My Flailing Boyhood

For bookish gay kids like me, sports were a crucible that laid bare our secret.

Lone boy standing in the outfield.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

Minor Leagues is Slate’s pop-up blog about kids’ sports.

I do not remember the moment I realized I was gay, but I do remember the moment I realized I wasn’t going to be able to hide it anymore. The boys of my sixth-grade class had been forced into the scalding north Florida sun for PE and instructed to play baseball. Our coach selected two team captains, who then chose members of their phalanx one by one. As always, I was picked last. I trudged toward the outfield and prayed that nobody hit any balls in my direction—so of course, within minutes, some kid smacked the baseball as hard as he could directly at my position. I stared at it, eyes stung by the sun, as it hurtled toward me through the air. I threw my hands up in terror but failed to block the projectile, which bonked me, hard, on the head.

The good news was that I could now plausibly allege an injury that would dismiss me from PE for the week. The bad news was that I had provided clinching evidence in the mounting case against my weakly feigned heterosexuality. I was bad at sports, which proved to my peers that I was homosexual. At this time and place, that stereotype was accepted as a law of nature. Can’t catch a baseball? Must be into dudes. Most straight adults I know, even the decidedly unathletic ones, have fond memories of youthful hours spent bonding with their beloved teammates. But for bookish gay boys like me, sports were nothing less than a crucible that laid bare the secret we’d strived so pathetically hard to obscure.

It certainly did help that I became aware of both my sexuality and my complete inability to compete in physical activities at roughly the same time. Until middle school, my experience of “physical education” was relatively benign: A middle-aged teacher would take all the boys and girls out to the playground and instruct us to run around or jump rope or whatever. I was not good at running around or jumping rope, but it didn’t matter, as no one cared; the stakes were infinitesimal, and I could get an A-plus so long as I behaved. It wasn’t until sixth grade that PE developed into something more sinister—because suddenly, the boys and girls were segregated into different groups, as though we were wee Olympic trainees.

This sex segregation marooned me from my friends, all of whom were girls, since I found my male peers frightening and mystifying. It also compounded the toxic masculinity and homophobia that were probably innate to any gaggle of male American tweens during the first term of the George W. Bush administration.* As we changed into our “gym clothes” in a cramped locker room, the boys filled the air with Axe and misogyny, crudely objectifying our female classmates like horny little psychopaths. I stood by myself in a corner, silent and aghast, as the boys slandered the girls with whom I played Mancala and made friendship bracelets during lunch.

And now we had to play actual sports every goddamn day: baseball and basketball and flag football and soccer and all variety of games whose rules all the other boys just seemed to know, but that bewildered me. I didn’t mind coming in last every time we ran “the mile” because I had only failed myself. But team sports were brutal because my teammates needed me to do things that we all knew I could not do. They had a primal urge to win these idiotic games—some of them truly had nothing else going for them—and I was an impediment to that achievement. I couldn’t simply fade into the background; my inadequacy actively thwarted their testosterone-fueled ambitions.

Eventually I adopted various methods of avoiding this ignominy. Under an explicit and binding agreement with my parents, all dentist, doctor, and orthodontist appointments were scheduled during the PE hour. A CVS wrist brace I got for a minor sprain was squirreled away in my gym bag for emergencies: I’d slip it on whenever it seemed the dread “shirts and skins” might be employed. And I discovered each coach’s conversational weak spot, coaxing out of these terse, bored men (they were all men) any material I could work with. I hit gold with my eighth-grade coach, a gruff but kindhearted older man with libertarian leanings and a jejune interest in politics. For days on end we chattered about Ross Perot in the corner of the field as my classmates played another mindless round of whatever ball.

What especially frustrated me was that I felt I was fulfilling a stereotype that I deeply wished to buck. By that point, I had more or less made peace with my sexuality, but I had decided, like so many tortured 13-year-olds before me, that I wouldn’t be that kind of gay—the wimp, the pansy, the limp-wristed mincer who betrayed his own sex. Yes, I tried to convey a stereotypically masculine presence to conceal the fact that I holed up in my room every night rewatching covertly recorded VHS tapes of Will & Grace. But I also wanted to demonstrate that if I was gay, I wasn’t a Jack; I was, at worst, a Will, neurotic but recognizable as a man.

All this gender trouble was made more irritating by the asymmetry of my plight. The tomboys and butch girls in my class might occasionally be mocked for a perceived lack of femininity, but they kicked ass in PE. Why, I wondered, did lesbians get to be great at sports, while gay boys feebly flailed about? These are both stereotypes, sure, but many lesbians I know today had distinguished sporting careers as teenagers, and most gay men still recoil at the offer of a pickup basketball game. In fact, I view any such invitation to be a heterosexist microaggression, thank you very much.

In high school, I finally freed myself from the snare of PE, quickly developing a self-confidence that could not have flourished under its daily embarrassments. These days I remain only slightly traumatized by my involuntary exposure to sports that I emphatically could not play. Every once in a while, as I walk my dog through the park, I’ll see a soccer ball roll past me; on the other side of a fence, a kid entreats me to throw it back. I ignore her, as I cannot throw anything. But those little encounters no longer have any effect on my psyche.

More importantly, the stereotype that I embody has been largely jettisoned by American culture, and rightly so. In the age of famous gay Olympians, it feels oddly quaint to discuss my adolescent tales of sporting woe in tandem with my sexual development. The two are not really related, and it seems preposterous in 2018 to assert that my sexual orientation somehow hindered my abilities on the field. I am not bad at sports because I am gay; I just had the misfortune of comporting with a dumb stereotype. If that hastened my coming out, then I am grateful for it. If it didn’t, at least I learned early that when it comes to defining your own sexuality, there’s no actual requirement that you play by everyone else’s rules.

*Correction, May 24, 2018: This piece originally mistakenly referred to the George H.W. Bush administration.