Here’s a story that is very close to my heart: MIT junior Sean Karson, the co-captain of the school’s baseball team, came out to his coaches and teammates last week.
The response? Overwhelmingly positive. “It was so supportive, it was ridiculous,” he said.
Karson, who has his own website, is living the life I wanted to live, twenty-some years ago. I’m thrilled for him. And because I’m a selfish person, also maybe a touch mournful for my younger self.
In 11th grade, I was a reasonably good pitcher for my high school team. In fact, the team’s other pitcher was James Balliett, who happens to be the step-brother of Blue Balliett, an amazing author of mysteries for middle grade authors whom I unknowingly sat across from at a Scholastic dinner a few months ago. But that’s another story for another time.
What’s important is that all my young life, I lived for baseball. It was my favorite thing in the world. From about the age of 9 until I was 15, I would play baseball simulation games like Strat-O-Matic on the floor of my room instead of doing homework; on fall weekends, I’d go out with my buddies and play stickball; in the spring it was always whiffle ball or baseball; and in the summers when I went to camp, baseball was all that mattered to me.
And then, around the time I was 14 or 15, I realized I was gay.
I was devastated.
It didn’t make sense, because I was one of the guys. We made fun of gay people. They were weak sissies. And now I was one of those weak sissies. You have to understand: there were no athletic gay male role models that I knew about at the time. David Kopay (now a friend of mine) had already written his book, but you can rest assured I didn’t know anything about that back then. I thought I was the only jock in the world who was also gay.
I hid my sexuality from my baseball teammates through eleventh grade, even as some of my friends (especially my theater friends) knew. But by the time I was a senior, I just wanted to be me. I’d grown up some. I no longer thought of gay guys as sissies, but I also didn’t think they had the choice to be athletes. I knew if I came out and then tried to play baseball in the spring, there would be trouble.
So I quit the team. I blamed it on a play I wrote with friends. It was all about racism and homophobia and all sorts of teen issues, and we put it on that spring. I came out in the play. But in reality, I would have quit the team anyway. I was too scared to be me, the out gay kid, and me, the baseball player, simultaneously.
I tried again at Oberlin, my freshman year. I joined the team, and I practiced with the team, for a few weeks in the fall. But a few things got in my way. One, I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. I probably would have made the team, but I wouldn’t have played a lot. Two, there was still this niggling gay thing. I was out at Oberlin, and in the back of my head was this idea that I’d be out on a dangerous ledge with my teammates, and that scared me. I wimped out. Instead, I took a role in a production of The Normal Heart, and I never played organized baseball again.
This was not a great loss for the baseball world, but I do think it was a great loss for me. I limited myself, based on my understanding of society and the place of gay men in it. Who knows what would have happened had I chosen to be both versions of me at the same time? Maybe I wouldn’t have left Oberlin that spring in a severe depression.
So when I hear stories about the Sean Karson’s of the world, getting high-fived by teammates who fully support him, coaches who stand by him, I am overwhelmed with a feeling of happiness that is a tinge bittersweet. Because, selfishly, I wish that I could have had that experience.
And I’ll never know: was society not ready, or was it just me?