Steve Almond

Homophobia plagues sports culture

Steve Buckley Steve Buckley
By Steve Almond
January 8, 2011

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WHEN I heard that longtime Boston Herald sports columnist Steve Buckley had written a piece announcing that he was gay, my first reaction was to applaud his courage.

My second reaction was to recall a strange and vivid memory.

Many years ago, I served as an intern for the sports section of my hometown newspaper. I worked the day shift, but I heard a lot of chatter about the night editor, Michelle, always accompanied by a smirk.

I assumed this was because she was the section’s only female staffer. But I learned otherwise when I stayed late to finish up a story.

There was something oddly resonant about her voice. Her shoulders seemed too broad, her jaw too square, and her hair too thin. It dawned on me only gradually that Michelle was a transsexual. The next morning, the sports editor asked, with some amusement, how I’d gotten along with Michelle.

I said fine.

He asked me if her edits had been OK.

I said they had.

Then he asked, “Did you ask her why she cut her [bleep] off?’’

I admitted that we hadn’t quite gotten around to that topic.

As I learned later, Michelle had been a sports reporter for more than a decade. She now worked a desk job on the night shift because she wanted to minimize contact with the rest of the world, in particular the world of athletes and their fans.

I thought about her after reading Buckley’s column, I suppose, because she has always struck me as a tragic product of the homophobia that plagues sports culture.

For all the public hosannas that will greet Buckley’s column, there will be dozens, if not hundreds, of private, muttered epithets.

Because the bottom line is that sports fans (and I count myself as one) are more homophobic than the population at large. In a sense, we have to be.

After all, we spend much of our lives watching the acrobatic heroics of other men — sweaty, outfitted in tight uniforms, sometimes even half-naked — and investing our sense of identity in their deeds.

This is the great unspoken truth of the modern sports industry: it’s predicated not only on allowing men to watch other men leap and grapple and pound into one another, but on making this voyeurism seem unassailably macho.

Steve Buckley claims that he delayed coming out because of family politics. My hunch is that he was also afraid he’d be viewed, deep down, as a traitor to the fragile cause of American masculinity.

My hunch is that, deep down, he was right.

Steve Almond is the author, most recently, of “Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life.’’