Gay Athletes: Edging Out of the Closet?

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday November 27, 2009

In the wake of headlines announcing the public coming out of a hockey star's son, the dialogue about gay sports pros has opened up once again.

The son of former pro hockey player and current Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke has come out publicly as gay--and Burke has come out just as publicly in support of his son. Brendan Burke reportedly wants to pursue a management career in the sport in which his father excelled, first as a player and then as a manager (currently for the Toronto Maple Leafs). In today's climate, that might just be possible; what's more, in a few years' time, it's not unlikely that gay pro athletes will be more commonplace.

A Nov. 27 Toronto Sun article posted at 24 hours Vancouver cites Brendan Burke's story, and goes on to quote Maple Leafs psychologist and consultant Paul Dennis, who offered an optimistic prognosis on the status of tolerance among the ranks of pro athletes. "If a player today wanted to be open about it, I would encourage it," Dennis told the Toronto Sun

"If a person chose to disclose [his homosexuality], a team would be supportive in today's society," added Dennis, who also is a university professor of advanced sports psychology. "I think it would be good for the player and good for society. Twenty years ago, I probably wouldn't have said that."

The article noted the seeming disparity between a growing acceptance of gays in mainstream culture and the stereotype of a reflexive homophobia in the sports world. But that stereotype may be falling out of sync with locker room reality. "There are very few [gay athletes] who are open," Dennis noted. "It has to do with the stereotype that athletes are obsessive with their virility, hard-nosed. People portray athletes as having this macho image. It really isn't true. I've come across many who are incredibly tolerant, liberal and understanding. But for whatever [reason], they don't want to disclose [their true sexuality]."

The article notes that statistically speaking, hundreds of gay players would be expected to be part of the ranks of thousands of pro athletes, though only a very few--such as Australian gold medal-winning diver Matthew Mitcham--are open about it. "But the next time [a pro baseball, hockey, or basketball player] declares they are gay, it will be the first time," the article notes, going on to cite instances in which players have gone out of their way to assert their heterosexual credentials.

"I do think sports is changing even though there really isn't evidence of that because players aren't coming forward on a regular basis," Dennis told the Toronto Sun. "But just from my years of involvement with hockey, I believe people are more understanding and accommodating."

The real problem, Dennis speculated, is not what a gay player's teammates might say or do, but how the fans, the press, and the general public might react to an openly gay player. The article referenced Canadian gold medal swimming champ Mark Tewksbury, who came out after his Olympic victory and went on to become an author and motivational speaker.

"I won an Olympic medal but even that made me feel like a fraud because inside I didn't feel like the boy next door that everybody thought I was," Tewksbury told an interviewer a few years ago. "I was full of fears about what would happen if people found out. What would they say."

"People shouldn't have to feel pressured and they shouldn't have to hold in things like being gay, but outside the team there remains the possibility of that kind of abuse," Dennis explained.

But fans may well take their cues from their sports heroes, and if pro players start to emerge from the closet the culture among fans may change. Though gay players remain closeted, some indications have already appeared that support exists among gay-friendly pro athletes. Earlier this year, NFL players Brendon Ayanbadejo, linebacker with the Baltimore Ravens, and New Orleans Saints' defensive captain Scott Fujita both spoke out in the media on behalf of same-sex families seeking marital rights.

Ayanbadejo, in an April 23 op-ed published at the Huffington Post, wrote, "If Britney Spears can party it up in Vegas with one of her boys and go get married on a whim and annul her marriage the next day, why can't a loving same sex couple tie the knot? How could our society grant more rights to a heterosexual one night stand wedding in Vegas than a gay couple that has been together for 3, 5, 10 years of true love?"

Predicted the player, "I think we will look back in 10, 20, 30 years and be amazed that gays and lesbians did not have the same rights as every one else."

Fujita, referring to Ayanbadejo's comments, was quoted in a Sept. 29 article at The Nation as saying, "I hope he's right in his prediction, and I hope even more that it doesn't take that long. People could look at this issue without blinders on... the blinders imposed by their church, their parents, their friends or, in our case, their coaches and locker rooms."

Added Fujita, "I wish they would realize that it's not a religion issue. It's not a government issue. It's not even a gay/straight issue or a question of your manhood. It's a human issue. And until more people see that, we're stuck arguing with people who don't have an argument."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.