Natasha at the store told me that last Friday, October 11, was National Coming Out Day, so I thought I’d write something about my own experiences with someone I know coming out.
I’ve told y’all that there’s been a weird pattern in my baseball career: the catchers on the teams I’ve been on have all been gay. Yeah, hahaha – but it’s true. It’s true with Adam on the Parrots, it was true in Hickory, it was true in college…and it was even true in high school.
Our starting varsity catcher at Maryville High was named Johnny Porter. He was great at his position: he knew how to frame pitches better than any high school player I knew, and was as good as any catcher I’ve played with since at tricking umpires into thinking a ball was a strike. He was real popular with the pitchers and understood his role in calling a game. He swung a good bat, too: his average senior year was around .275, which is dang good for a catcher. None of us were surprised when he got scouted and accepted a good offer to go down to a good school in Mississippi to play college ball. He got drafted too, and might be playing in somewhere in the pros today if he hadn’t found the man of his dreams in college and decided to get a ‘real’ job and settle down.
I guess I blew the surprise reveal, but, yeah, Johnny’s gay.
He was already 6’2” and 200 pounds by the time baseball season started junior year. Brown eyes, brown hair (his haircuts always struck us as a little too trendy for a ball player…was that the first clue we got?)…and when I asked her before writing this Melanie Kate remembered that she and her friends thought he was “definitely cute”. Baseball was his only varsity sport, although, like me he was a good swimmer even if he wasn’t on the team. On the other hand, he was on the Student Council along with Shoshanah, and him and her were friends. She liked it that there was a baseball jock who cared about the school and didn’t just play sports – and I tried not to take that too personally. (Ok, I really hated it when she compared me to Johnny, but she got the idea and stopped doing it.)
So during our junior year, we started hearing rumors that Johnny was gay. All of us on the team reckoned it was just plain impossible. High schools are full of rumors, and most of them aren’t true. Besides – and I now realize how lameass it was of us to think that way – how could someone who played ball as well as Johnny be gay?
But the rumors persisted as the year wore on. Johnny didn’t say anything about them to any of us on the team, so we decided he was ignoring them and we should too. Which is what we did
One day, when we were getting dressed for practice, our starting 1st baseman, Dean Barnes, (who had a gay brother who was in college) just up and asked Johnny if he was gay.
Y’all know those situations where everyone is talking and suddenly everyone’s quiet and you can hear a pin drop? Ok, this was one of those situations.
And Johnny said:
“Yeah, I am.”
I reckon that, if my life were a movie, everyone on the team would have applauded and then slapped Johnny on the back for being gay and honest about it…and then two more of the guys would have come out. Only that’s not how things happen, at least that’s not how they happened in Southern high schools ten years ago. Don’t get the wrong idea: it’s not like we all banded together and kicked Johnny out of the locker room…but most of us needed a little time to get used to the news.
I’ll hand it to Dean: he gave us a great example as to how to react and just said “cool”. But he already knew someone gay. For most of us – and I don’t just mean me – this was the first time we found out that one of our friends was gay.
I reckon most of us thought that the gay guys in school sucked at sports and did theater and stuff like that instead. I admit I did: if you were on a varsity team, of course you weren’t gay. Ok, totally wrongass way to think, but that’s how we thought. We all knew that there were gay guys at Maryville High, but there was no way that one of us could be one of them.
Only now we knew that one of us was one of them.
We pretty much tried to act normal after we all found out…but it was hard. We had one heck of a bigass elephant in the locker room that day.
The first person I had a chance to talk to about it was Gardner when we got in my car to drive home after practice.
“I know I should say it’s cool like Dean did…but…well…I don’t know what to think.”
“Neither do I, man. Neither do I.”
“Do you think there’s something wrong with being gay?”
Gardner was a Baptist, and his parents were stricter Christians than my family was.
“I don’t know. I fuckin wish I did,” Gardner said…and he almost never used Keaton’s favorite word.
“Well,” I said, “we know Johnny’s not a bad person, that much is sure…and it’s not like he goes around acting all gayass.”
“Nope,” said Gardner. “That’s true. That’s how he fooled us.”
I finally started the car up and pulled out of the parking lot.
“Do you really think he was trying to fool us? I mean, he copped to it when Dean asked him. Maybe he was afraid to tell us before.”
“Or ashamed,” said Gardner. “You know what they say about homosexuality in church.” He paused and let me drive a ways. “And there’s another thing…”
“Well…isn’t it gonna weird you out undressing in front of Johnny now? I mean…well…do you think he’s been checking us out all this time?”
One of my rules has always been that you keep your eyes to yourself in a locker room, and I think that’s what most other guys do too. Ok, I wasn’t totally sure that all gay guys had the same rule, but I was pretty sure that Johnny – and all the other gay dudes I’ve been on teams with – played by it.
I tried explaining that to Gardner, but I didn’t get anywhere near convincing him. I dropped him off at his house and drove home. I was glad to see Meemaw’s car was in front of the house. She was exactly the person I wanted to talk to.
I got in the door and found her sitting at the kitchen table, having a piece of cake and a cup of coffee. I got myself a glass of milk and a piece of the cake and sat down with her.
“Something on your mind, HB?”
“Yeah. Big time. One of the players on the team just told all of us he was gay.”
I had no idea how Meemaw was going to react. She was solid church-goer, so I thought she might say that homosexuality was a sin. On the other hand, Meemaw is as cool as a grandmother can get, and she understands real well about how things aren’t the same now as when she was my age.
“Did he just up and tell y’all?”
I told her the story.
“That took a lot of courage. Especially to do it in front of the whole team. This is the first time you’ve had a gay friend, isn’t it?”
“Yeah. I know some gay guys at school, but you can’t say they’re friends. And they’re definitely not ball players.”
“Looks like that’s not exactly true anymore, is it?”
I laughed like I do when Meemaw’s right.
“And you’re wondering how there can be a gay baseball player? And if you should still be friends with him?”
Meemaw knows all my facial expressions.
“I am friends with Johnny. I mean…I think I am. I was… I’ve known him since little league. We were never on the same team, but our teams played each other a lot. And then we got to high school…and this is our third year being on the same team. It feels like I’ve known him forever. And, now…” I was thinking real hard here “I reckon I feel like I don’t know him at all.”
“That’s silly,” Meemaw said, getting up to get more coffee from the coffee maker. “You know him more now than you did when you got up this morning.”
She had a point.
“Do you think he knew back when we were in little league? Gardner says he’s been trying to fool us all this time.”
I realized then just how clueless I was about being gay. I mean…I knew it meant you liked guys instead of girls and that it seemed pretty gross when I thought about it (so I didn’t think about it)…but thinking about Johnny I realized there was a heck of a lot more to it than just that. Did he know in little league? Do you always know, or is it something you find out when you’re growing up? And if so, when? And how? Johnny obviously was keeping a secret from us on the team for a while…but for how long? And what did that feel like for him? Was he afraid of what we were gonna think when we did find out?
I said we had gay guys who’ve come out in school. We also had some guys – a lot of them on sports teams, I have to admit – who gave the gay guys plenty of shit, although, even in 2010 you could get into some big trouble at Maryville High for giving a gay guy too big a hard time. You still heard the word ‘faggot’ a lot, sometimes just when you were giving one of your straight buddies shit (y’all know what I mean: “hand it over, you fuckin faggot!” and shit like that), but sometimes used not at all nicely about a dude who really was gay. I don’t think I ever called one of the gay guys that, but I’ll admit I wasn’t perfect and maybe there were a few times when I acted like a dumbass jock.
On the other hand, I stood up plenty of times when those guys (or others like them) accused Turner of being gay. He got a lot of shit for sucking at sports (even if he loved them way more than most of the kids who could play them), and, yeah, got called ‘faggot’ a lot. This was mostly in middle school, though. It used to bother Turner, but he wasn’t too good at standing up for himself. That’s where I came in, and where I got into trouble for some of those fights Dad then told me it was good I’d been in. I made sure those guys laid off Turner, and, by the time we got to high school, they found other kids to pick on.
And I gotta add something to that story: Turner’s not gay. Trust me. Trust all the girlfriends he’s had…especially the really cool woman he finally had the courage to ask to marry him. (She said yes. Meemaw says they should get their acts together and set a date.)
“I reckon in a way he has been trying to fool y’all, HB. Although you said that there were rumors and other people knew?”
“Seems like it. I’ll bet you Shoshanah knew. She’s on the Student Council with him.”
“Don’t say you’ll bet, HB.”
“Oh. Sorry.” I was so preoccupied with Johnny that I forgot Meemaw’s feelings about any kind of betting…even as a figure of speech. “But I reckon I can see why he might not be sure what we’d think.” I didn’t want to say the next part, but it’s something I realized. “Jocks can be big time homophobes. If ‘homophobe’ is a word.”
“I think it is,” Meemaw said. “So bear that in mind. Are you including yourself?”
“I don’t know. I think I’m including Gardner, at least based on what he had to say today. Maybe he’ll feel different tomorrow after he’s had a chance to think about it.”
“Y’all have plenty to think about. Do you know what the other boys are thinking?”
“Dean said it was cool, but he’s got some practice, since his brother’s gay.” I realized that Johnny might have lied if anyone but Dean had asked him the question. Then I decided to mention something else that was bothering me: “I know a big part of what’s troubling Gardner is the Bible. You know how strict his parents are. He must think that there’s something bad about homosexuality.” Meemaw just sat there and let me finish my thought. “Do you think that’s right? That it’s a sin, I mean?”
One of the things I knew about my Meemaw is that she’s a good Christian. She goes to our Methodist church every Sunday and listens carefully to what Reverend (that’s what we called our pastor, Dr. Evans) said and likes to discuss the sermon with us all over Sunday dinner. She knows the Bible, and even I know that the Bible says that homosexuality is an ‘abomination’ – and, yeah, that was mixing me up.
It may be been mixing me up more than it was mixing Gardner up. He seemed pretty sure in the car that what Johnny was doing was a sin. But we go to different churches. I don’t think I ever heard our Reverend say anything against homosexuals, but one of the great things about him is that he rarely preached against things. He turns them around so he’s speaking for something. And if you thought about it in terms of for, Johnny was my friend and has been for a long time. He always seemed like a good person, and I couldn’t see how his being gay could change all that and make this dude I’ve known since I was a little kid into a bad person who was going to hell because he was gay.
I tried to explain that to Meemaw.
“What do you think?,” I asked her when I was finished.
“I’m confused too, HB. From when I was a little girl they’ve been teaching me that homosexuality is a sin, but there are so many homosexuals today, and most of them seem like good people, that it’s hard to think that they’re all bad and all going to hell for what they do in private. Besides, it’s what they do in private. It’s their business…between them and the Lord, isn’t it? So maybe it’s not for us to judge.”
I didn’t know how many gay people Meemaw knew, although she must have known some. Maryville’s may not the easiest place in the country to be gay, but I don’t think we’re as bad as some of y’all (Yankees especially) might think. Like I told y’all, we had a group of gay kids in high school, and everybody knew that Mr. Hemmett and Mr. Black who lived on the next block from us were gay, and that they’d been together for as long I could remember. Nobody ever told us not to go trick or treating to their house…and their candy tasted the same as what you got at all the other houses on our street.
“You’re right,” I finally told her, “about it being between them and Lord. And I reckon Jesus probably understands more about it than we do.”
Meemaw didn’t say anything more to that. But she looked at me like she thought I’d just said something that was true. I didn’t say anything else, either. Instead I grabbed another piece of the cake, got some more milk and went upstairs to do homework until dinner time.