Darren Lemming’s teammates are in shock. The star player of the New York Empires has just turned the world of baseball on its ear with the sudden revelation that he’s gay. His announcement, delivered without warning at a routine press conference, forces his teammates to confront awkward questions about sexuality, masculinity and sport.
This is the premise behind Richard Greenberg’s play Take Me Out, being staged Oct 11-15 by local queer theatre troupe Raving Theatre.
“And if, incidentally, there’s any kid out there who’s struggling with his identity, I hope this sends a message that it’s okay,” Lemming, played by Chris Currie, tells the audience. “They can follow their dream, no matter what. Any young man, creed, whatever, can go out there and become a ballplayer. Or an interior decorator.”
It’s a scene viewers are unlikely to see unfold in real life.
Even in 2006 it is very rare for professional sports athletes to come out during their careers. In fact, in the realm of professional baseball, only two players, Glenn Burke and Billy Bean, are known to have come out-and even then only after they retired.
Burke, who played for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the late 1970s and is credited with inventing the high-five, became the first major league baseball player to step from the closet. His career was cut short in 1979 after Dodgers’ managers allegedly offered to spring for a luxurious honeymoon if only Burke would tie the knot to hide his homosexuality.
Burke refused, so the Dodgers traded him to the Oakland Athletics, where he was promptly made to feel unwelcome. He retired in 1980.
Two years later, his sexuality became public knowledge when an article was published in Inside Sports magazine. In his 1995 autobiography, Burke says “prejudice just won out.”
It would take 17 years for Billy Bean to follow in Burke’s footsteps. Bean, a former player for the Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres, came out in 1999.
He left baseball at the peak of his career in 1996 after the sudden death of his partner. The frustration of keeping his life and heartbreak a secret was unbearable. Since then he’s shared his experiences with others through an autobiography and public speaking engagements.
The story of a gay man coming out in professional sports was one that instantly grabbed director David Blue, a fan of playwright Richard Greenberg. “It’s just an incredibly well written piece of theatre with a naturally rich dialogue. The moment I read it I knew I had to produce the show. How many out people are there in sport? And then, when they do come out, it’s when they retire.”
Although Take Me Out focuses on sports, the story can apply to professionals in other industries, Blue notes. “This is the case for some actors such as Richard Chamberlain. Others wait until their fame has gone past. No one cares that Sulu is gay since he’s no longer manning the bridge on the Enterprise.
“Any story that can tell of people in the spotlight who come out of the closet and say, ‘I’m also gay and just like you, so get over it’ is worth telling,” says Blue.
What stops people like Burke and Bean from coming out on the field, at the height of their careers? Although the general public has accepted the presence of queer people in many sectors of society, there are obviously inroads to be made in the world of professional sports.
Blue suggests people have certain images of where gay people belong-and professional sports is not one of them. He reflects on the stress and shock that may accompany the first out player. “It’s so hard to be that first. Take someone like me: I took theatre and am a hairdresser, I used to be a dancer. I tell someone I’m gay, it’s not going to be a huge surprise.”
But professional sports such as baseball are still governed by masculine ideals that may preclude a gay element.
“Since Roman days there has always been this testosterone energy in sports and the people that it appeals to,” says Currie. “Most of these sports figures advertise very masculine things, particularly in their ads and endorsements. They get paid salaries but the money is in endorsements. If a sports guy comes out he can’t necessarily advertise the same things as ‘all American.’”
Robert Duncan, who plays Lemming’s teammate Kippy Sunderstrom and has been actively involved in sports off stage from a young age, says straight athletes may feel threatened by gay ones.
“I think that the thought of a gay male athlete being better than a hetero in those places is viewed as a threat to their heterosexuality and their level of sport.
“Society has become more accepting and more aware of gay people in professional standing,” he adds, “but whether they are ready to accept queers in the sports arena is another thing.”
Back on stage, Lemming’s decision forces the team to rethink the dynamics of the locker room. Is a routine shower just a shower or do players now have to cover up?
“In some sports as soon as you get naked with someone there’s a level of discomfort, especially as you know that he’s gay,” says Duncan. “A lot of straight men look at it as an affront to their sexuality.”
There are three shower scenes in the play, all of which feature full frontal nudity. In one scene, Sunderstrom laments a lost paradise of sorts when everyone was straight. A time when men could unabashedly snap each other with towels or pat each other on the ass without it being gay or sexual.
“Now that one of them has come out as gay they are all questioning their behaviour,” explains Blue.
“I’ve never done nudity on stage before and it makes me nervous,” Duncan confides. Still, he says, “it’s important that we are naked as it changes how we deal with each other.”
Blue feels it’s a realistic portrayal of a baseball shower scene, “although it does lack water.”