Growing up, one of the reoccurring scenes that colored my sense of self was watching football at my uncle and aunt’s home. My uncle was my father’s only brother. Both men were accomplished, competitive, smart, and reared in the manliness of the 1950s.
I remember standing in front of the large color TV in my uncle’s study, watching football, with the circle of men and my older male cousin and feeling fear and inferiority. There was raw masculine energy tinged with anger and testosterone that surrounded the men as they watched the game. They would shout at the TV, yell at the referees or players, make all kinds of thrusting gestures with their hands and continuously comment about the game. They spoke a “foreign language” that I could not make sense of, and their raw masculine energy frightened me.
I felt something less than, inferior to these men and boys who seemed to have command of their male world. I would retreat from the men and football to my cousin’s playroom off the kitchen alone. My father never followed me to see how I was doing. I was always noticed by the women in the kitchen who could peek into the room and say hello. I would try to engage my female cousins, who, steeped in their father’s household, treated me with distance. Sometimes I would sit with my grandmother and aunt, who always made me feel special, but I knew there was something ‘wrong’ with my hanging out with the women. This story repeated itself over multiple thanksgivings and holidays at my cousin’s house when I was a child. I hated going there.
I was never part of this football circle. The language of football remained a mystery to me. Either I wasn’t interested, or my father never took any effort to teach me. Or, more likely, he tried to teach me, I rebuffed him, and he gave up trying to teach me too quickly. No matter what actually occurred, to this day, football remains a mystery to me.
Starting in 3rd grade, I went to a small private boys school where after school sports were mandatory. I played after school sports because I had to. The forced competition was a source of feeling terrible about myself. I remember playing soccer after school, which I liked but was not very good at. I never really understood the rules of any team sports and was never picked by the other boys in soccer when we had to choose teams for a scrimmage. A shared memory among gay men.
An oddity of the all-boys school was that we swam in the indoor pool each week, naked. There was a perversion, as I think back on those days, to make a class of elementary school boys swim naked. Even today, I don’t understand what the purpose was in having us swim naked. I was overweight and embarrassed by my body, and being naked with a bunch of arrogant athletic boys didn’t help my self-image. As a side note, the tradition of naked swimming stopped when someone pooped in the pool during my 5th or 6th-grade year.
At recess, I remember playing with my friends Billy and Robbie by one of the large trees at the end of the sports field. We would build forts with twigs and create whole imaginary worlds. The rest of the boys would be on the other side of the ball field playing baseball or some other sport. I never joined in the baseball, nor was I ever encouraged by the other boys to play with them. I felt like an outsider to the sporty boys. It was if they didn’t really see me. I was a second class citizen among the shining example of masculinity. Even though I loved playing with Billy and Robbie, our world was looked down upon by the other boys who rarely spoke to us. I felt our play had less value or worth than the boys who played baseball.
Starting in 7th grade, I went to a different private school that was co-ed. Sports were mandatory at this school too. In 7th grade and possibly 8th grade, I had to play football. Football!! There was an assumption by the coaches that we, like every other ‘All American’ boy, understood the game of football. So the coaches never taught us the rules of the game. It was just assumed we all knew how football was played.
The quarterback would yell ‘hike,’ and I would run. I hadn’t the slightest clue of how the game was played. I prayed the ball never came my way, and when it did, of course, I would fumble it. I felt ashamed and pained by this forced experience in American masculinity. For me, it was a matter of surviving the practice or the game, and not making too many mistakes. It must have been abundantly clear to the coaches and my team members that I didn’t know what I was doing. In games against another school, I was only called in from the sidelines to play if we were winning, and then for just a minute or two at the end of the game.
As soon as I could, I stopped playing football and began to take on other roles—holding the yardage markers at a game or some different non-playing administrative position. Around this time, I started noticing other boys in the locker room as we changed clothes. There was something sexual and furtive as we changed clothes openly in the locker area, teased each other for sprouting pubic hair, and showering in the big open shower area, sometimes with the coaches. Probably what saved me from any teasing was that between 14 and 15 years old I grew to be 6′ 3″. No one ever messed with me in school, but they really didn’t have much to do with me either, except for a core group of friends. And my friends were also outsiders to the single large clique in my grade of 76 students.
Until many years later, it never occurred to me that the sports I did do had the same value as football or baseball. I was an expert skier, expert water-skier, experienced distance swimmer, knowledgable sailor, and I loved to bike. To my damaged self-image and inferior view of my own masculinity, fed by a narrow 1960’s view of what a red-blooded American boy should know and do, I didn’t see my sports as manly or of equal stature.
I was a casualty of the cultural conformity rampant in schools with no access to information, in a pre-internet era, that could have helped me. I had a terrible self-image. Even when, as a teenager, I thinned out and grew tall, I continued to see myself as a fat, uncoordinated, unathletic child. When other people said I was handsome, I knew it was factually correct, but beautiful wasn’t the person I felt inside.
When I came out to my aunt in the late 1980s, she said, ‘Dear, of course, mother (my grandmother) and I knew. I was in the theatre. I knew many homosexual men.’ And if my aunt and grandmother knew this about me, then my mother knew too. But these three women, who loved me passionately, we’re unable to step out of their cultural boundaries and help me as a child. Nor did they have the insight, skill, or language that would have had me feel better about myself or prepare me for being 14 years old and discovering my attraction to men. So I stumbled across my sexual orientation, pre-internet, with no accurate information to guide me. The women who had known about my sexual orientation long before I did were absent.
So all this takes me back to football and this past week in Provincetown. Seeing masculine, muscular bear men bring up freshly all the issues I’ve written here, but with a twist: these men are gay. I’m both attracted to these men and, at the same time, feel like the little boy unequal to the masculine men watching the football game. I look away unworthy, unequal to their testosterone-fueled masculinity. But I am no longer the afraid child watching the men in front of the TV screaming at the football game.
This past year has been one of continuously moving through my fears and finding out how good life can be. So the only way I can see through this pain of childhood is to find a way to move forward despite my fear. I don’t really know what form this moving forward will take, but I am looking forward to finding out.