments during this whole thing. And it was so sweet for Robert to want to stick up for me. That was really cool.
Why do you think no active player has come out?
I don’t know why no current player has come out. … But I don’t think it will be a big deal. It will be a big news story … but that person in my humble opinion will never have to go through what Jackie Robinson lived through.
Who taught you about manhood?
My dad was probably the most important person in my life. He died when I was only 15, and my dad, we never missed a meal. We took a summer vacation. He drove a cab on weekends so that we could take the summer vacation in New Hampshire every year. We had a house. We had beds. We had rules. My dad was an older father. He married late and he was 63 when he died and I was only 15. But even then I was aware that he was an old-fashioned breadwinner who put his family first. And he was wonderfully and marvelously anecdotal.
I am a reincarnation of my dad. My dad told stories. I tell stories. My dad told the same stories over and over. I tell the same stories over and over. My dad sometimes changed the story at the very end and I sometime do that just to add a little drama to it. So the answer to your question is an enthusiastic “my dad.”
What’s the biggest mistake you ever made?
The biggest mistake I’ve made was when my mom, who was reluctant [about my writing] this piece, suddenly one day said, “Why don’t you go”—she had thought it over and she realized I’d be happier if I wrote the piece. And she said, “Go ahead and do the piece.” I knew she’d been sick but I didn’t know she was that sick. And I was going on vacation in a couple of weeks and I’d be gone for two weeks and I figured, I’ll do it when I got back, because if I do the piece now then I’m going on vacation; I don’t want to rush to my vacation.
And if I had to do it over again, as soon as she said that I would have gone right home and written the piece or given it the go-ahead. And I squandered the chance to have my mother be a part of that because she decided it was important to her because it was important to me. And I—just sitting here now I get a little bit emotional thinking about it, because it was a monumental blunder on my part, and I denied my mom the right to be here for that, and I have a real trouble with that.
What’s the best advice you ever got?
I think [from] my mom: “be happy.” She had told me once after I came out to her because she said to me—this is tough for me. She kept saying, “I just want you to be happy.” And she didn’t say, “When I die I want you to be happy.” It was kind of understood. But she said it’s really important to me that you be happy. And I was never as happy as I am right now. And in that respect I’ve fulfilled her wish for me. You should move past that real quick. I’m gonna breakdown. So …
What’s your favorite guy ritual?
I’ll give you a good one actually. Three or four times a year Glenn Ordway who hosts The Big Show, Gene DeFilipo who’s the athletic director at Boston College, Nate Greenberg who is a former vice president of the Bruins, and me—we get together and we have dinner and then we go smoke cigars somewhere. And each time we do it it’s incumbent upon one of the four to make the reservations and pick up the bill. And that person gets to choose the restaurant. And we’ve done that for three or four years now.
I love getting together for dinner with old friends. Nothing makes me happier. You can tell the same stories over and over again. And that’s not the point. It’s just the camaraderie and having fun and so forth and I love doing that.
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