As you may know, before I wrote books for teens, I was a sports writer and editor, first at ESPN and ESPN.com, and then at The Associated Press.
By the time I got to The Associated Press, I was already openly gay, having come out at ESPN.com in an article entitled “Sports World Still a Struggle for Gays” back in 2001. I made no effort to conceal my sexual orientation, and at the AP in New York, where I worked, it didn’t seem to be a big issue. When Esera Tuaolo came out, I got the interview. When there was an article about gays in sports, I was the point person. It was fine.
There was, however, one guy. He was a longtime sports writer, and I worked with him for three years, often just a seat or two away from him where all the sports editors sat.
I won’t name him, as it doesn’t matter. And this isn’t about shaming him. It’s about exploring my own shame.
I worked with him for more than three years, and in that time, he never said a word to me.
That included when we worked on a project together. That included when he was the supervisor and I was one of his editors. That included when I was doling out baseball stories, and he was one of the editors.
Not one word.
I actually tried to deal with this in a proactive way. When I realized that he was refusing to speak to me, I asked him if there was something I’d done. I can’t imagine there had been, as I hadn’t done anything to him that I knew about. He didn’t respond. I spoke to my supervisor about it, and she mused that perhaps it was because I was a new guy. But I watched others come in after me, and he talked to them just fine.
It didn’t take that long for me to realize what this was about.
I was an openly gay man.
Could this have been a leap? Could it be incorrect?
Was it a leap? Was it wrong?
Probably not. I am a generally likable guy. I don’t have a particularly offensive personality. I was good at my job. There wasn’t too much else it could have been.
Looking back now, I see how I reacted to it.
I tried really hard to get him to like me. I attempted to help him out more than necessary, and I made sure I was always very agreeable. I laughed at his jokes.
And on the inside, I bled. I believed, at some level, that there was something wrong with me, that this was about me.
I must have. Because I recall thinking thoughts like, “If only I was a little more masculine, maybe I could win his respect.”
In Openly Straight, I wrote about the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is about things you’ve done. Shame is about what you are. When you feel shame, you are feeling that there is something intrinsically bad about you. Shame is toxic. Nothing good comes from feeling shame about who you are. Plenty good can come from feeling guilty about bad behavior. You can change that. Wanting to change who you are to please someone else is not a good thing.
I realize now that I carried that shame. I let it inside me, and I believed it. Even though I’d been out for years and years, a part of me was still ashamed of being gay.
It’s easy to do in this culture. There are so many ways to get hurt, and so many ways to attribute the behavior of others as being about us. There’s no human being in the world, I don’t believe, who has not experienced some degree of shame about something.
I’m older now, and I’ve begun to work on my shame, and developing what Brene Brown calls “Shame resilience.” It’s so important to be able to withstand feelings of shame, and among the tactics I’m learning to use is to realize what is about me, and what is about the other person.
Today I understand. I have nothing to apologize for. I am a gay man. I can no more change that than I can change my eye color. There is nothing wrong about being a gay man. Anyone who thinks there is has their own issues that have nothing to do with me. I am a good person. I work hard to help others. I love and am loved. I am not a piece of shit, which is pretty much how I felt when I first started to come to terms with being gay. And sometimes those feelings seeped through in my adult years. Coming out is a lifelong process, and I never had any role model to show me how to do it. Now I try to be a role model for others.
I do wonder what’s up with that sports writer. What happened to him to make him develop whatever feelings he had that made it so that he would ignore a colleague for three years. I have never ignored a person I worked with for three days, so to do so for three years it must have been a lot. He’s a human being. I am no better than him; he is no better than me. We just have different stories. I admit I don’t really like him because of the way he treated me, but that doesn’t lessen the fact that he has as much a right to his story as I have to mine.
I just wonder. But I guess it’s better to wonder about what’s up with him than it is to focus on what’s wrong with me. Because there’s plenty wrong with me, but none of it has to do with my sexual orientation.