Welcome to a new edition of RealJock.com's "Ask Billy" column with sports and life advice from Billy Bean, former professional athlete and author of "Going the Other Way: Lessons from a Life In and Out of Major League Baseball." Do you have a question for Billy? Send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I was a swimmer for the University of Texas during the early 1980s. I was world ranked and the premier swimmer on the team in my stroke. There were some unfortunate circumstances that caused me to be outed both to my team and then nationally. At that time there was no one that I could talk to on how to deal with the reaction of my teammates, coaches, and the national perception. In 1983 I ended up dropping out under the stress, a decision that I have regretted my entire life.
What advice would you give to young athletes on how to deal with either coming out to teammates or how to handle being outed? Are there any organizations or resources that could offer support to professional or collegiate athletes on how to deal with discrimination or ridicule? If not, perhaps this is a topic that could warrant further discussion. My wish is for any athlete who is faced with a coming out situation, that there be a support system to call on to help ideal with the emotional fallout and stress management for any negative reactions.
It was a terrible feeling to be completely alone, trying to handle the stress of competing at a world-class level coupled with the loss of support of your fellow athletes, coaches, family, and friends.
Your story is a difficult one, and I'm very sorry you went through such a difficult time right when you were reaching the peak of your swimming talent. You and I have something in common, in that we held a secret during a different era than the one we currently live in. I had nightmares when I was a player, wondering what would happen if my teammates found out I was living with a man. I can only imagine how hard that time was for you as well.
It's still tremendously difficult for a collegiate athlete to compete if they have decided to come out, but there are so many more options now than there were for our generation, and we need to build off of those to make more and more athletes feel safe and confident to be the best they can be. As an athlete, I felt defined by my dreams and accomplishments on the baseball diamond, not by my sexuality, so I ignored it. I never considered coming forward or even dealing with the truth until I was in my late twenties, partly because I had never explored it or acted upon it. After my story became public, and then especially after my book was released in 2003, I began to be approached by many young athletes, and the stories and emotions I listened to were shockingly similar for almost everyone.
I have always tried to share my feelings about coming out (timing and priorities), instead of telling anyone what to do. This experience is unique and personal for each and everyone. At times I know there is tremendous pressure in our community to come forward and live openly, but athletes participating in team sports have a huge decision to make that affects not only them, but their teammates and the environment in which they compete. There is nothing like a hostile sports arena or stadium full of fans just waiting to pounce on any tidbit of personal information about the visiting athletes to make you postpone coming out to the world.
My life changed immediately for the better when I came out, but unfortunately, I had already quit playing baseball because I just never believed that being a Major League Baseball player and being gay could co-exist. Like you, that is a decision that I will regret for the rest of my life. I hope someday that it will be different, but until then, we definitely need to keep demanding environments that are fair for everyone.
The Human Rights Campaign is a great organization for someone looking to learn about our civil rights from state to state, and web sites such as RealJock.com and Outsports.com will help athletes who happen to be gay find a common ground of interest and support. I met many wonderful athletes last summer as an Ambassador at the Federation of Gay Games in Chicago. Thousands of athletes came from all over the world to compete, and it was amazing.
These are a few things that I know will help gay athletes who are seeking to find a connection. Things I never knew about when I was still playing baseball. Sometimes progress is slow, but I remain optimistic and hopeful that someday no athlete will have to hide their truth ever again.
I wish you well, and I appreciate you sharing your story.
Resources for Gay Athletes
Are you an athlete considering coming out? Check out these web resources to find the help and support you need to take the leap:
- RealJock.com Forums: Share your story and connect with other gay athletes in RealJock.com forums.
- Human Rights Campaign: The largest LGBT-rights organization in the world, offers a wealth of information on your individual rights.
- Lambda Legal: Lambda offers excellent legal help for LGBT people facing discrimination.
- Federation of Gay Games: The original international, multisport athletic event attracts tens of thousands of LGBT athletes. The next Gay Games take place in Cologne in 2010. It's a great place to meet other LGBT athletes.
- GLISA: An acronym that stands for Gay and Lesbian International Sport Association, GLISA is parent to the World Outgames, which competes with the Gay Games. Like the Gay Games, the Outgames attracts tens of thousands of athletes and offers a great way to meet other LGBT athletes. The next Outgames take place in Copenhagen in 2009.
- Outsports.com: This gay sports web site offers coming out stories and forums where you can meet other gay athletes.
- Gay and Lesbian Athletics Foundation: A non-profit dedicated to the acceptance and visibility of LGBT athletes in the professional, amateur, and recreational athletics communities.
- Gay and Lesbian Athletes Association: A non-profit dedicated to helping eliminate homophobia in sports.