Billy Bean's Pitch

By Michael Joseph Gross

Originally published on Advocate.com June 09 2003 11:00 PM ET

Billy Bean is having a wardrobe crisis. In three hours he’s due on the Twentieth Century Fox studio lot for an interview with Tom Arnold on the Best Damn Sports Show Period. Bean will be talking about his new book, Going the Other Way , a memoir of his years as a closeted major league baseball player and of his experience coming out. And although he’s hoping that Arnold will treat him with respect (“I know that he has a gay brother, so that might help”), he also knows that the audience for the Best Damn Sports Show Period is not, let’s say, batting for his team.

“It’s the straightest TV show ever,” Bean says, casting his big brown eyes around the back room of the Abbey, a West Hollywood, Calif., gay bar where we’re having lunch. It’s the kind of show, he says, where a gay baseball player could well get “kicked around, beat up, chewed up, spit out.” But maybe, he figures, they’ll be nicer to him if he wears the right shirt—“something classic and all-American, not too stylish, you know -- just plain. Kind of…not too…”

“Gay?” I offer.

“You get it,” he says. “You know where I’m coming from.”

Whether we’re comfortable admitting it or not, most of us know where Bean is coming from. This summer’s gay pride celebrations will prove it again and again. At most pride parades the marchers who get the most applause will not be the ones who end up on the evening news -- drag queens, leathermen, and twinks on nightclub floats. The biggest cheers will go up for the men and women who break stereotypes to work and play in worlds that aren’t predominantly gay: people like veterans, firefighters, cops, and jocks.

Public fascination with such characters has been a boon for Bean. “I think I’m just a regular joe,” he says. “And I feel like that’s comfortable for a lot of people.” Jim Buzinski, the founder of Outsports.com, a Web community of gay sports fans and athletes, agrees: “His story resonates because he seems like the nicest guy in the world. Why would someone have a problem with him if he came out?” Perhaps the catchiest observation of Bean’s winsomeness, however, comes from his old boss, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, who used to tease him: “Billy Bean, Billy Bean, the boy of every girl’s dream.”

Bean, now 39, became an instant media star in 1999, when he came out after retiring from 10 seasons as a player for the Detroit Tigers, the Dodgers, and the San Diego Padres. The New York Times ran a front-page feature. Diane Sawyer interviewed Bean at his home in Miami Beach, Fla., where he runs a real estate business with his partner, Efraín Veiga. More recently Bean showed up on HBO’s sports comedy Arli$$, where he played himself—and caught flak from gay activists for coaching a gay ballplayer on the show to stay in the closet. (Bean is only the second major leaguer ever to come out. The first, Glenn Burke, who played outfield for the Dodgers and Oakland A’s, died of AIDS complications in 1995. And Bean was the third athlete in an American professional team sport to come out since Dave Kopay, a National Football League all-pro, went public about his sexual orientation in 1975. All were retired at the time they came out.)

Bean’s media presence got another boost this spring with the publication of his memoir (cowritten with The Advocate’s Chris Bull). The book quickly became Amazon’s best-selling gay title, and its publisher ordered a second printing within two weeks of the book’s release.

On June 29, toward the end of his 14-city book tour, Bean will be the grand marshal of Chicago’s pride parade. “There’s going to be 375,000 people there,” he says. “It gives me goose bumps.” He can’t wait “just to run around and high-five guys and say hello and have a beer with them.”

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.’ ”

Even if we could, the obstacles to getting there are immense. The average pro baseball player’s career begins when he’s 21 and lasts about 10 years. Given that a lot of athletes are naturally more instinctive than introspective, and keeping in mind that many men -- even in professions where being out is socially acceptable -- don’t figure out that they’re gay until they’re at least 25, it’s really not surprising that no active male pro team-sports athlete has come out. Furthermore, team athletes are taught to be conformists, to view the world in a way that divides insiders from outsiders with uncommon clarity, which makes the boundary-crossing act of coming out all the more fraught with fear and anxiety. Finally, pro athletes are consumed by their careers to a degree that few outsiders can imagine.

During the afternoon we spend together, the only one of these factors that Bean mentions is the last one. When he describes this aspect of a ballplayer’s life, he raises his voice to a tone that’s almost angry. “If you had $30 million coming, don’t you think it’s fair that someone thinks about that?” he asks, letting the question hang in the air. “Athletes become consumed. You have to, to succeed. I don’t think it’s selfish of somebody to say, ‘My career is the most important thing in my life.’ ”

In the end, Billy Bean resolves his wardrobe crisis at A|X Armani Exchange, where a helpful gay salesclerk steers him toward a short-sleeved collared shirt in powder blue. Before he takes the hot seat on the Best Damn Sports Show Period, Bean changes in the bathroom at the studio, checks himself out in the mirror, and says, “This works, right?”

It works fine. If he’d worn a pink polo shirt, Billy Bean probably still would have been fine. The questions are respectful; the applause light flashes after he says, “We can’t let the perfect get in the way of the good,” and the live audience nods with approval.

Leaving the studio, Bean is kind of amazed. “Maybe we’re the ones that learned something today,” he says. What’s that? I ask. “That the image is out there,” he replies. “The idea is out there already.”

That night, at A Different Light bookstore in the heart of West Hollywood, Bean reads from his book for a crowd of about 100. Wearing the same blue shirt, but with one more button unbuttoned, he reads the story of the first time he ever heard the word “faggot,” when his Little League coach yelled at him, “Don’t run like a faggot, boy.” Many in the crowd chuckle ruefully, as Bean reads:

“What, exactly, was a faggot? How did faggots run? Clearly, it wasn’t a good thing. It was probably the worst thing imaginable. It equaled weakness and timidity, everything a budding, insecure jock wanted to avoid. We were only kids. How were we supposed to know the truth?”

We couldn’t know. Even now that we’re adults, the shame that surrounded our identity from the moment we first knew it never completely leaves. But it does fade with the incremental steps we take -- the knowledge that we can be strong, bold, happy, and yes, Christina, beautiful. For many, seeing Billy Bean come out strengthens that knowledge. And at the same time, it strengthens our connection to the rest of the world.

In Richard Greenberg’s Broadway play Take Me Out, a gay accountant named Mason Marzac, who has the clipped mannerisms and fastidious speech patterns of a lifelong loner, turns into a baseball fan when pro player Darren Lemming comes out of the closet. For the first time, Mason feels like he’s part of a community. Disoriented but exhilarated, he tells Darren, “I don’t know why I feel exalted when we win. I don’t know why I feel diminished when we lose. I don’t know why I’m saying ‘we’…! Life is so…tiny, so daily. This…you…take me out of it.”

At Chicago’s pride parade, when Billy Bean climbs into the 1965 Vanden Plas Princess Bentley open-top touring car and begins his ride up Halsted Street, he’ll be taking us out. He will show the world something new about what a gay person can be, and he will show gay people something new about what we can be in the world. It probably won’t be the most comfortable place for him. “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to being in front of people,” he says. “Definitely I would prefer to be part of the crowd.” But in that setting, if only for a day, Billy Bean will be able to wear whatever he damn well pleases.