We are all aware that gay men are stereotyped as being unathletic at birth. While straight boys pointlessly throw balls at one another, gay boys throw shade. While straight men shriek in stadiums, gay men shriek in horror outside rehab hospitals where Britney has been straight-jacketed. The problem with this terrible, emasculating myth is that it’s so very, very true for many of us. It’s true too that there is a huge sports culture in queer life now, but the community is still divided. I’ve been to more Super Bowl parties than dark rooms and always end up sitting in the corner talking about toxic masculinity while eating Cheetos and Little Debbies with plenty of other bitches.
Why, culturally, are sports so important? It really is about our primitive, lingering rites of masculinity. For old queers, it was simply true that if you did not participate in sports or just sucked at them, you were immediately suspect. This wasn’t just about after-school team sports. It was a rite of initiation that every boy went through when physical education became a required class. You didn’t have the choice not to participate, so once a day for years, you were required to demonstrate your total lack of coordination, exhibit your skinny or fat body, and endure the humiliation of being the last picked to join the team every day. Now, you could get away with this if you had some compensatory masculine role like, say, being a bad boy with a motorcycle. If, however, you were an intellectual or artsy nerd, then you were branded a sissy.
My parents tried their best to jockify me. When I was only five, they gave me a catcher’s mitt. I lined it with moss and put alabaster eggs in it. My father, a total jock, thought this was hilarious, but my mother was horrified (because, of course, mothers were blamed if their boys turned out to be pansies). She took me to a child psychologist that year and she also enrolled me in tumbling classes in a gym. Actually, I remained in gyms the rest of my life, but this is the strange thing: When I was in high school being tormented, I hid the fact that I was at the Buckhead YMCA four times a week. I figured it would be added to the reasons I was a freak.
There was stereotypically one sport I really did take to: wrestling. Yes, I had my first orgasm on top of a boy while my uncle, the wrestling coach at my private religious school, watched. I overheard him telling my parents how enthusiastic and good I was at this sport, which was very popular in the Philadelphia area. When we moved south, there were no wrestling programs, so I invited boys to try out for my own neighborhood league.
Gay men since the late ‘70s developed a brilliant escape from the stereotype of the sissy boy. Since our imaginations are so prolific, we realized that ultimately it is the image of the athlete that is important in American culture, not athleticism itself. Thus the “sport” of bodybuilding turned us all into jocks. Really, the word “jock” in gayspeak refers to body type, not actual participation in sports. Daily workouts also provided us the illusion of indestructability during the AIDS crisis. Of course, gay jocks – the dumb gay jocks — are often as critical of sissies as straight men, frequently more so. They don’t want anyone to exemplify the bit of truth behind the stereotype, because they think it will reflect poorly on them.
You really can’t be male in America and not undergo this test of masculinity. I have a memory that has posed a riddle ever since fifth grade. I was on the field during recess, playing softball. When I came up to bat, I heard the usual cruel insults, and then, somehow, I slammed the ball above everyone’s head. My teammates, were screaming and ran with me around the diamond to claim my home run and win the game. Then they picked me up and carried me to class, chanting my name. I asked my mother later that day why the boys who were always so mean to me suddenly became so kind. “Because,” she told me, “for a minute, you became what we all want you to be. If you don’t do that, your life is going to be very difficult.” I never did that in any way and the difficulty made a man out of me, bitch.
Cliff Bostock, PhD, is a former psychotherapist who now offers life coaching to people seeking creative change, especially gay men in transition to life’s second half; cliffbostock.com; firstname.lastname@example.org,