A news flash for every straight man out there: You’ve been naked in front of a gay man.
In fact you’ve been naked, over the course of your life, in front of many gay men, at least if you have more than a few years on you. And here you are — uninjured, uncorrupted, intact. The Earth still spins. The sun rises and sets.
Maybe it was in gym class, long ago. Maybe at the health club more recently. Or maybe when you played sports at the high school level, the college level, later on. Whether we gay guys are 1 in 10 or 1 in 25, it’s a matter of chance: At some point, one of us was within eyeshot when you stripped down.
And you know what? He probably wasn’t checking you out. He certainly wasn’t beaming special gay-conversion gamma rays at you. That’s why you weren’t aware of his presence and didn’t immediately go out and buy a more expensive moisturizer and a disc of Judy Garland’s greatest hits. His purpose mirrored yours. He was changing clothes and showering. It’s a locker room, for heaven’s sake. Not last call at the Rawhide.
On Sunday evening, in a story in The New York Times by John Branch and on ESPN, a college football star named Michael Sam came out. Because Sam is almost certain to be drafted, he could soon be the first openly gay active player in the National Football League — in any of the four major professional sports in the U.S.
Most reactions from the sports world were hugely positive, even inspirational.
Some were not.
“It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room,” an NFL personnel assistant, speaking anonymously, said to Sports Illustrated. I think steroids, Adderall and painkillers have already done a pretty thorough job of that, and on the evidence of his comment, they’ve addled minds in the process.
Sports Illustrated quoted an unnamed assistant coach who also brought up the fabled sanctum of Tinactin and testosterone. “There’s nothing more sensitive than the heartbeat of the locker room,” he said. “If you knowingly bring someone in there with that sexual orientation, how are the other guys going to deal with it?”
To his question, a few of my own: When did the locker room become such a delicate ecosystem? Is it inhabited by athletes or orchids? And how is it that gladiators who don’t flinch when a 300-pound mountain of flesh in shoulder pads comes roaring toward them start to quiver at the thought of a homosexual under a nearby nozzle? They may be physical giants, but at least a few of them are psychological pipsqueaks.
And they’re surprisingly blunt and paleolithic. When NFL Network’s Andrea Kremer recently brought up the possibility of an openly gay player with Jonathan Vilma, a New Orleans Saints linebacker, he said: “Imagine if he’s the guy next to me and, you know, I get dressed, naked, taking a shower, the whole nine, and it just so happens he looks at me.”
“How am I supposed to respond?” Vilma added.
Well, a squeal would be unmanly, Mace might not be enough and NFL players tend to use their firearms away from the stadium, so I’d advise him to do what countless females of our species have done with leering males through history. Step away. Move on. Dare I say woman up?
Or Vilma could use a line suggested by sports journalist Cyd Zeigler on the website Outsports.com: “I’m so telling your boyfriend you stole a peek.”
The anxiety about the locker room makes no sense in terms of the kind of chaotic setting it often is, with all sorts of people rushing through, including reporters of both sexes. It’s a workplace, really, and more bedlam than boudoir.
The anxiety depends on stereotypes of gay men as creatures of preternatural libido. (Thanks, but I lunge faster for pasta than for porn.)
And it’s illogical. “Every player knows that they are playing or have played with gay guys,” John Amaechi, a former pro basketball player who came out after his retirement, told me. It’s just that those gay guys didn’t or haven’t identified themselves. Why would doing so make them a greater threat? Wouldn’t an openly gay athlete have a special investment in proving that there’s zero to worry about?
Michael Sam proved as much at the University of Missouri, where teammates learned of his sexual orientation before their most recent season. They finished 12-2, and are publicly praising him so far. Nothing about trembling or cowering in the showers.
The person who raises that fear, Amaechi said, “is a bigot finally falling over the cliff and grasping for any straw that might keep their purchase. When every rational argument is gone, you go with that.”
Frank Bruni is a New York Times columnist.