Sports Complex: Talk of the Times

by Jim Provenzano

(from a San Francisco Public Library event in 1999)

The packed audience could not have been more pleased to hear the experiences of four well-known names in sports tell their tales of being in and out of the locker room closet.

After a brief reception in the San Francisco Public Library's lower floor, the audience enjoyed a segment from Tracey Ullman's comedy show that featured Julie Cavner as her golf pro domestic partner.

Then, introduced by the library's event producer Robert Giannasca, acclaimed New York Times "Back Talk" columnist, author, and TV commentator Robert Lipsyte and four panelists took to the stage of Koret Auditorium for "Gays and Lesbians in Sports," the first Times Talk in the Bay Area.

Fox Sports television journalist, NPR radio commentator, and former long distance swimmer Diana Nyad; former pro football player David Kopay; former San Diego Padres baseball player Billy Bean; and Oakland's own Helen Carroll, athletic director at Mills College; each spoke about aspects of their personal lives as lesbian and gay professionals in the world of athletics.

Lipsyte called the evening, "an enormously important event that goes far beyond competitive games or sexual orientation. We cherish sports for offering health and entertainment, but it has also been given a dangerous power in defining masculinity and femininity, the values and sensibilities of courage and victory. It starts in childhood, when we are most vulnerable, when our only identities are the worthiness of our bodies."

Noting the gay progress made in the past decides, Lipsyte included his own publication, known for an insidious editorial bias against gays until only a few years ago. "When David Kopay's wonderful book came out, not only didn't we review it," he said, but then-sports columnist Dave Anderson gave Kopay's book a cursory mention, and was promptly censored.

Level of dedication

Called "a creature of Bullfinch's mythology," by Lipsyte, Nyad once circumnavigated Manhattan Island, and broke speed and length records, from Bimini to Florida, still the longest record.

"In the world of sports, men and women have very different issues," said Nyad in her talk. "You don't have to be gay, if you're a woman, to know that really being able to succeed is full of barriers."

"Sports became the venue where I could be proud of myself," Nyad said of her teen years as an overachieving, self-aware baby dyke. She told of her dysfunctional family, and a very amusing tale of dressing in butch drag in her bedroom while practicing cruising a femme doll to the tune of her Roy Orbison records.

Sharing her newfound surprise in finding "someone I could trust who could mentor me," in the form of her first swimming coach, Nyad stunned the audience to silence and tears as she haltingly recounted her rape at the hands of her once beloved coach.

"When you abuse that privilege and take the trust away from a child, it's a lifetime of struggle to straighten it all out."

Nyad explained how afterward, she became determined to succeed and not let the harrowing experience stop her desire to excel. Immediately after that day, she went to the pool and swam. "There is a level of dedication that no coach or parent can put on a kid. It comes from inside. To be a female athlete in this society is one of few places where we can be all we can be."

Hope and glory

David Kopay, the veteran of both the Washington Redskins and San Francisco 49ers, briefly recapped his now-famous story of being the first – and still only – former pro football player to come out. Lipsyte praised Kopay's nine-year career, "considerably longer than the average player," and his "courage in standing up, in blocking for so many people in our society, which is matched only by his strength and steadfastness."

"Coming home in a way, to San Francisco, has many meanings for me," said Kopay, a former 49er free agent. "The fact that I was queer motivated me further," he said of his rookie days. "If I'd had a sprained ankle, I would have been history." He excelled early, coming to be known as "Psyche – not Psych, or Psycho – a rompin' stompin' driven athlete."

Due to his successes in business with his company, Linoleum City, being contracted for many TV shows, including the Oscars, he admitted spending more time these days admiring nice floors trod upon by celebrities.

"The biggest fag-haters are the ones who are confused about their sexuality," he said of even his own early closeted days. Years later, his astounding interview in the Washington Star led to his moving to San Francisco, where he'd "hoped to move in with Armistead Maupin as my neighbor. Doesn't everybody do that?"

Kopay recounted the controversy of his former teammate Bob Sinclair's bid for supervisor – against Harvey Milk. Following Kopay's endorsement of Sinclair, "all hell broke loose."

Even after David Goodstein, then-publisher of the Advocate, refused to endorse Milk, they later threw a party honoring him. Kopay recounted his talk with Milk after he won the election. "Harvey put his arm around me and said, 'Dave, we're the two biggest queens in town, and they still need our asses!'"

"Harvey always spoke about hope," Kopay said, recounting his fans over the years whose lives were changed by his book. A reprint next year from Alyson is eagerly anticipated, bringing hope to a new generation of queer football fans.

Great day

On another local level, from across the bay, Mills College Athletic Director Helen Carroll offered hope from an administrative perspective.

"It's a great day to be a lesbian in sports," Carroll proclaimed in a charming Southern drawl, a saying she repeats before many groups. "If we didn't have lesbians in sport for women, we wouldn't have sport for women."

Carroll represents the progressive attitudes and policies that, she stressed, should be dealt with from the first day of practice; the mention of tolerance and an acceptance of diversity on any team.

"Everybody's thinking, 'Okay who's gay? Who's dating?'" she chided of women's basketball teams. But the point of allowing that "breathing room," still considered radical by most sports administrators, thrives very clearly in Oakland.

Lipsyte called her a "21st century role model." He shared how homophobia in sports can be as bad a problem for straight women in sports as it is for lesbians, and how her programs and sensitivity talks have made great advances.

The proud Rutherford, Tennessee high jump record holder and basketball player and assistant coach to "every sport there was to coach," Carroll was happy to be among her "esteemed colleagues. We really need validation and acknowledgment for the role models and sport heroes that we are able to have in the lesbian and gay worlds," she said. "The more it happens for them, the more it'll happen for other people."

"We can do it together," Carroll said of the support women of all kinds have given, stressing that, "If we cannot figure out how to do it together, we cannot combat sexism in sport."

She told of her awkward job interview at Mills, trying to dress femme and pass, and how being asked how she would treat lesbian athletes led her to relax, open up, and get a great job, one she's held for over a decade. She mentioned the fact that although the NCAA has added "sexual orientation" to its non-discriminatory list, "we still have a long way to go. The hardest thing is how to teach coaches. We are never taught to delve into these topics."

"It's time for the sports world to wake up," she said. "We're not going away. You're gonna hear from more of us, more junior high and college students who do become pro athletes and will find the courage to speak."

Budd-ing talent

In a dashing black suit with an iridescent lavender shirt and tie, the dapper Billy Bean expanded on the foundations laid by Kopay while exemplifying a former athlete who will benefit from coming out. Bean recently opened a successful Miami restaurant, Mayya, with his partner.

Calling him "Billy Budd," Lipsyte said he'd often reply, when repeatedly asked by others what the former baseball player is "really like," that he "would be perfectly happy if he married my son or daughter."

In subsequent articles following Bean's celebrated coming out, his former team members claimed that they would be happy to have him back on the field with them. "He joins Greg, Martina, Billy Jean, all these one-name people," as furthering the torch carried by Kopay, Lipsyte said.

Bean retold his story of being in San Francisco touring with the Padres, and how he couldn't find the bravery to even stroll the Castro District. "I was afraid my parents would be standing on the corner." His trip to the Castro last week was much more relaxing.

"The coaches truly are gods of knowledge," he said. The former high school varsity quarterback recounted the desperate need "to be perfect with touchdowns, home runs. The part of translating that message that kids can do this, it's not gonna be public overnight, we need to give them a foundation to understand: you're not different. This is just a part of you. Then they can go jump in the pool with the rest of the world."

Bean showed wonderment that his own story would be so fascinating, since his perspective on sports was somewhat idealistic. "The beauty of sports is that you cannot purchase it. You're not born into it. You earn it."

Bean reiterated Nyad and Kopay's experience of being gay as a cause for their desire to achieve, to prove something. "I thought I had to be the best player just to move ahead," he recalled. "I don't know if being homosexual was the cause, but it definitely shaped my life."

Bean noted how he was surprised at how the public attention flooded his life after four years of relatively open gayness yet obscurity in Miami. His most nerve-wracking experience was the reaction of his former teammates following the media exposure.

"The warmth and enthusiasm made me want to embrace the opportunity, but what have I done? Why should this fact about my private life be so important to everyone else?" The connection, of course, he said, was in "making it easier for the people down the road."

He told of his regret in leaving baseball, how finding even one other gay pro athlete to talk to would have helped him continue a career in baseball.

Bean also announced that Nyad, who had hosted a feature on Fox television about him, would pen his forthcoming biography. Nyad also has written books about other athletes.

"For me the coming out process is not about sexuality," Bean said, "but understanding yourself. It's a lesson. Coming out is the first day of a journey, the decisions we make out of fear of telling the truth."

The audience questions ranged from insistent queries about Title IX and its detriment to men's sports known to be popular with gays – wrestling, gymnastics, and diving.

Another audience member asked about the comparison between sports and war.

Nyad thought not. Lipsyte disagreed, saying that sports in many cultures prepares men for combat, calling up the well-worn phrase, "All great wars are planned on the playing fields of Eaton."

From the back of the house, former Hill Street Blues star Betty Thomas asked "What would happen if a pro team player did come out while on a team?"

The acclaimed Brady Bunch movie director is still in development with a supposed "gay baseball comedy." Watching her schmooze with Bean offered some hope that his life story, Kopay's, The Front Runner, The Dreyfus Affair, or any real lesbian or gay story, would be more worthy.

Sponsored by the James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center, the Friends and Foundation of the San Francisco Public Library, and the New York Times, event coordinator Giannasca was ebulliently proud of the event's success as the panelists signed posters, books, and baseballs.

Future panels will include discussions of the gay victims and survivors of the Nazi holocaust. For more information, visit the Web site,