There’s a story I wanted to share on my social media pages when Las Vegas Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib came out as gay earlier this summer on Instagram, but I didn’t.
I kept it to myself at the time because I was overjoyed about Nassib coming out and I didn’t want the focus off him on my pages in case he was a temporary “one-off” in terms of pro-athletes coming out in this Olympic summer, especially in traditionally macho, conservative pro sports.
With Nashville Predators prospect Luke Prokop making NHL history by coming out on July 19th, to overwhelmingly affirming support, I’m surer that we’re at the start of something, and I’m more confident in the merits of telling this story here, now.
Decades ago, before I was a novelist and an essayist, and long before I wrote for the LGBT news magazine The Advocate, I had a brief, precious moment when I was a young freelance sports journalist.
This was the early-to-mid-80s, near the start of the AIDS epidemic, in a very different world—one that some readers were born too late to know. I’d even earned a modest reputation as a “jock whisperer,” a writer who could get athletes to open up about their feelings, and their fears, and then write about those feelings and fears with respect and sensitivity, along with the rest of their story.
The interviews I conducted during those early years were among my favourites of my career, and they left me with a lifelong respect for the men and women who’ve trained their bodies like kinetic art, particularly the Olympians I profiled.
I wrote about athletes for a variety of magazines, large and small, some long out of business, some still extant in one form or other today.
One evening, I was doing an interview with an athlete [for the purposes of this article, out of respect for the athlete, I’ll use no gender pronouns, no names, and no identifying details of their sport, or event, and no confirmation of their sex, or gender identity] that ran late into the night.
We’d liked each other instantly, and a trust and rapport was established at a speed that was unusual. The longer we spoke, the more comfortable we were with each other’s company.
At one point towards the end of the interview, the athlete told me they were gay. I was an out queer person, and the athlete clearly felt I was someone to whom they could unburden themselves. The story came in halting fits and starts and had the air of a confession more than a coming out, but there was a discernable relaxing of tension—a long, slow exhale of relief, if you will—as they told me their story.
Thinking back tonight, the relief the athlete felt probably lasted five minutes before the terror started to set in—the terror of having made a terrible mistake, of having handed a journalist a secret that they’d been keeping from their fellow athletes, their family, and the public.
Tears ensued, and none of my assurances that I’d keep their secret out of the story would calm them. They became inconsolable. What had started off as a genuine, very human “sharing” had taken on an edge of impending doom in their mind.
Finally, I took off my wedding ring and pressed it into their hand, and told them to hold onto it until the story came out; they would keep my most precious possession, and I would keep their most precious secret.
If I betrayed them, I said, they could throw my wedding ring into the nearest gutter and tell everyone about my lack of integrity, even kill my nascent journalism career by branding me as untrustworthy and dishonest to sports editors, publicists, coaches, and the athlete’s own peers.
It was a gamble, but it worked: by taking on vulnerability myself, I was able to unburden the athlete of the worst of theirs.
Four months later, the article was published, the ring was back on my finger, and the athlete in question still had their secret. They could choose to share it or not, and when. I hope they eventually did share it, and that they went on to have a long, happy life of peace and acceptance, and, most of all, love.
It wasn’t my story to tell, or my secret to share, and no journalistic “right” I had to tell it, just because I had it on tape and it was therefore on the record, trumped the possibility of annihilating another queer person just to sell magazines—especially in that terrible early age of AIDS stigma, misinformation, and taken-for-granted bigotry at the highest, most untouchable levels.
All of us who sit down to write about other people decide for ourselves where our “line” is drawn. Integrity is not situational; it’s either real, and you have it, or it isn’t, and you don’t. There is no space on a true moral compass for destroying an innocent person’s life.
Jocks were the bane of my existence when I was a young, feminine queer child growing up in the 1970s. They tormented, terrorized, and belittled me, and bullied me beyond endurance. One of my choices, as an adult, was to close the door on those memories, and the class of people who made them.
The other choice was to open myself to them, to get to know them, to understand them, to forgive them, to not be afraid of them anymore, and to see if there was something there to love. One of the ways to do that, as a writer, was to situate myself in their world, and to become a prism through which their stories could be filtered and focussed.
And of course there was something to love. With human beings there almost always is, particularly when you see them as individuals instead of a group, or a caste. Years later, jocks and metalheads number among my favourite company.
When Nassib came out, the official, supportive response notwithstanding, there was a measure of nastiness social media, the sole aim of which was to diminish the cultural impact of his coming out.
From the right, it was variations on the predictably base I don’t want it shoved in my face-type adolescent commentary that always sounds ludicrous, as well as ugly, in adults.
From the left, there was a spay of insidious, passively homophobic sneering about “cis white gay men,” and how Nassib’s coming out in 2021, even in a traditionally homophobic milieu like pro football, was some sort of breeze, and ultimately irrelevant to social change. Even, God help us, snipes at his “handsome privilege,” and the odious phrase “passing privilege,” which should have been retired decades ago, carrying whiffs, as it does, of wilful subterfuge and deceit.
Emmy Award-winning culture critic L.Z. Granderson of the Los Angeles Times weighed in and (very) politely suggested people dial it back, and try to see the larger cultural context of Nassib’s coming out:
“It does make one wonder how anyone could see Nassib as anything besides brave,” Grandson wrote in the paper on June 22nd. “Yes, as a rich, cisgender, white man in America, he has resources others do not. But that doesn’t mean coming out and being out is easy for him or anyone else.
“How could it be when so many elected officials are still going after our rights and some of our allies are using ‘who cares?’ as a misguided rallying cry?”
The thing is, as Granderson says, it is a big deal. It’s massive deal. It is culture changing.
One of the advantages of looking beyond our own smug, judgemental, self-righteous, brittle little box of a life is realizing that other people have different challenges than ours, and just because we don’t have them ourselves, or understand why they’re challenges, doesn’t make them any less burdensome or terrifying.
The homophobic and transphobic mob, both online and off, doesn’t care if well-meaning liberal allies think sports are “stupid,” or whether they think athletes are “privileged.” Privilege can be a moveable feast, one that varies from situation to situation.
For instance, no one carrying a truth they’re afraid to share is overly burdened by privilege in the instant they believe they could lose everything by sharing it. Just because the audience is too safely insulated in its own life to see the teller’s vulnerabilities doesn’t mean that those vulnerabilities aren’t there, or that they’re not searing.
I can still see that young person sobbing on the sofa, clutching my wedding ring, terrified that they’d just ruined their life by telling their precious truth to someone with a tape recorder.
Until the realities of queer people don’t put them in danger, all of this matters. Every coming out story matters. And coming out stories in milieux where disclosing can have a terrible cost—or else change a harsh climate by making it temperate and welcoming—matter most of all.
Good for Carl Nassib. Good for Luke Prokop. Good for all those athletes, both amateur and pro, yet to come. Good for any young queer athlete who is inspired or comforted enough by these adult athletes’ openness to sit his or her own teammates down for a talk about who they really are.
That’s how we all collectively leave a better, safer world for kids who’ll never know how hard it all used to be.
This post is republished on Medium.
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