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Suddenly it seems as if the Good Witch of the North has descended in her bubble to the world of sports, where one and all are heeding her call to "Come out, come out, wherever you are." Last week word spread from Kansas to Oz of two well known sports figures coming out of the closet: Boston Herald sports columnist Steve Buckley (surprise!) and figure skater Johnny Weir (well, duh!).
The revelations could not have been more different, reflecting their respective personalities and professions. As a journalist, Buckley tells the stories of sports celebrities in the spotlight. As a skater, Weir is both celebrity and spotlight; he is the story.
Buckley came out in a column in which he admittedly buried the lead; "It's no big deal," the column seemed to murmur, "just thought you should know." Weir's coming out is an ongoing multimedia event, leading up to publication of his autobiography that screams, as always, LOOK AT ME!
Their revelations also reflect their different generations, illustrating a shift of cultural perceptions over time. For Buckley, 56, being gay was something he felt he needed to hide, and which he revealed only to an intimate few. When he told his mother years ago, she urged him not to come out publicly for fear it would hurt his career. As he reports in his column last week, seven years ago she changed her mind and urged him to write about his sexuality, but died shortly thereafter right before he had planned to publish his story. For seven years he put it out of his mind. "During this same period," he wrote, "I have read sobering stories about people who came undone, killing themselves after being outed. These tragic events helped guide me to the belief that if more people are able to be honest about who they are, ultimately fewer people will feel such devastating pressure."
For Weir, 26, the closet was more of an open-air walk-in made of crystal clear ice. He showcased his flamboyance while refusing, until now, to admit to a label. He was criticized for living the life but not coming out, but the criticism only made him more adamant. "Pressure is the last thing that would make me want to 'join' a community," he told People magazine, his print medium of choice. "The massive backlash against me in the gay media and community only made me dig my 'closeted' heels in further."
Ultimately, however, he said he came out for the same reasons Buckley did.
"With people killing themselves and being scared into the closet, I hope that even just one person can gain strength from my story," Weir said.
I could not help but think of my own coming out three decades ago. In sports terms, I was in a triple whammy situation at the time: an athlete, a sports journalist, and a coach. I knew of a modest number of lesbian athletes in volleyball and basketball, but I had no gay male athlete friends, and knew of no gay sportswriters, sports editors, or coaches. And I was in perhaps the most visible position in Alaska sports, but I was no celebrity and had no desire to become one.
So I did not publish a story or go on a broadcast. I told colleagues and that was that.
Coming out was not as easy for my boyfriend at the time: a young serviceman from the south. Tired of hiding his life from his fellow soldiers, he told his superiors he was gay but wanted to stay in the service. What followed was an invasive and demeaning interrogation in which I was asked to explain the nitty-gritty details of positions and acts to the interrogators in charge of drumming him out of the service. He has never regretted coming out â€" but he loved the service dearly and never wanted to leave it.
Thirty years down the Yellow Brick Road, I think I can safely say neither Buckley nor Weir will regret their coming out. Coming out has become so politicized over the years and triggers bursts of media frenzy, the pressure to come out is nearly as great as the pressure to stay in, but ultimately it remains a personal choice: a choice for integrity, a choice for candor, a choice for freedom from repugnant restraints. It is a personal choice for empowerment taken when the timing and situation feel right.
And that, as Glenda would say, is something you have to learn for yourself.