Between the Lines

We’ve come a long way, baby

Richard Burnett
Commentaires
Just five short years ago, when I began writing this media column, the mainstream press were finally beginning to cover gay life in all its glory and, of course, the gay civil rights movement’s continuing growing pains. Much of that coverage had to with the onslaught of AIDS. But, slowly, the media began to embrace all aspects of our lives. After all, there is more to gay life than the plague, Pride parades and police raids. That said, five years ago I could pretty well sum up a month’s worth of nationwide — even worldwide — media coverage of queer issues in one column. Today, thank God, there is so much coverage of gay life that I can, uh, barely fit it all in. So much so, in fact, that we’ve gone from being the love that dare not speak its name to the love that won’t shut the hell up.

But I love this media saturation. Just look at some of the great coverage over the last month, so much even I can’t keep up with it all.

Perhaps the one story that has gotten most attention, at least in the gay community, is the public catfight between America’s two leading gay pundits, centrist/left-leaning Gay.com Editor-at-Large Michelanglo Signorile and the conservative former Editor-in-Chief of the right-wing mag The New Republic, Andrew Sullivan.
Now, I don’t begrudge Sullivan his right-wing views — he lives in America, after all, and we’re all entitled to our opinions, no matter how half-baked or ridiculous they are. But Sullivan has also made a career puritanically condemning those who practice unsafe sex while surreptitiously soliciting barebacking partners on gay websites. When Signorile broke the story, the shit literally hit the fan.

“Beyond the sensationalism of the ‘bareback’ sex revelation,” Signorile wrote in a May 25 LGNY op-ed, “what was most jarring to people who’d received this information was the sheer incongruity between the public persona that many rightly or wrongly preceive as Sullivan’s — conservative, moral, devoutly Catholic, marriage-minded, judgmental toward the sexual behaviour of politicians and other public figures, and arrogant toward the ghettoized gay scene — and the person depicted on the sites, a gay stereotype more extreme than any of the Village People, someone very much in the gay sexual fast lane, all pumped up and describing his “power glutes,” ravenously eager to hook up but letting prospective partners know that “no fats, no fems” need apply.”

Sullivan has since admitted to his New York Times editors that he did indeed place the personal want ads on websites. But he’s been conspicuously silent about the controversy ever since, likely wishing the stormclouds would just blow over. They no doubt will, but I also believe Sullivan’s days as the mainstream media’s contrarian golden boy are probably over.

The other major gay news story last month was the quasi-outing of a big-name Major League Baseball player by his boyfriend, OUT magazine Editor-in-Chief Brendan Lemon, who ignited a firestorm when he stated in his May issue editorial, “For the past year and a half, I have been having an affair with a pro baseball player from a major-league East Coast franchise, not his team’s biggest star but a very recognizable media figure all the same. During this time, none of my friends has been privy to this liaison, a concealment that has been awkward at times but nothing in comparison to the maneuverings that my ballplayer has had to make.”

Lemon shamelessly points out there “is more than a little irony [that] the editor of the nation’s largest-circulation gay magazine [is] skulking around with someone so deep in the closet”, and disingenuously adds he is “surprised that I have put up with this indiscretion requirement so long.”

Lemon later concludes, “Whatever the potential fallout, for an athlete, as for everyone else, it’s less psychically risky to come out [today], not merely to stop the lying but to lesson the internal stress - the kind my ballplayer deals with everyday. Tired of telling him this privately, and compromising my self-esteem, I’m now taking a risk and giving him this stronger hint. (I would never out him). I’ve presented this handsome, highly intelligent athlete with a copy of [of the book] The Scarlet Professor [by Barry Werth about the 1960 public outing of Smith College professor Newton Arvin] as well, but the last time we spoke he hadn’t gotten round to reading it. I’m pretty sure he’ll read this column.”

Well, the mainstream media went apeshit. A prurient feeding frenzy exploded in East Coast cities with Major League Baseball teams — New York, Montreal, Philadelphia, and Boston. Everybody, it seemed, had an opinion, even sports editors who had hitherto mostly spiked gay stories in their sections, notably the Gay Games.
“Forget O.J. Forget Darryl Strawberry. Forget John Rocker. Those guys merely [allegedly] murdered, abused drugs and ran their mouth,” Jonathan Davisson of ESports.com ranted. “Not to mention the many other athletes who abuse alcohol, cheat on their wives, gamble heavily and commit sexual assault.

“This player committed the worst sin in America today — being homosexual. Lemon claims that “I’m pretty confident there’d be more support from the team than he imagines” and “Most of these guys don’t have a problem with homosexuality.” He is either grossly misinformed or in denial. If this player come s out of the closet, he will suddenly be the loneliest guy in the big leagues.”

That’s probably true, but we must also remember the example of the great Jackie Robinson, who broke Major League Baseball’s colour barrier in 1946 with the Montreal Royals, Triple A team for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson led Montreal to a Little World Series title in 1946 and was a true Montreal hero — adored by Montrealers citywide — while baseball fans in other cities hurled insults, racial epithets and worse at Robinson whenever he took the field.

A gay player who publicly comes out of his closet will likely endure similar treatment, but that is how we create change. Hell, Lemon’s editorial even encouraged ESPN Sports assistant editor Bill Konigsberg to publicly come out.

“So what’s the big deal?” Konisberg rhetorically asks in a May 24 ESPN.com op-ed. “A gay sports editor is not really newsworthy. I agree. But here’s my point: being gay in sports shouldn’t be a big deal, but until someone does it publicly and shows they can do their job, do it well, and be known as gay, it simply will be a big deal. Before we can say it doesn’t matter, we have to accept the fact that it exists.

“While there is no way to compare the African-American experience with the experience of being gay, it’s similar in that both communities have had to overcome barriers. These days, it doesn’t matter what colour your third baseman’s skin is. But 50 years ago it was a different story. The barrier had to be broken to make the issue go away.”

My fave baseball story was Steve Kettman’s piece for Salon.com, entitled “Baseball Boyfriend?”.

Kettman states one of his baseball columnist friends told him, “It’s like that joke where the guy is on a deserted island with the supermodel. In this case, the guy [Brendan Lemon] is sleeping with a big-time athlete who’s goodlooking, and he is pissed because no one knows about it. He wants to be able to tell his friends who his lover is. He probably does it now, and no one believes him.”

Perhaps. Perhaps not. But as former Major League Baseball umpire Dave Pallone — railroaded out of pro baseball just because he was gay — told me this spring, you could name an All-Gay All-Star team of current baseball players in a league that now has roughly 750 players.

“It doesn’t really matter,” Kettman writes, “The point is that something has to change sooner or later. Too many sports stars live in fear of having their sex lives made public. Too many sports fans make too many ludicrous assumptions about who plays the games they love. A star ballplayer will come out — though not on a magazine’s timetable, it seems certain — and that will unleash a full-scale national media convulsion. I say: Bring it on.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself. Play ball!

Richard Burnett’s syndicated queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill can be read locally in Hour magazine and The Ottawa X Press, as well as on the web at www.hour.ca or at www.gaywired.com (click on the “scene” link and scroll down to TDB). You will also find Burnett following his favourite team, the Montreal Expos, during Expos homestands at Olympic Stadium.