Is the Gay Locker Room Curse Finally Over?
Two athletes came out and made history over the weekend. But after Michael Sam said he was ‘stepping away’ from football, can professional sports stars be openly gay and thrive?
On Monday, David Denson was attempting to return to daily life, after the warm and welcoming frenzy that followed his history-making coming out.
On Saturday, the 20-year-old Denson, via an extremely thorough and moving interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Tom Haudricourt, became the first openly gay active player on a team affiliated with Major League Baseball (MLB).
“Honestly, I’ve mainly just been trying to focus on baseball and trying to pay attention to things I need to work on on the field,” Denson told The Daily Beast in a statement sent by his team’s spokesman, who added that Denson was “quite overwhelmed right now with the attention he has been getting the last two days.”
Meanwhile, in Britain over the weekend, Keegan Hirst became the first British rugby league player to come out as gay.
It had seemed “inconceivable” for a long time to Hirst, 27—he’s married to a woman; they have two young children—that he could be gay, and he told the BBC that there had been a time where he could not voice the words to himself, let alone the world.
What is most heartening at this early stage is the support offered to the two men by their teammates.
The hoary myth that the beyond-straight locker room couldn’t cope with gays in its midst has been torpedoed.
Indeed, Denson, a first baseman for the Milwaukee Brewers’ rookie affiliate in Helena, Montana, said that he came out after a teammate had made a casually homophobic remark, familiar enough locker-room talk.
“Be careful what you say. You never know,” Denson cautioned his teammate, with a smile.
Then he came out to his teammates, and their response was positive.
“They gave me the confidence I needed, coming out to them,” Denson told the paper. “They said, ‘You’re still our teammate. You’re still our brother. We kind of had an idea, but your sexuality has nothing to do with your ability. You’re still a ballplayer at the end of the day. We don’t treat you any different. We’ve got your back.’”
This, Denson said, was a “giant relief. I never wanted to feel like I was forcing it on them. It just happened. The outcome was amazing. It was nice to know my teammates see me for who I am, not my sexuality.”
His sister Celestina told him she had known he was gay since he was little, though a greater challenge lay in telling his father, “a very hard-core Christian who had been anti-gay in discussions before David came out himself. But his father told him he loved him and would be there for him.
Danson revealed to the Journal Sentinel that worry over revealing he was gay made him play badly, and when he eventually told his team managers, he was crying, and extremely scared.
But his bosses reassured him that they just wanted the best for him, and that he had their support.
The same peer support welcomed Hirst, who told the Sunday Mirror newspaper, “The support from my teammates and other rugby league players has really surprised me, it’s all been positive.
“These are tough blokes. We go out on the field together and it’s 26 blokes knocking seven shades out of each other.
“But on the other side of it, you go through blood, sweat and tears together—and they’ve been there for me when I needed them most.”
Cyd Ziegler, co-founder of Outsports.com, told The Daily Beast that in the 15 years the website had been running, it had carried 200 to 300 coming out stories of athletes, “and virtually all of whom were embraced by their teammates. Unfortunately, mass culture tells us that sports is inherently homophobic. It is not. There may be an issue with coaches or administrators, or bosses, but with teammates in the locker room being gay isn’t an issue any more.”
Hirst revealed he had considered suicide, but finally came to terms with his homosexuality earlier this year.
“One day, a few months ago, I just thought, ‘You know what? Actually, this is who I am. I’m gay. I felt I could finally be honest with myself.”
Both Denson and Hirst played in subsequent matches after their declarations, and were warmly applauded and cheered by fans.
The New York Times headline for its story was, in its own quiet way, telling: “David Denson, Openly Gay Minor Leaguer, Receives Encouragement.”
Ziegler said fear kept athletes and sportspeople in the closet; it was an irrational but understandable emotion, he added, especially when they may view the trajectory of Michael Sam, the first openly gay player drafted to the NFL, who—also over the weekend—announced he was “stepping away from the game.”
In one of a series of tweets, Sam wrote, “The last 12 months have been very difficult for me, to the point where I became concerned with my mental health.”
While the stories of Denson and Hirst are inspiring and uplifting, Sam’s story is also instructive.
Because there are so few out, well-known, top-flight sportspeople, the pressure on those out—sometimes on their own in their sport—is immense.
When Michael Sam, or Tom Daley, or Robbie Rogers come out, there is much fanfare—but then the longer process of being out, and supporting that sportsperson to be out, begins. And that is more vital than the initial rush of congratulation and backslapping.
Every time a sports figure comes out, creating their own bit of history, there is a flurry of hope and speculation others will follow—but that flood never comes. Or hasn’t yet.
Ziegler said, “All it takes is one boss to say, ‘I’m not going to have him play because he’s gay,’ and then that person’s career is over. I’ve been begging that MLB takes on a (former, legendarily innovative MLB executive) Branch Rickey kind of manager to pick up an openly gay player and publicly support them.”
Sam had a tough year, and may “find a way back to football or may well walk away,” Ziegler said.
Despite these totemic comings out, fear of homophobia and losing one’s status keeps many sportspeople in the closet.
“I know a top-class athlete who doesn’t even play any more, he has nothing to lose,” said Ziegler. “He’s retired, he has a partner—and he still won’t come out because he’s afraid for his legacy, what the fans will think. He’s afraid of his own shadow at this point.”
Having been picked in the 15th round of the 2013 draft, Denson is the no. 21 prospect in the Brewers organization.
“David Denson is where Michael Sam was professionally,” said Ziegler. “He’s trying to make it into the big time. He is in a very precarious position. The next 24 months will determine whether he becomes a baseball player.”
But his supporters should take heart because MLB is ahead of the NFL, said Ziegler—not least because last year it appointed Billy Bean as its first Ambassador for Inclusion to support LGBT players. Indeed, Denson consulted Bean before making his announcement.
Athletes also approach Outsports for advice, Ziegler said—some are out to their family, friends, teammates, and loved ones, but not publicly, he said. Ideally, Ziegler said, they come out publicly too to help and provide an example to others—though that is their choice.
LGBT sportspeople need sustained support from bosses, fans and loved ones, as reading Denson and Hirst’s experiences show.
As Denson told the Journal Sentinel: “I wasn’t able to give fully of myself because I was living in fear. What if this person finds out? What if somebody else finds out? Instead of going out and just playing, I was trying to hide myself.”
“I didn’t get drafted because of my sexuality. I didn't start playing this game because of my sexuality. I started playing this game and got drafted because I have a love for this game. It’s a release for me to finally be able to give all of myself to the game, without having to be afraid or hide or worry about the next person who might find out.”
Ziegler said the famous athlete he knows who is in the closet will likely never come out.
“He will probably die in the closet. But things will change if more David Densons and Keegan Hirsts come out. If they do, fewer athletes will die in the closet.”