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Changing perceptions

MONTREAL (CUP) – Last week, ex-Montreal Impact player David Testo came out of the closet and expressed huge relief in doing so. His family, friends, and teammates all knew about his sexual orientation. The rest of North American society was finally introduced to an openly gay professional athlete. We were ready for it.

“I’m glad he [came out], because he’s in a position where he can inspire a lot of people to do the same,” current Impact captain Nevio Pizzolitto told the Montreal Gazette. “Even though we’re professional athletes, we’re also human beings, and maybe something like this will change the minds of those in the same position.”

No male athlete in North American professional sports (the “big four:” hockey, baseball, football, and basketball) has ever come out as being gay while still playing, but that’s probably about to change. Testo’s revelation should have a ripple effect not only in his sport, but in the “big four,” too.
Between January and May of this year, 27 athletes, coaches, journalists, and executives have already come out, including American figure skater Johnny Weir and Phoenix Suns president Rick Welts.

Testo initially remained silent because of the pressures he faced while playing for various organizations.

Fearful of the backlash and scrutiny gay professional athletes may face from their teammates and once-adoring fans, many other athletes are keeping mum, too.

“It’s like you’re carrying around a secret, you know, and carrying luggage and just never being allowed to be yourself,” Testo told Radio-Canada in an interview.

It’s important to understand there are openly gay professional athletes, but they often don’t feel the need to tell you about it. Sometimes their teammates know, but the gay athlete in question feels like they can compartmentalize this for now and deal with it when their career is over.

However, it looks like both society at large and most professional athletes are ready to accept gay athletes of any stripe. Based on a 2006 Sports Illustrated study, “a sizable majority of professional athletes would welcome a gay teammate.” By sport, it ranges from 57 per cent in the NFL to 80 per cent in the NHL. A 2002 Witeck-Combs study found that 70 per cent of fans would not think negatively of their favourite athlete if he came out of the closet. These studies, although a few years old, are definitely encouraging. Those numbers would be even higher today, given the increasingly liberal nature of our society.

Homophobia isn’t cool anymore and hasn’t been for quite some time now. When Kobe Bryant, one of the most marketable players on earth, can’t get away with making an anti-gay slur, it tells you something has changed.

Even if only one superstar “big four” athlete comes out of the closet, it will set a precedent and open the floodgates for all the others. Once that takes place, we’ll see how far we’ve come. Until then, we have to ask ourselves: how can we say sports are making any discernible progress when gay men can’t even express their sexual orientation publicly?

Jackie Robinson ended racial segregation in professional baseball in 1947. Who is ready to end homophobia in the “big four?”

The effects of a star athlete coming out will be widespread. He’ll be embraced – not only by his teammates, organization, and the media, but by the larger culture. He’ll probably even land the cover of Time magazine. His team will be vilified if they even consider cutting or trading him.

A few years ago, this would have been unthinkable. Now, it’s on the verge of happening. Gay icon status was reserved for pop stars and actors, but that’s about to change. Even more fans, teammates, and organizations need to start thinking about these men as people they know, respect and trust, not as abstractions or abominations.

Myles Dolphin
The Concordian (Concordia University)

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