BEAN: One Pioneering Gay Athlete Thanks Another

Billy Bean is a former major league baseball player, having played six seasons for the Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres. He came out in July 1999, and is the author of "Going the Other Way: Lessons From a Life in and out of Major League Baseball."

When I heard the news two days ago that a former NBA player was planning on coming out of the closet, I felt a mixture of emotions. Part of me was the guy who is a huge NBA fan, and went to every Miami Heat home playoff game last season, wondering who it could be. The other part of me fixated on the word "former," and I realized that this athlete had probably felt many of the same emotions that I did when I was playing major league baseball.

However, when I found out the player was John Amaechi, my first thought was that he played in a completely different era -- in regard to awareness or recognition of gay and lesbian issues -- than I did.

I also remember reading about him when he was a popular member of the Orlando Magic and how he had been so active in his community, getting young kids involved in sports. Long before this news of his sexuality broke, John was acknowledged for his kindness, generosity and grace.

I quit playing baseball in 1996, after playing a whole season pretending that my partner's death from AIDS-related causes didn't happen. That's what happens when you live in the closet. You start to believe your own lies.

My own family did not even know the person I spent three years with during my playing days with the San Diego Padres. So it was easy -- at the time anyway -- to pretend it never happened, and just go to the park each day.

But looking back, I remember sitting in the parking lot before each game, trying to cry away my sadness and isolation, then taking a deep breath before beginning the long walk to the clubhouse, pretending that I was, like most of my teammates, a single, straight man, hungry for success and the next beautiful woman to impress.

For the last seven years, I have lived an openly gay life. Being public has allowed many people to judge me…good and bad. Most have never even met me. However, unlike John -- or even my great friend Esera Tuaolo, a former NFL lineman who came out after he retired -- I didn't plan my coming out. I didn't have a publicist, a book deal or a TV interview lined up to help announce it.

I ran away from my life because I was heartbroken over the sudden death of my 39-year-old partner. I ran away to Miami, turned my back on baseball, broke my family's hearts by quitting, because I was afraid if they knew the "real" me I would be rejected and ostracized.

Many people accused me of staying in the closet for the money but if you look at my history, the one thing I "don't" have in common with Esera and John is the amount of money they made as exceptionally gifted athletes in the NFL and NBA. The main reason I wrote my book, "Going the Other Way: Lessons From a Life in and out of Major League Baseball," is because so many people misunderstood me and my message. My life changed during my book tour in the summer of 2003 -- I had no idea how the GLBT community would impact my life and the way I look at the world, and I now realize that I am forever indebted to its kindness and loyalty.

I don't think I would have thought about the differences between John and myself until I read an online excerpt from his book in which he said he waited until he received a large guaranteed contract from the Utah Jazz to start feeling comfortable and secure about socializing in gay circles. I never felt comfortable enough to even "say" I was gay when I was a player.

We played in different times, and I am sure that John would say that he benefited from the courage of many openly gay and lesbian people while he was playing, even if he had never met them. I finished my playing career before I even owned a computer, let alone found friends or role models on the Internet -- so important in the gay community nowadays. It was a different time, plain and simple.

We in the GLTB community, and the media, keep waiting for more famous people to come out, but in reality, it's the brave souls who have lived openly, staring down the face of prejudice and judgment for the past 20 or 30 years, and the ones who refuse to let our country's current administration take away our civil rights without a fight, who deserve our applause.

I would love to meet John and congratulate him for his decision to tell the world that he is a proud, successful gay man. I have known that there are and have been many wonderfully talented and successful gay men and women in pro sports for a long time, and I hope John's story will reach people who continue to believe this is not true. I have no doubt John's being a former NBA player will undoubtedly impact many young athletes, especially young African-Americans, in a wonderful way.

I am very happy that John's decision was not forced by someone else, or shrouded in scandal. It seems that the media is all too happy to announce the homosexuality of someone, but not in a positive way, like the sad story thrust upon us of self-proclaimed "man of God" Ted Haggard -- which seemed to be more important news than the ongoing war that our young men and women are being asked to fight.

Truthfully, about a week ago, I heard rumors that an NBA player was going to come out of the closet from some friends of mine, so today when I heard the word "former" today, it felt like more of the same instead of progress. I am sure nothing but goodwill comes from today's news, but after seven years it's hard to remain patient as I keep hoping one of my brethren will believe in humanity and come forward while they are still wearing the uniform.

That is the day I will be in the front row wearing a jersey with his name on it, standing with pride and probably tears in my eyes, rooting my heart out for my new favorite player. Hopefully, Esera and John will be right beside me.