Tuaolo, Bean: out and thriving
Brendon Ayanbadejo is a 10-year NFL veteran who last played with the Super Bowl XLVII champion Baltimore Ravens and is a staunch supporter of same-sex marriage rights. In August 2012, Maryland state delegate Emmett Burns Jr. wrote an open letter to Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti requesting Ayanbadejo cease and desist all public support of marriage equality after Ayanbadejo donated Ravens tickets to help fundraise for marriage equality in Maryland. A law allowing same-sex marriages in the state eventually passed in late 2012 and took effect Jan. 1.
Esera Tuaolo and Billy Bean are athletes who did not feel comfortable coming out during their pro careers. I had the opportunity to speak with each recently about the difficulties they faced and the progress in the arena of sports and equality.
Tuaolo, who played nine seasons as a defensive tackle for five teams, painted a disturbing picture of life for a “closeted” gay athlete during his career, which spanned 1991-99.
"As a player, I still remember days and nights in which I wanted to disappear, to be forgotten,” he wrote, “to be anonymous; days and nights in which my crippling secret made me think of turning the steering wheel when driving at 100-plus mph, or drinking myself to death; days and nights in which I had to (fake) laugh about discriminatory gay jokes coming from my coaches and teammates (which I considered my brothers) during games or in the locker rooms; days and nights in which I didn’t play to my full potential because I was afraid to be on the daily news and be recognized and outed by guys I had been with.”
Tuaolo is pleased by the progress and steps taken by professional leagues.
"The times have changed/are changing and I am very glad and pleased to know that the NFL is making efforts to dissuade sexual orientation discrimination and ensuring that players know that they will be accountable for their words and actions (like the NBA and NHL are doing),” he wrote. “I had a successful career in the NFL, (and) I wish that would have been the case when I played in the NFL back in the 90s.”
Tuaolo is focused on the future and making the world a safer place for inclusion.
"Those days are gone for me and I am excited to be doing what I am doing: talking against homophobia in sports,” he said. “So what I'm saying ... is that we need more education and a lot more support."
Others who might agree with him about the sports environment are Bean and the NBA’s John Amaechi, both of whom also came out post-career.
I had an exchange with Bean and he offered similar insight.
“You know very well, to make it to the top of professional sports, you need to be driven, focused and single-minded,” Bean, whose career spanned from 1987-95, wrote me. “Most young athletes never have a chance to cultivate their personal or social lives, and almost all have given nearly 100 percent of themselves to their sport.
“So, in my opinion, and from my own experience, once they have made it to the highest level of their sport, they have become accustomed to sacrificing many parts of their personal lives for their career. The environment among male athletes is not conducive for any type of openness about your personal life.”
Bean believes there is a difference in the reality of being a gay athlete and how those who keep quiet exist.
“I think that most professional male athletes who are living their lives in the closet see themselves as "an athlete that just happens to be gay" as opposed to a "gay athlete," which has until now kept them from coming forward,” he said.
Bean explained why he didn’t come out during his career and how he eventually decided to step forward.
“At times I may have thought about coming out when I was playing, but then the sudden death of my partner, and trying to handle that grief alone pushed me farther back into the closet,” he wrote.
“I was so angry and sad at the same time. I became confused and I started to hide my feelings from everyone. Playing stopped being fun, and I felt more alone than at any time of my life.
"During the off-season of 1996, I met someone in Miami and after a while I began to let go of the anger, and I made a quick decision to stop playing baseball and try to live my life openly. It still took me a couple years to get the courage, and it ultimately happened in an accidental way. I wish I had done it much sooner, as I quickly learned how much happier I was when I could let go of the lying it took to hide the truth from everyone in my life.”
Bean is hopeful that there will be a time when homophobia subsides.
“I think the day that people finally accept that we are either born straight or we are born gay, then the homophobia in sports, as well as the rest of our world will begin to recede,” he told me. “Most of the criticism received by the LGBT community is based on the false assumption that people "choose" to be gay or lesbian.”
“Like all forms of racism or discrimination, education helps move us in a positive direction. .. . one toward inclusion and acceptance. Athletes that happen to be gay are no different than straight athletes, they should be judged by their ability, and how they can contribute to a team. If we keep our eyes on what is important and relevant to the team's ultimate goal, then I think we can slowly move away from the desire to examine what is happening in the personal lives of athletes.”
Bean believes coming out is an individual choice.
“Coming out is such a personal decision and experience and different for each and every person,” he wrote. “Most athletes that happen to be gay know that coming out could be a distraction to their team, and I'm sure this has been part of their decision to remain private about their personal lives. Gay and lesbian athletes have had to be more disciplined than their straight teammates in order to hide their sexuality so they can realize their dreams and show their athletic talent.
“My hope is that someday people will step back and realize that for all athletes, their sexuality is a small part of who they are, and it shouldn't define a gay athlete any more than it would a straight one.”
Brendon Ayanbadejo and Esera Tuaolo are both active with HRC and The Stand Up Foundation in an effort to educate young students and athletes about the potentially tragic effects of bullying, and how it is our responsibility to take a stand against it when we see it. Tuaolo is a religion educator.