Ratto: Many Lessons to be Learned from 'Out'

November 9, 2010, 4:29 pm
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Nov. 9, 2010


Ray Ratto

There are many lessons to be learned from Out: The Glenn Burke Story,our little companys latest production which premiers at the CastroTheatre Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m., followed by a town halldiscussion of gays in sport on Chronicle Live at 9:15.

But the one that stands front and center remains this: The progress onthe issue is incremental, so incremental that it is almost invisible.

Oh, there are moments here and there in which one can say, Now here's a step, the most of recent of which is Kye Allums, the transgender athlete playing on the George WashingtonUniversity (Division 1-A) womens basketball team. The school and teamhave welcomed him openly, even with the questions about him identifyinghimself as a man on a womens team, and of separate locker rooms causedby a Washington, D.C., law specifying gender-specific facilities.

But most of the same external pressures that crushed Glenn Burkesbaseball career are still there. Gay athletes in team sports stilldont come out until after their careers are essentially over, becauseonce they do come out, their careers ARE essentially over.

And the triumphs are lost in the massive closet in which most gayathletes remain. Gareth Thomas, the Welsh international rugby player,came out only toward the end of his storied international career, andadmitted, he could never have come out without first establishinghimself and earning respect as a player. And Graeme LeSaux, thelongtime English international soccer player, was taunted for years forbeing gay, when in fact he wasnt. Justin Fashanu, the first openly gayEnglish soccer star (he was the first black man to earn 1 million peryear) killed himself in 1998 after years of club and terrace abuse.

In America, the story is roughly the same. Active players staycloseted, and come out only after their careers are over, largelybecause the baggage is too heavy. More openly gay athletes are women,and almost all play in individual sports.

In short, the gay males in team sports keep their sexuality private asbest they can, and the dynamics by which they can function in teamsports runs in almost direction proportion to their importance to theteam.

Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was.

Since Dave Kopay, the former 49er and redskin running back, came out in1975, the advancements for gay and transgender athletes have beenoccasionally noteworthy. Martina Navratilova is probably the mostaccomplished athlete to admit her homosexuality, and is no longer muchof a story when an athlete in an individual sport declares him- orherself to be gay.

But Glenn Burke was a baseball player a quarter-century ago, and what societal gains there have been have happened mostly since then. Burke chose the hardest row to hoe ata time when America had not yet confronted its sexual and genderissues, and keeping true to himself was more difficult then than itwould be now.

Out makes a pretty clear case about the manifest cruelties of ajudgmental society. It may even provide hope to the next generation ofathletes confronted by the question of fear vs. career.

But the Glenn Burke story is only our story. There are dozens of othersthat ended much worse, and you would do well to follow Out with theBBC documentary, Inside Sport: The Last Taboo. Burkes story is partof a larger one, one that moves too slowly and has consumed too manyvictims, gay and straight, man and woman. In that context, hope anddespair walk hand in hand.

Then again, viewed in that context, maybe its better to say despairand hope. Because if anything is to be gathered from Out, it is thathope follows despair, not the other way around.