A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion at the University of Minnesota on the topic of gay athletes. An undergraduate course, “Gay Men and Homophobia in American Culture,” taught by Professor Tom Haakenson, took an in-depth look at how gay and straight athletes perceive each other and their role in sports. For this class, he wanted to get personal, inviting local athletes to offer their perspective on what it means to be a gay man, and how we have experienced homophobia in our athletic careers.The five of us, all openly gay men, had played a range of sports throughout our lives, from softball to track, dance to rugby. We recalled what it was like to be in high school, either wanting desperately to be the popular jocks, eager to be the star, or rebelling against them, having little to no interest in physical activity, especially team sports.Some of us had tried individual sports, such as swimming or cross-country running, in high school—the type that did not threaten much physical injury. Team sports, some of us remembered, were played by attractive, popular guys, overflowing with testosterone, making up for their seeming lack of brains with a lot of brawn. In those days, we were young, unsure of ourselves.Only one of the panel members was openly gay in high school, having come out by age 16, and having been on the cheer squad. The one thing we had in common was that none of us felt fully accepted, closeted or open as we may have been about our sexuality.There may not have been outright bias toward us personally, but we carried a sense of knowing that we were different from the other guys. The homophobic jokes and jabs tossed about at random left no doubt in our minds that we would pay a severe price for being openly gay, much less wanting to play sports.Masculinity was, and still is, defined by one’s sexual orientation. Gay guys often are seen as weak and effeminate in the eyes of straight men, and certainly different. In those years of one’s life, being different was exactly what you did not want to be. Given the climate of homophobia that existed 15 years ago, being gay, particularly a gay athlete, was not an option most of us felt we had at that time.Thankfully, we grew up. Attitudes evolved. Now, we have gay softball leagues, bowling leagues, and hockey and rugby teams. We have found an outlet to be the jock, the popular athletic hero—even if it is just in our heads.Those of us on the panel explained how over the years, playing on our respective teams as openly gay men, we have been injured with broken bones, or black eyes, and how these injuries were rights of passage. We loved being “marked” as an athlete. Somehow, that black eye meant you were somebody, that you were just as good and worthy of being an athlete, and, most importantly, a competitor, as any straight guy. We had joined the brotherhood of athletes that we had felt so excluded from, membership into which seemed unattainable earlier in life.But, the students wanted to know if, despite these outcomes, the climate of acceptance really has changed significantly in the past 15 years.One can see gay men in the media all the time now. Being gay is something of a novelty in popular culture. But with that novelty came a bonus: acceptance—at least to some degree.However, these changes have not been fully integrated into the male sporting world, professional or otherwise. Some advances have been made. Certainly, 15 years ago, no gay rugby teams existed like today, and probably few University classes comprised mostly openly gay students having discussions with openly gay athletes.When will professional male athletes feel comfortable coming out to their straight teammates, coaches, and fans?Let’s hope men like those of us on the panel, and the hundreds more of you out there, are making it happen right now by playing the sports we love; competing against straight men; and winning not only a game of hockey or rugby, but also a game of equality.

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