Billy Bean's Pitch

Four years after coming out the ex–major leaguer faces a quandary: Should he now push other pro athletes to do the same?

BY Michael Joseph Gross

June 10 2003 12:00 AM ET

His enthusiasm is infectious, if a little goofy. On the one hand, his Iron John envisioning of Chicago’s pride celebration almost makes you want to go out and hoist a beer in the city of big shoulders. On the other, it makes you wonder, what’s the force behind those high fives? What’s the root of Bean’s appeal?

Some would argue, not without reason, that admiring jocks such as Billy Bean signals some discomfort with the essential queerness of gay life. But maybe we also fetishize characters like him because they symbolize possibility. Having a professional ballplayer as grand marshal of a pride parade is a way of showing the world -- and reassuring ourselves -- that there’s no contradiction between being gay and being a man.

Remember the first time you heard the word “faggot”? Practically every gay man alive today grew up in a culture that equated gayness with weakness. In the past 30 years, people like Bean have helped change that. The fact that they have come out has broadened popular understanding of what it means to be gay. And today, with increasing numbers of gay men and women in most professions living openly, professional team sports may be the only job category in America -- aside from the military -- where the closet remains sealed.

That’s disappointing to many gay sports fans. “It’s hard to see pride in someone who denies a crucial part of his existence,” Buzinski says. But Bean, who calls his book “an explanation of why [pro athletes] have not been able to come out,” says the closet is an unfortunate necessity in major league baseball today.

He wants to be clear: The one thing he won’t do is tell other athletes they have to come out. “I took a lot of heat [after Arli$$] for saying that I was telling people to stay in the closet. That couldn’t be further from the truth,” he says. “But athletes need to know the truth. They need to be aware. If your livelihood was specifically contingent upon your ability to work among people who might persecute you, then it’s a fair decision to keep your life private -- in my world and from my experience. And I think if we are judging, as a gay and lesbian community, people who don’t have [the ability to come out] yet, I don’t think it’s fair.”

Asked whether he’s setting the bar impossibly high -- no one ever comes out with any guarantee that he or she won’t be persecuted for that decision -- Bean conjectures that the first active male team-sports pro to come out will be the center of a “media frenzy,” causing the player’s life to “disintegrate in chaos.” The result, he suggests, could be one massive step backward for gay rights: “All these kids in high school and college who are so proud of who they are and have gay friends and straight friends, it’s going to send such a negative message. You know what I mean?”

Then he grounds himself with an aphorism that he often invokes when the argument starts getting messy: “It’s like we’re letting perfect get in the way of good.”

Although Bean says he believes in the power of cultural symbols to advance political causes -- “Look at Christina Aguilera,” he says. “She’s done as much as anybody has. It gives me goose bumps. It makes me so excited. My little niece loves that song ‘Beautiful,’ and she has no issues with gay people now” -- he doesn’t believe that fans should expect a pro ballplayer to be our Jackie Robinson anytime soon.

Instead, he says, gay fans should push for reforms in the major leagues. For that movement, he says, “I’m ready to be the face” -- to get out front and “demand the most simple thing. To educate athletes, when they enter the minor leagues, NCAA, on basic Title 7 antiharassment [laws]. Sensitivity training. What’s the risk of implementing same-sex partner health benefits on a pro baseball contract?” (At least two pro franchises—the Cubs and the Braves, owned by Tribune Co. and AOL Time Warner respectively -- are owned by corporations that already offer these benefits and include nondiscrimination clauses in their standard contracts.) He sent a copy of his book to baseball commissioner Bud Selig and requested a meeting to discuss these matters but has received no response to date.

Historically, civil rights advance through cultural movements helmed by strong leaders, not through the kinds of legal and bureaucratic reforms that Bean advocates. He admits as much when he says, “If we never had African-American images in sports, the human rights crusade of Martin Luther King, and all those things, it would have taken so much longer. Because [pro athletes are] in our home. And we’re watching for them and we’re rooting for them.”

Is he contradicting himself? Bean says no. “I think we just need to get the dialogue out there and not limit it only to the playing field but also open up the front office, the stadium workers, the scouts, the umpires -- and then, soon, the baseball players,” he says. “In my mind there’s really nothing else we can do. It’s not like we can tap [someone] on the shoulder and say, ‘Get ready; it’s time to take that step.’ ”

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