"Jocks" aims to bring hope and support to gay athletes

By Jeff Walsh, Oasis Editor

Let's clear things up right at the beginning. I'm not a jock. Never liked sports, never got the point and don't think I'm missing anything. I work out a few times a week at the gym Out Magazine called "ground zero for the San Francisco gay-body high society" in its most recent issue. I hate working out, and not just because I'm surrounded by hunky models who seem as though they're enjoying what I find torturous. It just never clicked with me.

But Dan Woog and sports click -- big time. He's a high school soccer coach, freelance journalist and the author of the recent Alyson book: "Jocks: True Stories of America's Gay Male Athletes."

The book, which features a hunky stud on the cover, looks at one of society's last closets, the locker room. In a recent interview, Woog said the book is reaching three different types of people.

"It's reaching the gay jocks, who are discovering 'Oh my God! I'm not alone, there are other people out there like me.' It's reaching gay people who were turned off to athletics at a very early age, sometimes without even knowing why or how and now that they get older they realize something important was taken away from them," Woog said. "And it's also reaching straight people who are coming to the realization that all their teammates and coaches are not exactly who they thought they might be."

Woog didn't come out until he was in his 30s, and began writing this book as a way to explore the issue of why gay jocks seemed to be thought of as an oxymoron.

"For so long, I thought I was the only gay coach. Slowly, I realized that there were more, but also I realized that it was one area of the gay world that nobody was talking about. People are talking about gay teachers now, they're talking about gay newscasters, gay priests, but they're not talking about gay athletes," Woog said. "I figured... what the hell's going on here? So, I wanted to find out: a) who these other people were who were like me and b) why discussion about it has been so quiet for so long.

"I didn't know if I would find too many people, if they would be willing to tell their stories, didn't know if they would want their names used, but the Internet was great and people put me in touch with a lot of other people," he said. "I got ideas for angles I would have never thought of, such as the gay referee, the hockey guy, the boyfriend who sat in the stands watching his boyfriend play basketball and then went home alone while the basketball player went off with these women to parties. So, I ended up broadening it more than I had originally thought, which was great."

But what are the parallels, if any, between sports and sexuality? How does one affect the other, if at all?

"Like it or not, athletics is an amazingly important part of our culture. Everything from the expressions we use ("he really hit a home run in that presentation") or whatever we say, so much of how we define ourselves comes from sports. Plenty of people have low self-esteem," Woog said. "They can be brilliant, witty, musically talented, wonderful people, inventing cures for ten different diseases, but if they as young people didn't feel confident and accepted on a basketball court of football field, they can carry this negative self-image into adulthood, gay or straight.

"And as gay people, we learn from an early age, if you don't make it with girls, you're not going to make it in life. So, we have that same low self-image that we have to fight."

Woog said his hope is that the book inspires people to step up to the plate (damn, we do use sports analogies in real conversation!) and show that gay people are already a part of athletics, so that others won't feel as afraid being a part.

"There are young people out there who are gay and they need to see that there are other gay athletes, gay coaches and the fact that they like guys shouldn't stop them from their rightful place on the team or in the locker room. They have as much right to be there as everybody else does. They need these role models and I was not a role model for a long time," Woog said. "I realize now that I was not being fair not only to the one or two gay kids on the team each year, none of whom ever came out to me, which was fine. But I was not being a very good role model to the straight kids, who needed to know that their coach was a gay man, and whether I was a good coach or a bad coach has nothing to do with my sexuality.

"The role model aspect is not just for the ten percent of the gay athletes, but for the 90 percent of the straight athletes because there's so much homophobia in athletics ("you throw like a girl," "you block like a pussy," "let's beat those faggots") that if we can stop that sort of stuff on the athletic field maybe there will be a carry-over into the rest of society," he said.

Woog said the locker room, despite mounds of gay erotica to the contrary, is not a place for sex. Sure, there is undressing, nudity and the like, but people aren't there to pick one another up.

"It's a locker room. It's not a sex club. It's not the baths. And gay kids have every right to change as much as straight kids do. And for most gay kids, a locker room is a place of terror, not a place of lust and lasciviousness," Woog said. "Gay kids get in and out of there as fast as they can. It's the straight kids who are there comparing dick sizes and snapping towels and making homoerotic jokes. It's a straight issue. They are worried they're the ones who have all these fears like 'I looked at that guy, what if I'm attracted to him?' So, the locker room is a place of fear for straight kids, too. They hide it with their homophobic jokes and goosing everybody and that thing. So, it's an issue much more for straight kids than it is for gay."

Woog said every student needs a place at school where he can feel comfortable.

"For some it's the stage, the choral room, for some it's hanging out with the math teacher and doing proofs after school, and for some it's the basketball court and the locker room," he said.

Woog's grand vision for Jocks is not just for gay jocks to read it, but for it to get into the hands of straight coaches who might rethink how they approach their students' needs.

"I would love for coaches to read it. Like Mike Henigan, the coach in Orange County whose son came out to him and that made him realize that all the players on the team were individuals and he became a better coach because of it," he said. "I would love for straight coaches to read it and say 'Holy shit! I've been teaching every kid on my team exactly the same and I didn't realize there are some kids who might be gay. And now that I think about it, there's probably some kids who feel different because they have the wrong number of parents, or because they live on the wrong side of town. I'm going to start teaching my kids a little more individually' and they become better coaches because of it."

Woog said he encountered no problems coming out to his students, and that he was merely following the principles he had always taught his students.

"We always say sports are a metaphor for life. One of the lessons we always talk about is respect. Respect your teammates, respect your opponents, respect the referee, and yet, if you've got a gay coach who's not respecting himself and lets homophobic comments slide in locker rooms and on the team bus without saying anything, then he's not being a very good role model," he said. "I think more parents than we realize want their kids to be coached by someone they know is dead honest, proud of who he is, stands up for the right of everyone who's oppressed and teaches his team that honesty is the best policy and you should be proud of who you are.

"When I came out, I got a couple of phone calls from parents, fathers who said they were glad I had done this because now they could have discussions with their sons about issues they always wanted to talk about but could never bring up. I've taken several teams to Europe since coming out and it's never been an issue," he said. "My experience is not unique. My fears before coming out were not only not realized but now in retrospect seem almost foolish. I didn't give people enough credit for wanting to do the right thing. I just had to give them the opportunity to do that."

Woog said his book focused only on male athletes, because there issues are totally different for female athletes. If anything, he said, straight female athletes would need a book similar to Jocks, because they are the perceived minority there.

"It's completely different for women. The stereotype is that no guy can be gay and be an athlete. And that all women are," he said. "In fact, the issues for women are very, very different. there are a lot of perfectly good straight women athletes who don't go into athletics because they don't want to be thought of as lesbian. For women, for a long time sports were thought of as a male purview. Women didn't play sports because they would sweat and get their hair messed up. So for women, sports meant that she wasn't feminine. If she wasn't feminine, what was she? A lesbian."

But, despite my not having experience with this whole sports thing, Woog said he's already been hearing great things from people who have read the book.

"The feedback has been great. It's selling really well, which I'll have to thank the model on the cover for," he said. "I heard from one guy who said he read it three times and got something new out of it each time. Someone else said he rationed himself to two chapters a night because he didn't want it to end."

And what about that cover? Honestly, had I not known Woog, a book called Jocks with a half-naked guy undressing would seem to be, well... a book of jerk-off stories about athletes. Woog said the cover was a topic of discussion prior to its release, but didn't elaborate too much.

"There were issues with the cover, let's just say that. It's getting people to pick up the book and buy it, which is great," he said.

Woog, who also wrote "School's Out: The Impact of Gay and Lesbian Issues on America's Schools," is already working on his third book, which looks at non-gay people who are making a difference in the gay community.

That book will feature stories of a mother and father with two gay kids who are taking on the Mormon Church in Utah and the 12-year-old Petaluma boy who is challenging the gay ban in the Scouts, among others.

(OK, I give up. Insert your own sports analogy to end this piece using how Woog as a coach has to teach his team how to win and how he is similarly helping the gay community win through his writing... hey, I told you I'm not a sports guy...)

Woog can be contacted at dwoog@optonline.net
Oasis editor Jeff Walsh would love to hear your feedback at jeff@oasismag.com