Tackling football's closet

In his first gay-press interview, former Minnesota Viking Esera Tuaolo gives an insider’s view of sports homophobia from the locker room to the Super Bowl and talks for the first time about his partner and their children

BY Advocate.com Editors

November 12 2002 1:00 AM ET

NOTE: The following is a condensed version of the
introduction to
The Advocate’s
coming-out interview with Esera Tuaolo, followed by
outtakes from that interview that were not
published in the print edition of the magazine.
The coming-out Q&A itself is available only in the
print edition of
The Advocate.

It’s
National Coming Out Day, and Esera Tuaolo is wearing his
Atlanta Falcons football jersey, singing the national
anthem in full voice. He has everyone in the Los
Angeles photo studio mesmerized: Here is a man who
spent nine years as a leading tackle in the National
Football League -- a man who’s now only the
third NFL player to come out as gay -- powering
through “The Star-Spangled Banner” with a
passion that could coax the patriot out of even the
most jaded citizen of the queer nation.

A round of
applause erupts from the publicists, photo assistants, and
editors in the room at the end of Tuaolo’s unexpected
song. His performance has crystallized the many facets
of his life into one gem of a moment. Anyone
who’s met Ezra, as friends call him, knows that
there’s no contradiction between his crushing
opponents for the Green Bay Packers and the Minnesota
Vikings and his crooning romantic messages into the
answering machine of his life partner, Mitchell Wherley,
back home in Minneapolis. He’s just himself,
the man he always knew he’d be when he was
growing up in Hawaii, the youngest of eight children in a
family of Samoan and French heritage.

After Tuaolo
retired 2 1/2 years ago, he and Wherley adopted twin
infants, settled into family life in Minneapolis, and
started talking about when Tuaolo would come out. Two
years later he sits down for his first interview with
the gay press, at the home of a friend in the
Hollywood hills.

The following are
selected outtakes from that interview:

You never talked to anyone about being gay when you
were a teenager. What scared you about it?

I think it was the religion, growing up in the
church.

What faith?
Nondenominational.

But Christian?
Yeah, Christian. So growing up, it was preached
that it was a negative thing and that it was a curse.
So listening to all that stuff, I really got very
fearful.

But since college, even though you were in the
closet in the NFL, you’ve been able to tell a few
people that you’re gay.

Yeah, my close friends. And the people that I do
tell have been wonderful. [They say,] “You
think I’m going to lose a friend over this?
Why? You’re like my brother and I love you.
I’m going to forget about all the things
you’ve done for me?” Stuff like that. They
love me for the person that I am, and that
didn’t change a bit when I told them that I was
gay. And that’s a wonderful feeling.

But while you were in the NFL, you must have spent
a lot of time out there just on your own. When you were
at an away game, staying at some out-of-town
place, did you sneak off to the local gay bar?

No, we never really had time to. Every team that
I played on, we’d always go the day before.
We’d get there in the afternoon in just enough time
to go out to dinner and come back and have [team]
meetings and stuff like that.

You’ve said that you always tried to keep your
head down in the NFL, stay out of the limelight.

I was always an Indian, never a chief, you
know?

It’s hard to be a chief when you’re a
defensive tackle.

And because of the fear and anxiety, I really
did just enough not to get too noticed. I would do
media, but I wouldn’t do a lot of it. I was just
so afraid that I would be outed. I would rush into the
locker room, get ready, and leave, so I
wouldn’t get interviewed or have to deal with any
of that. Because I was just so afraid of— [mimes
fanfare, then laughs
]. I mean, full spread, front
cover.

And now you’re on the cover of The Advocate. At
the same time, over in the November issue of
Playboy, Rams running back Marshall Faulk says,
“I’d have nothing against anybody if they
were gay, but really, I don’t want to know.
I don’t want to know what so-and-so did with his
wife last night, so why would I want to know if
he’s smoking the pole?” But really,
is it possible to be in a locker room and not hear what
the guys are doing with the girls? I mean, there
is locker room talk --

About women? Yeah!

So isn’t it a little disingenuous for a football
player to say he doesn’t want to hear about
people’s sex lives in the locker room when
you hear about it all the time?

Yeah, but this is totally different.
[Laughs] It’s funny that he said that.

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