The last closet
A game plan for liberating gay pro athletes

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Vikings punter Chris Kluwe had this picture taken for the NOH8 campaign promoting marriage equality. An outspoken equality supporter, he was a high-profile opponent of the anti-gay marriage amendment on the Minnesota ballot, which went down in defeat on Nov. 6. -PHOTO: Adam Bouska/Courtesy of NOH8 Campaign

Recent sports headlines have shown a marked uptick in the number of straight athletes giving homophobes the penalty flag. That could lead an observant scout to predict that the hinges might soon come off the door of the last closet.

The last closet. This isn’t a reference to professional tennis or golf, cycling or running, gymnastics or swimming. Many out LGBT athletes have played on courts and links. They’ve raced on tracks and in pools, including groundbreakers such as transgender tennis player Renee Richards and superstars such as Grand Slam champ Martina Navratilova.

Neither is the “last closet” a reference to the women’s pro leagues, where there have been a number of out athletes, including Sheryl Swoopes, the first player to join the WNBA and a three-time MVP sometimes referred to as “the female Michael Jordan.”

The “last closet” is a reference to the barriers keeping gay men from coming out in professional team sports, the three-lettered powerhouse leagues – the NBA, NFL, MLB, NHL and MLS. The Last Closet campaign that launched earlier this fall estimates that more than 50,000 athletes have played on pro U.S. teams since the days of the Chicago White Stockings. The number who have come out publicly while still playing? Zero.

The campaign, headquartered in San Francisco, developed out of a documentary project by Woman Vision. The filmmakers were curious to know why no male player in the top five major sports leagues had come out publicly while still in the game. As they searched for answers, they found reluctance in the sports world to even discuss the question.

So, the Women Vision/The Last Closet production team launched an activist campaign to help bring a gay sports hero out of the closet and, along the way, educate against homophobia in sports. The campaign is as planned out as a sports season when contract negotiations don’t cause disruptions. Each phase of the effort “targets entities that can effect change at their unique level,” says Fawn Yacker, The Last Closet project director.

Through December, The Last Closet is urging fans to write letters to NBA commissioner David Stern, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, MLB commissioner Bud Selig, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and MLS commissioner Don Garber. All five men refused interviews for the documentary.

As WiG went to press, about 1,100 people had emailed, faxed or tweeted the commissioners to ask them to endorse the campaign, talk about homophobia, invite gay players to come out and think about creating a support system for those athletes.

“We want to have this as public record, on camera,” Yacker says.

“When leaders speak up on record, it alters the culture within the sport,” she adds. “They set the tone. Commissioners have in many cases levied fines for homophobic verbal abuse. This is a great step forward. When athletes know the consequences of their actions, it may begin to alter habitual behavior. What is needed, however, are commitments from these leaders to continue to move forward.”

In addition to encouraging fans to write, The Last Closet is encouraging elected officials to join the effort. The first result of that push was a resolution from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors asking commissioners “to take part in The Last Closet campaign.”

The next stage in the campaign, January to March 2013, involves lobbying team owners. They “have great power within their teams to effect change,” Yacker says.

The campaigners have an ally in at least one former owner and influential newspaperman. Kevin McClatchy, a prior owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates and current chairman of the McClatchy Company board, came out as gay earlier this year, saying he didn’t want to continue living a dual life at 50. He told The New York Times that homophobic remarks he heard in sports had convinced him to stay in the closet for years. “I don’t think they equate breaking the color barrier with Jackie Robinson to, ‘Hey, by the way, we’ve never had one player announce they’re gay while playing baseball.’”

From April to June, The Last Closet campaigners will focus on reaching sportswriters and broadcasters. The campaign roster already includes co-founder Jim Buzinsky, former San Francisco Chronicle sports writer Gwen Knapp, former Times columnist Robert Lipsyte, and ESPN writer LZ Granderson.

Through the summer and beyond, The Last Closet will focus on lobbying players, followed by sponsors, coaches, managers, agents, retired stars, public relations staff and front office personnel. In this push, the activists already have allies in Rick Welts, the former CEO of the Phoenix Suns who came out as gay in 2011; Patrick Burke, the president of the You Can Play project and a scout for the Philadelphia Flyers; and Howard Bragman, the world-renowned publicist who helped Swoopes, Esera Tuaolo and John Amaechi come out.

The Last Closet’s timetable ends in June 2015. Might there be an out gay athlete on a pro team by then?

“Did the Giants sweep the Tigers for the World Series,” asks Hanson Merriwhether of Detroit, a baseball enthusiast and gay rights activist. “Same answer.”

Merriwhether and a legion of other gay sports fans have been petitioning professional sports teams to make “It Gets Better” videos against anti-LGBT bullying and to host LGBT fan nights, as well as encouraging prompt penalties for athletes who make hate remarks or take anti-gay actions.

“The response, in my opinion, has really been very good. The leagues are changing,” says Merriwhether. “Of course there are homophobes playing and watching sports, but there are also racists and anti-Semites and just plain idiots. There always will be. They are everywhere. But you know, ‘It Gets Better’ applies to professional sports. I think there’s an athlete out there right now who is probably seriously thinking about coming out. I really believe that.”

Some of the progress has to do with pros coming out in their retirement to talk about the homophobia they endured as players, including football player Tuaolo, baseball player Billy Bean and umpire Dave Pallone. All three are promoting The Last Closet campaign.

Straight allies

Progress also has to do with the explosion of straight athletes who have joined the national push for LGBT equality, including Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, retired New York Ranger Sean Avery, NFL Hall of Famer Michael Irvin, NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley, NBA all-star Steve Nash, retired New York Giant Michael Strahan, Cleveland Brown Scott Fujita, former NBA star Isiah Thomas, and, perhaps most famously, Vikings punter Chris Kluwe.

Kluwe became a poster athlete for the NOH8 campaign promoting marriage equality and was a big opponent of the anti-gay marriage amendment on the Minnesota ballot, which went down to defeat on Nov. 6.

Kluwe has heard the arguments that a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is best for pro sports because openly gay men could hurt morale and threaten locker room security. Asked about that, he’s scoffed. “Isn’t that the shallowest kind of thinking: that all of a sudden if a gay comes out, he’s going to be staring at you?” he recently told The New York Times.

Kluwe says he welcomes an openly gay teammate, as does Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie Doug Martin – the new fantasy football favorite who recently told that if a teammate came out, he would “accept it and just go along with our business.”

Much has changed in sports since 1979, when outfielder Glenn Burke, who was out to teammates, retired from the show. Burke played for the Los Angeles Dodgers, where general manager Al Campanis offered to pay for a honeymoon if Burke married a woman, and for the Oakland Athletics, where manager Billy Martin often called him a “faggot.”

Earlier this year, Oakland fans honored the ballplayer, who died in 1995 of AIDS-related illness, with a plaque in the Oakland Coliseum. The Green Stampede, a group that promotes baseball, celebrates the A’s and tutors youth, hosted the event that featured lots of high-fives – the hand-slap that Burke is credited with innovating.

“Glenn Burke was 30 years too early,” says Bay Area gay rights activist and Oakland fan Freddie Parsons. “His life ended sadly, but I think a gay player who came out now would make it, would make history too. It won’t be easy, but it wasn’t easy for Jackie Robinson or Monte Irvin or even Hank Aaron six years after them. And it hasn’t been easy for gay actors or politicians or soldiers.”

Activist/fan Merriwhether says, “It’s going to take bravery, no doubt. But that’s what the best athletes are. The greatest are the bravest, the boldest. Personally, that’s why I think we’re going to see the first to come out in baseball.”

Take that as a major league challenge to the NFL, NBA, NHL and MSL.

Yacker says she wants to see an out gay athlete in each of the big leagues.

“Over 85 percent of the population considers themselves sports fans,” she says. “One athlete saying the words ‘I’m a pro athlete and I’m gay’ would make a world of difference to LGBT youth who are struggling with their self-acceptance. It would also do what Jackie Robinson did for race in pro sports – it would change perceptions of gay people.”

Vikings punter Chris Kluwe had this picture taken for the NOH8 campaign promoting marriage equality. An outspoken equality supporter, he was a high-profile opponent of the anti-gay
marriage amendment on the Minnesota ballot, which went down in defeat on Nov. 6.