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Getting Over It : How Does a Straight Guy Get Beyond Homophobia? A Gay Football Player Gives Him Some Answers

<i> Jeff Silverman last wrote about golfer Fred Couples for this magazine. </i>

I am an American, New York born, male by construction and heterosexual by design. At 43, I have some history behind me. My behavior is relatively consistent. My patterns have been set.

When Vietnam was raging, I returned my draft card and stood vigil at the Pentagon. I’ve marched for civil rights and women’s rights, protested the Gulf War and the first Rodney King verdicts. I refuse to cross a picket line. I’ve never missed an election, never voted Republican, and when I go to the polls to choose a president I always wear a tie out of respect for the office. I worry about whales and guns and ozone holes and movie violence. I hate artificial turf and the designated hitter. I even recycle.

I believe, unshakably, in the words of Thomas Jefferson: All men are created equal.

That said, I continue to carry a particular prejudice like a hump. It doesn’t feel right--in your heart, what prejudice does?--but it’s been part of me for so long, I tend to ignore it. I can’t ignore it anymore.

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Half a lifetime or so ago, I was living in Washington, D.C., valiantly trying, Monday through Friday, to become an adult. I would atone on weekends by dropping into various watering holes. I was particularly fond of a joint in the shadow of the Capitol dome called the Hawk ‘n’ Dove, an apt enough name for a place in which I lost an early skirmish in a war I wasn’t even aware back then I was waging. The front, nearly two decades later, is the same: the internal battleground on which straight men like myself must eventually assess and confront our history of intolerance--sometimes benign, sometimes not--toward homosexuals.

I’ve begun to see the light at the end of my tunnel, though. Going eyeball to eyeball with myself, my prejudice has finally blinked.

The Hawk, back in the late ‘70s, catered to a Carter-era clientele of Congressfolk and their staffers, journalists, bureaucrats, and anyone else--male, female, young, old, black, white--who could carry on a decent conversation and remain vertical through post-midnight rounds of peppermint schnapps.There, late one afternoon during football season, I slipped into the verbal passing lanes of an aficionado who was making the hidden complexities of the gridiron as understandable as the pregame coin toss.

He looked like an athlete, this guy: chiseled face, bulky and broad across the beam, tall and thick-legged. He had a quick laugh, loud and full, and seemed to know everyone who walked into the bar, or at least they all seemed to know him. He introduced himself as Dave, but I didn’t catch his last name. He’d obviously played the game; some high school, maybe college, I assumed, like I had.

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In bits and pieces, stops and starts, our conversation continued over the next few weekends in the semi-anonymous way these things do at saloons. Then I saw his picture in a bookstore window, and everything, from my perspective, changed.

Dave knew football, all right. He had captained his University of Washington team in the 1964 Rose Bowl, then gone on to a solid career as an NFL running back with the San Francisco 49ers, Washington Redskins, Green Bay Packers and others for more than a decade. But that wasn’t all the yardage his book covered. Dave Kopay had become the first professional jock to publicly proclaim his homosexuality; through his book, he was coming out of two very claustrophobic and secret places: the locker room and the closet. (Kopay remains one of very few professional football, baseball or basketball players to have done so.)

But in 1976, the world I knew, the world of straight men, didn’t know how to accept that yet. Now, more than a quarter-century after the riot at the Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village that marked the birth of the modern gay rights movement, it still doesn’t. Our prejudice remains ingrained, its roots as tangled as a houseplant’s in a too-small pot. The law can force us to act fairly, but it can’t force us to think or feel that way.

Men like myself may speak of tolerance and equality and even support gay rights vocally from a distance, but that doesn’t mean that in our hearts we live by our words. The gap between voice and action forms the black hole of bigotry, and, once sucked in, these places take work, real work, to escape from.

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I never again spoke to Kopay at the Hawk. My decision didn’t grow out of routine intolerance or dark seeds of hate. It stemmed from ignorance and its distant cousin, confusion. I was having trouble making sense of the image and information I was trying to process.

Kopay was certainly not the first gay man I’d ever met; he was, however, the first to cut so violently against the stereotype I had learned and held onto. So I denied him rather than confront something that made me feel oddly uncomfortable. (What if he found me attractive? What if he didn’t?) I had beaten racial prejudice into submission, but this was different. Become friends with a queer? Get outta here!

But then, I grew up in an America where men were men, and if you couldn’t catch a pass, drill a fastball or can a jumper from the top of the key, we called you a faggot. (If there was a faggot who could, we never heard of him, which is what has made the Kopays of the world so threatening to our definition of masculinity; he could catch a pass and relate to another man intimately.) Weep openly, and we called you a ‘mo. Listen to opera, write poetry, display emotion, seek companionship more tender than the swagger of fraternal bonding, touch another man anywhere but on the butt during a ballgame--fill in the cliche--and hormonally raging young heterosexuals (even if we, too, listened to opera--Maria Callas is currently wailing “Norma” from my stereo) psychologically abused you, branded you a pansy, turned their backs and erased you from existence.

What I couldn’t understand then was that bigotry tells us more about the hater than the hated. We all have dark closets of fear and prejudice and confusion that need airing. The gay world has found a key to unlock its closet; the door to the straight world might be better served by dynamite. We can open our door, peek out timidly into the world and go blithely about our business as we always have, or we can blow the damned thing off completely and take our chances.

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We’ll remain prisoners of our sex until we do.

IN THE SUBURBAN, MIDDLE-CLASS, WHITE-BREAD (RYE WAS THE ACTUAL loaf of choice in my Long Island neighborhood) world where I grew up, sex and sexuality were limited to the bedroom, not paraded through the streets. Homosexuality existed elsewhere.

Cultural osmosis taught us that to be homosexual was to be silly, dirty, perverted and weird. It was shameful and sinful. It was a mental illness, classified as such by the American Psychiatric Assn. as late as 1973. It was something you could go to jail for. Hell, it was something to go to hell for.

So, among all the things that we didn’t want to grow up to be, gay, from the get-go, was down in the basement, hidden in the crawl space with Nazi, Commie, Klansman and ax murderer. Tolerate it? Accept it?

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Every image associated with it was negative, and every story built around it had a horrible second act. When I was maybe 8 or 9, the man who came to the house once a month to wax the floors--he was warm, affectionate, loving and as unthreatening a human being as could be--was arrested on a morals charge for soliciting an undercover cop in a men’s room. My parents refused to let him near the house again, fearing, they told me years later, that I would be corrupted. Not long after they’d planted that seed, at the outset of my puberty, I had a nightmare about John violating me. I ran from my bed to the bathroom to wash myself off.

In high school, I learned that a college professor, the older son of two of my parents’ friends, was gay. Such a tragedy, said my parents. Not so much that Danny was, to use the Yiddish, a faygeleh, but the way his folks reacted: They cut off communication, then mourned him in the Jewish custom of sitting on a bench for a week as if he had died. When I posed the hypothetical question of what my parents would have done had it been me, my mother quickly responded that that couldn’t happen, and then, just as quickly, changed the subject.

Then, my senior year, I experienced the horrible second act directly for the first time; a colleague on the school paper hanged himself. He was a nice guy, funny and clever, but we wondered about him; he was artistic, effeminate, hated sports and had a knack for inserting Oscar Wilde quotations into his editorials. For a day or two after his suicide, we talked about him, with hushed tones of bewilderment, not any real understanding. But it was the week before graduation, we had other things on our minds, and none of us wanted to admit the truth: We could have been more decent to him, befriended him, listened to him. The lingering regret is that he’d never tried to talk to us. The harsh reality is that we couldn’t let him.

In a culture that clings to the notion of “We’re No. 1,” being No. 1 means nothing without a No. 2 to hold sway over, and strutting, virulent masculinity was clearly the ideal. Defining ourselves as the best, the strongest, the smartest, the bravest and the most manly required defining someone else as less than that. Thus homosexuality became a target, the antithesis that gave shape and boundary to what we were, and what we were was not that. And we were relieved.

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Still, in my most secret moments, I wondered about the mechanics of how “they” did it. I wondered about where the attraction lay. I wondered why, in the locker rooms I frequented, I would find myself admiring the grace and strength of another man’s body. And I wondered why I was wondering, praying that next month’s Playmate would still have the zip to charge my erotic fantasies.

But knowing I was straight was not enough. What if I changed? What if homosexuality crept up and strangled me as I got older? What if I were recruited into The Life? What if I wound up on the end of a noose? Men build walls around themselves to keep from being penetrated in every meaning of the word.

The real problem was that there was nothing out there in the world to dispel that. The closet was closed. The images still held.

And continued to. For an abnormal psychology class my sophomore year at Union College, then still an all-men’s enclave in Upstate New York, I wrote an analysis of a case study in our textbook on a middle-aged gay man. “Nobody loves an old homosexual,” commented the professor in the margins, the exact words that he’d penned on a similar study my best friend had turned in the year before. “He should know,” my friend and I smirked when we discovered the coincidence.

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Still, we both liked this professor a great deal and decided to take him to lunch before we both transferred to a just co-ed Vassar. Yes, he told us, he was gay, and, in his mid-50s, he was tired of keeping the secret any longer; not being himself, he said, was just too damned hard a job.

His honesty plucked a chord within us, and my friend and I talked a lot over the next months--at Vassar, at that time, it was hard not to--about what masculinity means. The women around us were challenging and changing us, taking some of the starch out of our shorts, so to speak. They actively encouraged us to acknowledge that there were feminine aspects to our character and to go out and explore them. To survive in this changing environment, we men learned we simply had to talk to one another, comfort and console one another, support one another, even put our arms--both in solace and in joy--around one another.

I met openly gay contemporaries for the first time, and through simple proximity, friendship developed, and through friendship, prejudice and ignorance began to fade. Suddenly, the group that was not me miraculously condensed into individuals not altogether unlike me, but still not enough like me to send out to sea the last undercurrents of superiority my heterosexuality engendered. The ‘60s had turned into 1970, and the colors of the human rainbow were no longer so difficult to celebrate or respect--respect being one of bigotry’s more powerful antidotes.

I was so busy celebrating my own freedom, I forgot what intolerance felt like. And then. . . .

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Two years after college, two years back into the Real World, Esquire ran a story on the men of Vassar. The piece centered on a small, flamboyant group of gay students that entered as freshmen my final year. I laughed when I read the piece; it captured the outrageousness of these guys whom I had so liked for daring to be different and open and defiantly proud. But I was also trying to make my way up the lower rungs of journalism, and virtually everyone I met over the next year or two, from colleagues to potential employers, had read that story.

Before the piece, the question I was most asked about Vassar was whether I scored a lot. (About 10 points a game for the basketball team, was my standard reply.) After the piece appeared, everyone just assumed that I was gay. I never quite understood the logic, but logic doesn’t necessarily hold when someone’s initial enthusiasm over meeting you turns into a cold silence. I lost more than one potential job in the process.

So that’s what it’s like to be the object of bigotry. I didn’t like it. But at 24, I wasn’t confident enough to keep beating it back within myself. On this front, at least, it was easier to dunk my head in the water, swim with the prevailing tide, and keep homosexuality at arm’s length. And so, when I met Dave Kopay, I had no trouble letting my prejudices drift me farther out to sea.

But over the last few years, I found myself sinking. Living and working in Hollywood, living and working beside gay men, has made it harder and harder to keep the old stereotypes afloat and harder not to care about the people I was meeting, and liking, regardless of whom they slept with.

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It’s also hard not to care about people dying. The grace and courage and loyalty exhibited by the gay community in the face of AIDS has revealed compassion in me I wasn’t willing to admit I had. In 1969, Life magazine displayed the name and photograph of every soldier wasted in one particular week in Vietnam; it brought the madness of the war home in stunningly human detail. So, too, has the constant litany of the dead and dying, from the famous Rock Hudsons to the anonymous neighbors I’ve only nodded to in passing, that fills the obituaries in the trade papers and news magazines.

And then there have been the public performances and pronouncements of the two men for whom the gay community should pray daily for good health and long life (and maybe a hot time in eternity): Pat Buchanan and Jesse Helms. To see two public faces so twisted with anger and fear, to hear their words so filled with hate, does wonders to the well-intentioned. We see how close to Helms and Buchanan we can be and how far from them we want to be. Then we reassess who we are.

The Buchanans and Helmses talk about homosexuality as a threat--to the family, to the moral fiber of the nation, to our children, to our communities, to our health and to our souls. There is a threat, a powerful threat, but not the one they’re implying. It’s a threat that nips at my masculinity every time I meet a gay man who has wrestled his demons, emerged from his closet and actually seems at peace with himself. The truth is, nothing so threatens a human being who’s afraid of exiting his own closet, whatever that closet may be, as seeing another man set himself free. And if that man seems proud, happy, content, loved and loving, the threat is even greater.

Understanding that, I could understand how the prejudice that had buoyed me for so long was weighing me down. But there was still one particular place I needed to go to confront it.

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I had to find Dave Kopay.

I’M NOT SURE WHY I WANTed to find Dave Kopay. I’m not seeking forgiveness for the past. Still, finding him might close my incomplete circle. When I arrive at his apartment in West Hollywood--he had suggested I come by to watch a Monday night football game--the door is open and he is hunched over the phone. He motions me to come in and sit down. The game is already on.

He’s talking to the father of a friend in Washington state who is in the last throes of AIDS, and he’s trying to figure out when he can get back for a final visit. There have been too many final visits of late. He excuses himself as he hangs up and exits the room to compose himself. Underneath the violent sounds of televised football, I hear the quiet sound of a man unabashedly weeping at the imminence of human loss.

When Kopay re-enters, he asks if I’ve experienced an AIDS death of someone close to me. I tell him not really. He says I am lucky, then we talk about the old days at the Hawk. “I don’t think your behavior was unusual at the time,” he says with no sadness or anger. At 51, there is a peace in his eyes that comes from self-knowledge and the struggle to attain it. “It takes time. It takes time.” There were other slights, he says, but he didn’t pay that much attention. “I was so caught up with what I was doing and how full I felt that the bulls- - - didn’t much matter. I knew that it was all going to be better.”

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Many straight men, then and now, saw his coming out as a betrayal, and we are both intrigued by that, and what it reveals. “It fractured what they believed me to be,” he explains, laughing at the contradiction. “How could this guy who was nicknamed Psyche (for his intensity) by his coaches be a wimp? How did this queer play football?” Others offered sympathy. “I want to puke when I hear that word. What do I need sympathy for? For what I am? No.”

Over the next few hours, our conversation skips from the game that is on in the background to his battle--well-documented in his eponymous autobiography--to accept himself, to his frustrations at being denied coaching jobs, to the support he’s received from old teammates, to the fulfillment he feels when other men thank him for being the role model he never sought to be. Kopay, who works in the family business, Linoleum City, a flooring company in Hollywood, admits he still chuckles to himself when a straight male art director or interior designer comes in for supplies; the stereotypes die hard on either side of the line. We smile at that.

In the end, I realize, what our conversation is about is simply two men--no adjective before the noun--talking about the myriad possibilities we contain and the frustrations and fears that prevent us from reaching them. “I really believe,” he insists, “that most people do not fall 100% in either scale of sexuality, male or female.

“Accepting who you are, what you are, where you are, and the responsibility for who you are,” he says assuredly, contentedly, “that’s the only thing that defines manhood. We haven’t even scratched the surface of defining masculinity.” Then he says something so obvious that we overlook it every day: “Love doesn’t have a gender.”

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No, it doesn’t. Love is so damned hard to find in this world that who among us has the right to deny it to anyone else wherever it can be found?

So, this, then, is how it commences, face to face, the work to beat back bigotry, with the simplest and most universal observation of all. The circle, closed, begins again. Which is what this is, a beginning. As Kopay said, it takes time, and at this time in my life, I’m willing to give it all the time it needs. It’s certainly not a great accomplishment on my part. But the door has opened. And that’s a start.


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