By Dan Woog
Once upon a time, "gay male high school jock" was an oxymoron. Not any more.
At long last athletes are joining the ranks of actors, musicians and student body presidents as out, proud gay boys. We all know that queers play football and basketball, run track and swim. Now, the rest of the world is learning that too. Take these three stories, multiply them a thousand times, and you'll have a better understanding of what's happening in gyms and on playing fields across America. It isn't always easy -- but then, who said being a champion ever is?
Ben C. is an articulate, earnest young man, has no problem today being gay; he even works at a dog grooming business called "Doggy Style." But his acceptance has come at a heavy price: Twice he was kicked out of his house, the last time permanently. To support himself while living on the streets, he sold drugs. But through it all he has maintained his dignity, held on to his pride, and played sports.
Ben attended Southern California public schools until ninth grade; then his parents sent him to a tiny (90 students) private school. His early years had been filled with confusion. "I grew up watching cartoons where the princes always get the princesses," he recalled. "The guys in my school always got the girls. But my parents were pretty conservative, and at home we never talked about anything. I couldn't tell them what was going on in my mind."
In junior high he was constantly angry, for reasons he could not fathom. He bottled up his feelings for weeks at a time; then he would lash out and fight. When he reached high school, and attempted to sort out why he felt as he did, he blamed his father and mother. He tried to alter the way he acted. But because he did not acknowledge the real cause of his confusion -- his sexuality concerns -- not much changed.
"I was a leader in school, I was on the soccer, lacrosse and volleyball teams, but still I didn't fit in," Ben said. "I dressed differently, and I acted differently. Guys on teams always seem to know how to talk to each other, tease each other, get on the other team's case. I didn't know how to do any of that." Unsure of himself in adolescent-athlete situations, he had two distinct personalities. At times he remained quiet and shy, other times he exploded in anger. "That was the wrong way to deal with my confusion, but it was the only way I knew," he explained.
Upon reflection, Ben realizes that the reason he did not know how to act among peers was because during the long period they were learning about social relationships, he was too busy dealing with his own sexuality issues. Finally, in his last two years of high school, he figured out the root of his problems. At that point he started becoming "socially acceptable," a process that did not entail changing his behavior, but simply being himself. Once he grew comfortable with who he was, others saw him as "more normal." The fights stopped; the friends flocked to him.
The first sport Ben was attracted to, back in elementary school, was soccer. His classmates, predominantly children of Mexican migrant workers, played the game all the time, and he enjoyed it too. But he did not consider himself an athlete until private school. Every student was required to play sports. He decided reluctantly to make the best of things, but the more he played, the more he enjoyed himself.
He found soccer to be more gay-friendly than "very jock-o" lacrosse. But no matter which team he was on, Ben never felt out of place because he was gay. One reason, he noted, is that his habits and mannerisms are "stereotypically straight." He walks, talks and dresses exactly like his teammates; no one would pick him out of a crowd. "Some people act one way when they're in a gay coffeehouse, and another way in other situations," he said. "I can't do that. I act the same way all the time -- the way I was brought up to act, by growing up in a straight society. Most gay people grow up the same way I do, but then when they come out they jump head first into the gay community. I pretty much stayed in straight society."
That does not always sit well with his gay friends. "Sometimes they say I'm not one of them because I'm interested in sports, or they say I'm hiding being gay because I don't act a certain way," he reported. He often finds straight friends more accepting than gays. "Straight people see me as a normal person doing normal activities, which is fine with them, but if gay people see me not doing gay stuff, they make comments or get mad." That is one reason Ben spends most of his time hanging out with straight friends. At times, he "feels" gay only when he has sex.
"I like to hang out with gay guys for a change of pace, and because that's who I'm attracted to sexually," he said. "But I also like girls, and straight guys. I like people. I like soccer. I like lacrosse and volleyball and biking. There's lots of parts to me. I don't pigeonhole people, and I don't want them to pigeonhole me."
Durwin was born in the Midwest, and adopted by two doctors when he was just two weeks old. His adoptive parents moved to Washington, D.C., where he attended an elite private school. In second grade his parents enrolled him in Little League baseball (which he never liked) and youth basketball (which he eventually did).
His third grade coach was hard on him, because Durwin was the biggest boy on the team. When Durwin sprained his ankle, the man made him do endless pushups instead of jumping rope. That caused him to rip muscles in his arm; the skin split at the elbows. Further complications led to a kidney disorder, and Durwin was hospitalized.
After fifth grade his parents moved to Chicago, where he became more serious about sports. However, athletics occupied a less prestigious niche at his new school. He was glad to return to Washington in 1993, before ninth grade, because interscholastic sports was again a big deal. Though already 6-5, he was placed on the freshman team to refine his skills. In the spring he tried throwing the shot put and discus for the track team, and liked it; his coach liked it too, especially when Durwin hurled the discus a substantial 119 feet.
That summer Durwin was invited to join a Junior AAU basketball team. The squad traveled to Florida and Washington state. Durwin's interest in the sport bloomed.
As a sophomore school became more hectic, but his involvement with athletics grew. He played varsity basketball. The demanding winter turned even more stressful, because that was the year he came out. His parents believe homosexuality is bad -- "Not out of malice or hatred, but because that's how they grew up," Durwin said. Fearing he was destined for hell, he attempted suicide
His mother and father took him to a psychiatrist. All the while he continued playing on his school team. "Don't ask me how, but my game got better and my grades went up," Durwin said. He was practicing three to four hours a day, six days a week. Each night after basketball, he spent several hours on homework.
However, those athletic and academic improvements did not last. Durwin had fantasized that coming out would solve all his problems; he would feel more comfortable with himself, and the people close to him would change too. That did not happen, and his basketball game soon declined.
Rumors about Durwin swept the small school. Though there was a gay-straight alliance on campus, he did not feel comfortable attending meetings. There were no fellow athletes he could talk to, either. That made him feel especially bad. "I thought a team was supposed to be unified. I always heard there is no 'I' in 'team,'" he lamented.
Before one game, while the trainer taped his ankle, Durwin overheard his teammates talking about him. Their comments were not kind. That upset him greatly. For the first time, he realized his teammates were not his friends.
However, Durwin finally confided in his coach, and found him to be supportive. He took the tormented player aside from time to time, for long, confidence-boosting talks. "I give that man a lot of credit," Durwin said with emotion. "He told me I was more than a gay person, that sexuality is only one part of a human being. He's a very caring, sensitive person." But despite his new ally, Durwin did not feel better. Everyone else in school -- including his basketball teammates -- was making him feel worse.
In the midst of all this turmoil, Durwin's parents were divorcing. He moved in with his father, but that did not work out well. With so much on his mind that spring, Durwin did not go out for track, opting instead to serve as assistant manager of the girls lacrosse team.
Feeling betrayed by his teammates, Durwin figured he was through with basketball forever. To put his past behind him, he applied to boarding schools. One of the very best in the nation accepted him.
That summer he worked two jobs, at a drug store and teaching English as a second language to elementary school students. In the fall he left for his new school filled with enthusiasm. From everything he had heard, it was an open and accepting place.
His first week there the basketball coach sought him out, and convinced him to play. He luxuriated in not having to tell his fellow students he was gay; there were plenty of others like him around. He made many friends, and for the first time in his life felt part of a school community. He was the starting center for the basketball team (which finished a strong third in the league), and his sexuality was never an issue. However, a few members of the dorm staff made life hard for Durwin. Torn between a desire to stay in school and an overwhelming feeling that his safety could not be assured, he decided to move back home -- this time with his mother.
It was not a good decision. At his new school he signed up for modern and African dance. His mother did not feel the arts were an appropriate course of study, especially for a young man of his size. As their relationship deteriorated, Durwin began taking drugs. Finally he left home, and moved in with a female dancer.
Eventually, Durwin discovered acrobatic gymnastics. For as long as he can remember, he has been fascinated by movement; however, it took a decade for him to find a sport that emphasized it. He joined a good club team, with a Russian coach. He lost weight and gained muscles. Within a few months he entered a qualifying meet for a national tournament. He missed, by just a few points, but that did not matter. Durwin was finally content. His grades soared. He scored 1320 on his SATs, and considered graduating early.
On looking back, Durwin said, he probably should have focused on an individual sport from the start. "I didn't fit in with the rest of the people," he noted. "I'm a pretty passive person. If I want to I can kick everyone's ass, but I don't think that's the right way to live. I'm stereotyped as a jock because I'm so big, but my life is so much more than that. I like computers, and going to clubs. People don't always see that when they look at me. I think stereotyping someone for any reason -- the sports they like, or the people they find attractive -- is bad. Everyone should be free just to do what they want. What's so hard about that?"
The town Keith lived in from age 5 to 18 had just 1,000 people. Everyone attended church every Sunday; everyone made sure every picket on every fence was painted white, and everyone knew everyone else's business. Or tried to.
Keith started experimenting with sex the summer before seventh grade; that was the first time he realized he was gay. But he kept the news to himself, despite fooling around with ski teammates. To this day he does not know how many were gay, and how many simply liked "experimenting." But he does know he enjoyed the opportunities he had during those ski trips. "I didn't feel guilty then," he said. "It felt so right and perfect."
However, the next day his Mormon upbringing, with its clear condemnation of homosexuality and strong promise of hell, kicked in. He never raced well after having sex.
That bothered Keith, because the ski team was his favorite high school activity. "I love winter sports," he explained. "Skiing is a team competition, but you're on your own." Slalom and giant slalom races offered a chance to get away from school, and have fun. Winning was less important than simply being on the mountain.
In that respect skiing was a lot different from football, which he played in junior high. He loved games but hated practice, especially in the heat, and quit in high school. He expected that would make his father upset, and it did.
The first place Keith saw an openly gay person was not Idaho. It was San Francisco, where in the winter of 1996 he participated in a high school journalism convention. Keith went by himself -- not even his adviser could go -- so as soon as the required meetings were over, he took off exploring. He had read "The Culture of Desire" a short while before and was eager to find the gay community that author Frank Browning so evocatively described. Those adventurous few days in San Francisco convinced him it was time to come out.
The first person Keith told was his best friend. He chose a peculiar venue -- church -- but her reaction stunned him: "I always knew you were, but that's cool. You're my friend." He gradually told others; after he gave a speech in government class explaining exactly why he favored the legalization of gay marriage, everyone in school knew. Though he expected to be shunned, no one cared -- not even the "cowboys." He had spent most of his life in his small town; everyone knew him and liked him (besides ski team and journalism he was president of the speech team, vice president of the debate team, and editor of both the newspaper and broadcast program). This latest information was not enough to change their feelings about him, even if the Mormon church branded him a sinner.
Keith's father was a Mormon leader which meant that, despite the church's focus on family, he was often away from his own. That particularly upset Keith's mother, who had converted to Mormonism when she married his father, and was one of the primary reason his parents did what few Mormon couples do: They divorced.
Keith came out to his father and stepmother somewhat involuntarily in April 1996. Someone searched his large walk-in closet and discovered gay books -- lying on their sides, on the top shelf. His parents confronted him about what they called his "gender identity problem" (they could not say the word "gay"), and sent him to a church counselor.
The Mormon belief in "moral cleanliness" prohibits homosexuality, sex before marriage, even masturbation. The only exception, Keith learned, is masturbating to female pornography, in an attempt to cure male homosexuality. "It's a secretive program," he explained. "There are a lot of secrets in the Mormon church."
In that same spring of 1996, gay issues flooded the Mormon news. Salt Lake City student Kelli Peterson had tried to form a gay/straight alliance at East High School; legislators attempted to stop it by banning all extracurricular clubs. On his trips to Salt Lake, four hours south of his Idaho home, Keith met Kelli. They became good friends.
Through her, Keith met several sports-minded guys. Many are gay. One 23-year-old came from the same small town as Keith; in fact, he had once dated the same girl as Keith. The two young men held hands in a car until the older one said, "Don't act like you're gay." That appalled Keith.
"I can't date people like that," he explained. "He's a big jock -- a football player/body builder. His father works for a Mormon college, and his parents don't know about him. I don't have time for people who worry about things like that."
Keith has met many gay jocks who, fearful of losing friends and respect, try to stay in the closet. Slowly, however, some have begun to come out.
"People are becoming more accepting, even in Idaho and Utah," he said. "This really is the Gay '90s. That's why I came out. I figure if they can't accept me, too bad. It only took me two weeks to go from 'No I'm not' to 'Yes I am, do you have a problem with it?' I guess I finally snapped. I just decided I wanted to live life, and be who I wanted to be. More and more of the gay jocks I know have the same attitude: 'Don't be a flamer, just be yourself.' You can be a jock, be masculine, and still be gay. Flaunting just isn't the way I am, and it's not the way most jocks are."
(Dan Woog's next book, "Jocks: True Stories of America's Gay Male Athletes," will be published later this year by Alyson Publications. He can be reached online at: email@example.com.)