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

January 30, 1994|JEFF SILVERMAN | Jeff Silverman last wrote about golfer Fred Couples for this magazine.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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