University of Massachusetts guard Derrick Gordon came out as gay to his teammates in a team meeting last week and has come out publicly in an article on Outsports, making him the first men’s player to come out while active in Division I basketball.
Gordon came out to his family and then his teammates shortly after UMass lost to Tennessee in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in March. The decision came after a year of struggle that caused him to pull away from basketball and consider quitting the team, he told OutSports.
“I just didn’t want to hide anymore, in any way,” Gordon told ESPN. “I didn’t want to have to lie or sneak. I’ve been waiting and watching for the last few months, wondering when a Division I player would come out, and finally I just said, ‘Why not me?’”
Gordon’s teammates had questioned him about his sexuality and even teased him about the topic. But when he came out, Gordon’s teammates were accepting and hadn’t realized the impact their teasing had on him, Outsports’ Cyd Ziegler reported:
Last Wednesday, after coach Kellogg broke the ice with the team, Gordon stood before them and revealed that he’s gay. As he shared with them his story of isolation, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. While it had been easy for some of the young men to tease someone they thought was gay — and someone who denied it — the impact of their actions hit home when Gordon revealed the speculation was true, and that the teasing nearly drove him from the team.
“It was powerful for these players to see one of their brothers be so vulnerable,” said Davis, who said he had to turn away from the group in the room lest they see him get emotional. “These are some inner-city kids, some rough, tough kids who Derrick wants to be friends with. They understand who he is a little bit better now.”
The team responded well. Some of them lamented that Gordon had pulled away from them. It wasn’t their intent: The teasing had hit home in a way that landed wrong with him. In the locker room, guys tease one another for everything from penis size to haircut. Even your mama is fair game. They didn’t know how to talk with Gordon about their assumption that he was gay, so they relied on locker room teasing.
The entire story is worth a read, especially because it details the isolation and disconnect gay athletes like Gordon go through when they feel they can’t reach their teammates or aren’t comfortable with coming out to them. Plenty of ink has been spilled over why those feelings of isolation make it imperative that sports continue to work to make the locker room a more open and tolerant place — and why the media needs to keep covering the coming out of athletes as significant stories. The more athletes there are like Jason Collins, Robbie Rogers, Michael Sam, and Derrick Gordon, the more comfortable other gay athletes will be with the idea that they can come out and live openly without running into a world of intolerance.
But I wanted to highlight the above section because I think it brings to light another important aspect of this story and others like it: Gordon’s teammates weren’t necessarily teasing him from a place of homophobia, it doesn’t seem, but because they weren’t sure how to talk to him about it. They had no idea that their teasing, which as Ziegler notes is a basic mode of communication in any locker room, wasn’t showing Gordon that he was accepted no matter what but was instead pushing him farther away.
We’ve already seen how the presence of openly gay players like Jason Collins can change the way NBA players talk about gay athletes and issues of sexuality. Kobe Bryant, who once uttered a gay slur on the court, is now supportive of openly gay athletes and chides social media users for similar language. Roy Hibbert immediately apologized both publicly and to Collins after using “no homo” during a press conference.
The presence of athletes like Collins is making straight athletes more aware of their words and actions around gay athletes. But stories like Gordon’s should drive home the point that we don’t need to wait for openly gay athletes or teammates to figure out how to make locker rooms and sports teams more open to them before we know they are there. Gay athletes already exist in many of these locker rooms, and many of the aspects of accepted locker room culture that seem otherwise harmless may only be adding to their already-existing fears of intolerance. Educating players about how to approach teammates they think might be gay in a constructive way, or to at least acknowledge the possibility that one of their teammates might be gay, will make locker rooms a place where gay athletes feel comfortable and don’t spend as much time — if any — in the state of isolation and despair in which Gordon found himself.