Bay Area Reporter
Copyright © 2006 Bay Area Reporter, a division of Benro Enterprises, Inc.

Jock Talk:
A great time to be gay in sports

It was a weekend that had the pope eating with the homeless, the sun eclipsing the moon, leather folks invading and surviving Folsom, and scientists discovering water on Mars. It was also a time that proved to us locally what Helen Carroll told us at the start of the weekend: this is a great time to be gay in sports.

You didn't have to wait until the Folsom Street Fair at the end of the weekend to run into jocks all over the Bay Area. The San Francisco Spikes competed in Alameda on Saturday, September 26 at their third annual tournament, after having partied the evening before in San Francisco and before brunching over awards South of Market the day after. Also that day, northern California pro women's fast pitch softball players from four decades ago gathered for the first time on the Peninsula to reminisce, tease each other about gaining weight and hair turning gray, play a bit of ball – and share the joy of life liberated from a closet that once confined their entire sport. Meanwhile, in the Castro wrestlers from four continents and five countries competed, sweated, and laughed for four hours before retiring for a night of chow and chatter.

Carroll, director of the sports project of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, was one of five panelists speaking on acceptance and homophobia in the sports world in a discussion co-hosted by the Commonwealth Club and the Spikes at Eureka Valley Recreation Center. She and the other panelists – soccer official Kimberly Hadley of the International Gay and Lesbian Football Association, who moderated; transgender American Samoa national soccer team player Jaiyah Saelua; former men's pro soccer player Matt Hatzke; and myself – spoke about confrontations with homophobic officials, fans, administrations, and players, as well as the acceptance, love, and support found in places and situations unimaginable just a decade ago. They talked about the need especially for broader understanding and awareness of issues surrounding transgender athletes and the need for policies that provided safe and inclusive environments.

It was a refreshing evening of discussion, an empowering start to an invigorating weekend. I was proud to be part of it, happy to share my thoughts from five decades on the sports scene. And yet ...

That was talk. I needed to see action.

The next day on the other side of the rec center, in a gymnasium named after a gay rugby player thrust into the national consciousness when he was one of the passengers fighting terrorists on the ill-fated United Flight 93 on 9/11, Golden Gate Wrestling Club held its 29th annual wrestling tournament. For the first time this year, grappling was added to the freestyle offerings, and both disciplines were conducted simultaneously on separate mats throughout the afternoon.

There were three-dozen participants, making it the second biggest Golden Gate tournament ever. They came from as far away as Canada, Australia, Singapore, and Switzerland. The grapplers got a special treat with the participation of World Champion Matt Kaiser of Victoria, British Columbia, who just weeks before his upset victory at the world championships in Bulgaria was being trained in takedown technique by a member of Golden Gate.

Several of the participants wrestled in both tournament styles. I did not get to watch the grapplers, but I did help at the scorers' table for the freestyle wrestling and was blown away by what I witnessed.

Wrestlers who were timid and tentative in their first appearances a few years before were returning as powerful, successful contenders, executing moves with enviable technical superiority. More importantly, their faces were happier, filled with more confidence and life than I had seen in them previously.

I got to see one of my high school wrestlers at Mission High wrestle an older brother who will be one of my assistant coaches this year. I saw one of my assistant coaches wrestle one of my former Mission wrestlers who now coaches at another school. I saw one of Golden Gate's wrestlers show his startling recent growth by going toe-to-toe with a club coach from southern California, a veteran wrestler from Switzerland, and a member of the American Samoa national squad. He lost to Samoa on a tie score.

Later they gathered at the home of the GGWC president for a communal feast, prepared in my home by myself and the president of the Sydney wrestling club. As they scarfed down mounds of stuffed shells, pork barbecue, gazpacho, shrimp cocktails, and seed cakes, they offered up personal encounters from other tournaments, tales of their travels, admissions of their adventures.

And that's where the joy in being a gay athlete today that Carroll spoke of occurs. Yes, in part she was talking about the abundance of educational information freely available on the Internet to even the most isolated of athletes. Yes, she was talking about the support services such as the attorneys now fighting against the unfair dismissal of three successful lesbian coaches by the University of Minnesota Duluth.

But even more, she was talking about the acceptance of teammates and competitors for the athletes who choose to live their lives openly. So many of those softball players on the Peninsula had to wait decades before they could feel completely free and open about being lesbians and athletes; those athletes in the gym, no matter where they were from or whether they were straight or gay, could compete and connect with each other and know each other fully. To know each other as family.

No secrets, no excuses. This is indeed a great time to be gay in sports.