I grew up in a football family in Winnipeg — well, it was an immigrant family, so my folks had no clue about the game, but both my older brothers were fantastic players, both eventually drafted by professional teams. As a fat, brown sissy-boy, it took me a long time to get into sports in general and football in particular, but once I did, I excelled (though I only went as far as the rather scrappy junior league in Canada). The eight years I played football form a crucial part of my younger life. I still love the game.
So in honour of the Super Bowl, I thought I’d haul out this 26-year-old (!) article of mine on football (see below). It’s one of the first pieces I wrote for my “Bent Dissent” column in the ground-breaking LGBT publication Xtra.
"I don’t know if repression is ever good for you, but sometimes it can be lots of fun, twisting passion into fantastic shapes...." Revisiting my early columns can be a tricky affair. Sometimes the writing makes me cringe; sometimes I’m amazed at how well a piece holds up. This one...? Well, see what you think. One thing I remember about this piece is that it got people’s attention. I got letters. I even got a date proposal “sight unseen.”
Back in the early 1990s, when this article was published, gay voices discussing football were seldom heard; out players were even more scarce. I think David Kopay was it — a pro player who came out years after he retired. Things have changed... and they haven’t. There are a handful of out players at the NCAA level, like Jake Bain, Wyatt Pertuset and Xavier Colman, while in 2014, Michael Sam came out just prior to short stints in the NFL and CFL. And just last year, Donovan Hillary wrote a heart-breaking account of his struggles being gay while playing football for Queen's University. He quit the team and started playing with, and slowly coming out to, a new team — ironically, a junior team in Winnipeg called the Rifles. The openness of these young men of strong character marks a sea change. Of course they still had to battle prejudice, but they also got tremendous support from teammates and others.
In addition, today there are organizations like You Can Play, now headed by former pro footballer Wade Davis, which combats homophobia in sports. And on a related front: more women than ever are finding their footing in football organizations. Shout out to women like Sarah Thomas, the first to officiate an NFL playoff game, and San Francisco assistant coach Katie Sowers (who’s s also an out lesbian).
Incredible changes. Meaningful changes. And yet the number of out players is miniscule relative to the thousands playing at the college and pro levels. We still have a long way to go.
“Repression Can Be Lots of Fun”
Bent Dissent column in Xtra, November 13, 1992
Okay sports fans, here’s a quick rundown on today’s starting columnist. At age 8, he was the fattest boy in the neighbourhood. He knew he was gay when he was 12. At 13 he forgot. At age 15 he started his eight-year career in football – high school city champs, junior conference champions three years in a row, captain, defensive most valuable player, all-star, presented with Winnipeg’s prestigious high school sports award, the Harry Hood. He had a dismal season in the heterosexual leagues when...
Football occupies a very strange and paradoxical place in my life. The macho culture of football kept me in the closet longer than I otherwise might have been. But football is so macho, it’s gay. It’s dripping with homo subtext. Football provided me with a depraved, competitive, physical subculture designed exclusively for men. I don’t know if repression is ever good for you, but sometimes it can be lots of fun, twisting passion into fantastic shapes.
The terminology is ridiculous. The predictable offence penetrates deep into enemy territory with ball control, splits the defences, finds the hole, punches it through and shoves it their ass; all while the cock-tease defence fills the gap, pops the backs, stuffs the kicker, intercepts passes, drives them back and forces a turnover. Hail Mary! But I’m talking about more than just the obvious, more than bum-patting, locker-room cock-talk or showers. Ooh, the showers...
Football is a strange amalgam of role-playing, SM, drag, dance, peep show and phone sex, with World Wrestling Federation hysterics thrown in. But the Us vs Them tribalism is a smokescreen for love. The affection between teammates is as intense as the invective directed at opponents. To me, the emotions were palpable, sexual.
There was once a fight during a game (quelle surprise). Being the responsible captain, I stopped one of my players from joining in. He struggled to get at an opponent and I held on tight. I had never experienced anything like it before, all that muscle and heat thrashing about in my arms. As a linebacker, I had tackled countless people before. This was different. I have no idea why. I could feel his passion, his desire to fight, pass through me like lightning.
Football was the way I re-appropriated my own body. No longer the Pillsbury Doughboy, I gained self-esteem because my talents were recognized. Also, there was the sublime agony of hard physical training and the animalism of reflexive movement, as in dance or sex.
What motivated me then motivates me today. Why do you think I write this column? I still seek the approval, the company, the love of men. I want dates! Only now I can ask for what I want.
Macho myths are more than a game. We can’t forget that people pay a real price because the mythology is owned by confused men. Gay athletes, especially those at the top, have a lot of power if they choose to exercise it. By claiming the territory of sports, fags violate the boundaries around and within ourselves, women and countless team Thems. Men asking for affection from other men is very subversive.
...There’s the snap, and the conversion’s good. Hold it, there’s a fag on the field!