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Times Are a Changing
Strahan’s handling of ‘gay’ tag a breath of fresh air
Michael Strahan brushed aside his wife’s hints about his sexuality, but not as aggressively as he might have. — Although not openly gay, Babe Didrikson Zaharis has been an inspiration for gay professional athletes. When Jean Strahan said in divorce court last week that her husband has been living an “alternative lifestyle,” Michael Strahan’s response was low-key – but remarkable.
The Giants’ defensive end didn’t hold a hastily organized press conference to loudly proclaim his love for the ladies. He didn’t head to a trendy nightclub and pose for the paparazzi with the finest-looking women he could find.
Instead, Strahan went to a gym in the West Village, the birthplace of the gay rights movement. He went to dinner at a Meatpacking District hotspot with Ian Smith, the TV doctor Jean Strahan had suggested was his lover (Smith, who is married, says he is not gay). He told WBLS-FM that he had many friends who were gay or bisexual, and that he was cool with that.
“This is New York City,” Strahan said during a brief phone call to the station. “If you can’t accept people for being people, then you have no business being here.”
Strahan’s live-and-let-live response to his wife’s courtroom attack represents a fundamental shift in professional sports – whether he is gay or not, and he, too, says he is not, is not the issue: Is it possible that America’s locker rooms, those unrepentant bastions of homophobia, are becoming more tolerant of whatever your lifestyle happens to be?
“It is an incremental change, but it is a change,” says activist Dan Woog, the soccer coach at Staples High School in Westport, Conn., and the author of two books about gay athletes. “Unlike some athletes, Strahan seems to be comfortable with gay people.”
American culture, of course, has changed dramatically in the 37 years since the Stonewall rebellion sparked the international gay rights movement. Homosexuality is now a staple of music, films and television. It is difficult – especially during New York’s Gay Pride Weekend – to understand why the police would raid bars and bust heads simply because men were dancing together.
Those changes, however, seemed to completely bypass professional sports. No professional team sport athlete has ever come out of the closet, although several have announced their homosexuality after their careers ended. A long list of jocks – including Strahan’s teammate Jeremy Shockey – have said they would rather quit than share their locker rooms with gay athletes. Players and coaches, meanwhile, continue to rip rivals by calling them homosexual slurs.
Strahan, moreover, is no Rosa Parks. The only thing he had to do to take the high road was keep his mouth shut for a day or two. Because this courtroom feud is playing out in the offseason, there were no disruptions in the Giants’ practice schedule. Nobody really believes Strahan is gay anyway; Jean Strahan’s comments were made in the midst of a bitter break-up that began a year ago with her accusing the Giants’ star of having a mistress and being a incurable skirt chaser. She further damaged her credibility by backing away from her “alternative lifestyle” innuendo the day after she made it.
“She’s coming across as a blonde, gold-digging bimbo,” says Cyd Zeigler, an editor at Outsports.com, a Web site for gay sports fans.
Strahan’s reaction to his wife’s allegations certainly doesn’t mean homophobia has been banished from America’s ballparks. Just last week, White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, who has jokingly greeted sports writers with gay slurs for years, was fined by Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig for calling Chicago Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti a “fag.”
And as the stories that developed just this past week indicate, “alternative lifestyles” remain a prickly issue in the world of sports. Still, there are small indications that sports are finally catching up with the rest of the culture’s evolution on homosexuality.
“What’s going on in sports is similar to any gay-related argument,” Woog says. “Increasing numbers of people are fine with civil unions. But the president still just came out for a constitutional ban on gay marriage. I think what’s happening in sports mirrors what is happening in society.”
While Michael Strahan coolly shook off his wife’s accusations last week, another man halfway across the country was coming out of the closet full of fear and trepidation.
“I don’t think people on the coasts understand how difficult it is to be out in conservative parts of the country,” says Kyle Hawkins, Missouri’s head lacrosse coach. “In our current political climate, middle-of-the-road people sympathize with the people who don’t approve of gay people.”
Two years ago, a guy who identified himself as Frustrated Coach posted a cry for help on Outsports.com’s readers forum. “Frustrated Coach” said he was the head coach of a men’s team sport at a major Division I university in a conservative state, and he was seeking advice on how he should live his life.
“I am totally closeted, not married, totally gay and no one would guess,” he wrote.
Frustrated Coach said he came from a Southern Baptist family that had cut off a cousin who had come out of the closet in the 1980s. He only addressed his sexuality when his desires became too hot to control; then he’d visit gay chatrooms to find partners.
Frustrated Coach told Outsports.com readers there was one positive result of putting his sexuality on the back burner – he had devoted all his energy to his job and had built his team into a strong, nationally recognized program.
A bout with cancer forced Frustrated Coach to reflect on his life, and he didn’t like what he found.
“I saw a man who’s self-image was steadily declining because of his inability to come to grips with his sexuality,” Frustrated Coach wrote. “I saw a man who was alone, and who increasingly isolated himself from friends and family because of his fears of setting off people’s ‘gaydar.’ I saw a man whose serial one-night stands put at risk his health and career.”
Zeigler says that kind of inner turmoil is understandable: “These people’s lives are being ripped apart,” he says.
Over the course of the past two years, Frustrated Coach told friends and family about his sexual orientation; his family cut him off, but university administrators were supportive. This month he finally came out. With a rumor spreading among his players that Frustrated Coach had been seen in a gay bar, he decided to tell them the truth: Kyle Hawkins, aka Frustrated Coach, is a gay man.
When Sheryl Swoopes announced she was a lesbian last year, the fallout was overwhelmingly positive. The WNBA star received an endorsement deal from Olivia, a company that specializes in tour packages for gay women, as well as the support of sports fans of every sexual orientation.
But nobody offered Hawkins endorsement deals and no one praised his courage. Instead, many of his players expressed outrage. One offered support, but suggested it would be better if Hawkins slipped back into the closet. He fears he’ll become a target for anti-gay boosters and alumni, or a cause celebre for a fundamentalist preacher or right-wing legislator.
Missouri has offered Hawkins a new contract, but Hawkins is not sure he’ll sign it. His team will be together for a mini-camp in July, and if his sexual orientation is disruptive, he says he’ll move on.
“For me, it was more about living for me rather than living for other people,” Hawkins says. “I’m still shocked anybody gives a crap.”
Strahan leads the life most men in America would love to live: A multi-million contract, fame and the perks that come with it, and – if his wife is to be believed – plenty of women eager to satisfy his every freaky fantasy.
But AIDS prevention activist J.L. King says there are some professional athletes who live double lives – on what is called “the Down Low”; they have girlfriends or wives, they portray themselves as straight, even hypermasculine, but secretly, they have sex with other men.
Because of their high public profiles, professional athletes can’t anonymously pick up men in bathhouses, parks or on the Internet.
“But if you have the money, you can hire people to cover your tracks,” says King, the author of “On the Down Low,” a look at the closeted black men who lead double lives.
A friend told King about private parties he attended with NBA players who were on the DL. Party guests – wealthy professionals – were told to meet at a convenient location – a mall parking lot, for example – and then driven in a van to the party location. Guests were required to sign contracts that forbid them to talk about the party or other guests. “Everything was very undercover and very secretive,” he says. “And then they would go have sex with other men.”
It is a recipe for disaster, King says.
Homosexuality is an especially volatile issue for black athletes, King says, because the black community has traditionally viewed gay culture with a wary eye. Black men, especially athletes, are taught to be strong and tough. In the black community, gay culture is seen as weak and effeminate. Ministers play an important role in the black community and many church leaders believe homosexuality is an affront to God. “In the black community, you can be a lot of things,” says King, an African-American. “But you better not be a faggot.”
So men who like men pursue secret lives that don’t include condoms or other AIDS prevention techniques. Blacks make up 12% of the population but account for half of all new reported HIV infections, and experts say the leading case is gay sex. Many of those men spread the virus to wives and girlfriends.
“The NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball need to get involved with this,” King says. “They need to remind their players and their fans about the importance of HIV testing.”
Former Jets quarterback-turned-broadcaster Boomer Esiason says one reason why Strahan displayed restraint after his wife’s “alternative lifestyle” comment was because he didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. “When people make a big to-do over the fact that they are not gay, it’s insulting,” Esiason says. “Maybe he has gay friends who he doesn’t want to alienate or insult.”
But at a rugby tournament in Rockaway, Queens, last week, it seemed like one player went out of his way to alienate or insult.
The chances that the AIDS virus could be transmitted through sports are minuscule, according to at 1995 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The chances that an NFL player could transmit the AIDS virus through blood-to-blood contact is 1 in 85 million, the study said.
But sometimes facts are no match for fear.
A rugby team competing at last week’s Rockaway Rugby Sevens Tournament refused to play the Gotham Knights gay rugby team after learning that one of the Knights is HIV-positive, says Bob Johnson, president of the Rockaway Rugby Club, the tournament sponsor.
The seven-man team, called Rock B/Fire, was a makeshift squad of Rockaway Rugby club members and New York firefighters put together at the last moment to fill an open bracket, Johnson says. One of the Rock B/Fire players approached the Gotham team and asked if they could guarantee that none of their players was HIV-positive. When one of the players said he had the AIDS virus, the Rock B/Fire player decided to sit the match out. Down one player, Rock B/Fire had to forfeit.
“He was not comfortable playing a contact sport with blood injuries,” says Johnson, who said he did not know the identity of the players who sat out.
Tournament officials told the Knights they would automatically advance to the next round. Instead, the team decided to drop out, and Gotham Knights players now won’t discuss the situation. “Our club has decided to handle this matter internally and in consultation with our local rugby union,” Gotham official Alex Fallis said in an E-mail to the Daily News.
Zeigler has his own theory: “Maybe they were afraid they’d lose to a gay team.”
Through the years
A brief timeline of the gay issue in sports
1930s & 40s
Multi-sport star and Hall of Fame golfer Babe Didrikson Zaharias is married to a man and never officially comes out of the closet, but is known to travel with a female partner, golfer Betty Dodd, who later claims they were intimate. Some close to Zaharias deny it, but Babe has been an inspiration to gay athletes ever since her death in 1956.
Three-time Wimbledon champion Bill Tilden became more and more open about his homosexuality (at least by the standards of his era) as his career began to wane. He was arrested and convicted on two separate charges of contributing to the deliquency of a minor regarding his sexual behavior with teenage boys.
In 1981, tennis star Billie Jean King is outed in a palimony suit brought by a former lover.
In the same year, Martina Navratilova (r.) announces she too is a lesbian.
Roy Simmons, one of just three NFL players to come out of the closet after their playing days (the others are David Kopay in 1975 and Esera Tavai Tuaolo in 2002), tells Phil Donahue all in 1992. Simmons later learns he is HIV-positive.
Four-time Olympic gold medal-winner Greg Louganis comes out in 1994, serving as a spokesperson at the Gay Games in New York.
In his 1996 book “Hell-Bent,” sportswriter Skip Bayless stirs controversy by mentioning rumors that Cowboys QB Troy Aikman is gay — a few months after a Sports Illustrated piece chronicles Aikman’s search for “just the right gal.”
At the Australian Open in 1999, Martina Hingis calls openly-gay Amelie Mauresmo “half a man.”
Also in 1999, former Major League Baseball player Billy Bean tells world he is gay and later writes a book, “Going the Other Way”.
On May 21, 2002, Mets catcher Mike Piazza holds press conference to announce that he is not gay after a gossip column hints that a star player on the Mets is homosexual. “I’m not gay,” says Piazza. “The truth is that I’m heterosexual and date women and that’s it. End of story.”
On October 26, 2005, WNBA star Sheryl Swoopes announces she is a lesbian and has signed an endorsement deal with a gay travel and lifestyle company called Olivia. On Tuesday, during a messy divorce trial, the estranged wife of Giants linebacker Michael Strahan suggests that Strahan might be gay. Jean Strahan later admits she might have exaggerated her husband’s relationship with best friend and best-selling author Ian Smith.
On Thursday, outspoken White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen is fined an undisclosed amount and ordered to undergo sensitivity training after calling Chicago Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti a ‘fag’ on Tuesday night.