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Coming Out to Face the Team

Gay athletes are more open about their sexuality. But a 'don't ask, don't tell' coldness still lingers in the high school locker room.

September 17, 2000|BILL SHAIKIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

This could be trouble. A slur? A shove? A fight?

Jason Fasi, an honor roll student and varsity runner, cast a wary eye as his teammate walked toward him.

Jason was the guy getting all the attention earlier this year--on campus and in the local papers--for trying to launch a Gay Straight Alliance at Mission Viejo High. When everyone on campus finds out you're gay, who knows whether you'll be embraced or vilified, ostracized or tolerated? When you've overheard some of your straight classmates--including the one headed your way--tease one another by yelling "fag," who knows what they might say--or do--to you?

So Jason braced himself, unsure what to expect from his approaching teammate.

"To my surprise," Jason recalled, "he said, 'I signed your petition in support of your club. I'm cool with it.' "

It was another small step on the rocky path to tolerance for gay high school athletes. Sociologists have long contended that sports offers a "quasi-closet" to gay males, a safe place where masculinity is conferred and heterosexuality is assumed. But now, researchers believe, increasing numbers of young men can compete in high school sports without concealing their homosexuality and without enduring physical and verbal abuse.

"They're presenting themselves in ways that force people to question their own stereotypes about who is gay and who isn't," said University of Colorado sports sociologist Jay Coakley.

Yet even in this more open-minded generation, gay athletes--and straight teammates--tread gingerly. Tolerance is not acceptance. The door to the locker room may be open, but the reception inside is rarely warm.

Jason was nervous, and a bit scared, before he came out publicly. Although he had revealed his homosexuality to family and friends three years ago, many teammates found out only when he campaigned for the Gay Straight Alliance.

The locker room is a hallowed male sanctuary, where boys talk freely and often bawdily about girls. Jason wondered whether his presence there would intimidate his teammates, or whether they would try to intimidate him. "I created illusions and daydreams of all these terrible things that could possibly happen to me, from not having my friends accept me to having total strangers beat me up."

No one beat him up, he said. No one shied away from dressing next to him. No one heckled him on the track. He heard a few taunts, mostly from random classmates in passing cars, as he walked home.

To University of Toronto sports sociologist Brian Pronger, such experiences reflect what he called the "dominant cultural trend" toward tolerance of gays.

"That's not to say the problems of homophobia are no longer. Sports is one of the worst places," he said. "But, when you see things changing in sport, you know things are changing in society."

In a poll commissioned last year by Seventeen magazine and the Kaiser Family Foundation, 54% of teens aged 13-19 said they "don't have any problem" with homosexuality, up from 17% in 1991. And fewer college freshmen endorse "laws prohibiting homosexual relationships"--30% in 1999, down from 53% in 1987, according to the annual national survey conducted by UCLA's Institute of Higher Education.

In pop culture, the high school football hero and the homecoming queen no longer end up together every time. Last year, on the hit teen TV drama "Dawson's Creek," the high school football hero was gay. In one episode, when an opposing team targeted the gay star, his teammates supported him by turning stereotype on its head. They all wore makeup, and one teammate challenged an opponent to "try to tell which one of us is the homo now."

Jason, 17, a senior at Mission Viejo, strolls toward the locker room after finishing his workout. As he walks, fellow athletes pass, waving or nodding in his direction.

"It's not like he walks by and people say, 'Oh, he's gay,' " said teammate Jim McTeigue. "If anybody bothered him or started making a big deal about it, there would be more than enough kids ready to come to his aid."

The track coach at Mission Viejo, Mike Hoffman, praised his athletes for accepting Jason. "It was like nothing happened," Hoffman said. "I think that's a great thing for our community and our school system, to accept it and not really think about it. We've come a long way."

However, openly gay male athletes often encounter a "don't ask, don't tell" environment, where they are welcomed and supported by teammates so long as they do not make their sexuality an issue, according to Eric Anderson, author of the autobiographical "Trailblazing: The True Story of America's First Openly Gay Track Coach" (2000).

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