Like many, if not most, gay young men, I grew up very uncomfortable with competitive sports. I constantly felt on guard around other boys, worried that they would notice that I wasn’t quite like them. I felt this way from my very earliest days, long before I knew how to verbalize I was gay, I only knew I was different.
I grew up in a community and society that expects young men to be competitive, to show few feelings, to be great at sports, and to sexualize women. And so, even young groups of boys, four and five, learn to tease other boys for not being man enough or strong enough or masculine enough. I remember being in kindergarten when boys in my class started bragging about kissing girls in the class, when they began teasing kids for being different with words like ‘fag’ or ‘sissy’, and then school systems started expecting kids to compete in sports.
Early on, it was simple contact sports. Kickball competitions at recess. Boys who weren’t great at it were told they ‘played like a girl’ or were called names. In organized sports, all the kids would gather in a crowd and two popular kids would be elected leaders. They would take turns hand-picking people to be on their team. They would start with the most athletic and popular boys, then the less athletic boys, then the athletic or cutest girls, then the less athletic boys, the overweight kids, and the nerds would get picked last. While no one ever spoke of it, getting picked last was a public shaming incident, the one thing that no one wanted to happen. And many times in elementary school, I was the kid who was picked last. I grew up thinking that the most masculine boys, the ones picked first, were not only the best, but that they had more value than me and that I had less than them.
It didn’t take me long as a kid to realize that I didn’t enjoy contact sports, so I found ways to shy away from them. I would offer to be scorekeeper, find a reason to stay inside, or pick another activity to work on. There were a very few occasions in my adolescence when I would find a sport I was slightly good at, and when I was able to compete and do well, I would sometimes join in on the teasing of other less athletic kids, not because I didn’t like them but because I desperately wanted to fit in with the more masculine guys.
Honestly, I think most American gay kids have some of the same stories.
I was terrible at competitive sports as a kid. I didn’t like measuring myself up against others. I remember my best friend in fourth grade, the year before he became one of the popular kids and didn’t want to be friends with me anymore, I remember him standing me on the basketball court at the free throw line and telling me that I was going to stand there and shoot basketballs until I finally made a basket. And I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was 12.
As an adult, I still tend to do things on my own terms. I enjoy competition and sports, but I don’t like competing in sports. I swim on a swim team, but I choose a lower, slower lane and never compete in the competitions. I will throw a Frisbee, work out in the gym, and play light and friendly sports so long as there is safety in the competition and camaraderie among the players.
This past weekend, I went camping by myself among a group of mostly partnered gay men. There was a lot of laughter, drinks, hikes, games, and meals, and it was a fantastic to sit back and feel like one of the guys.
As part of the weekend, we had a sports competition. We divided into teams and played a game whose name I can’t remember, throwing blocks of wood at other blocks of wood to knock them over. There were penalties and victory dances. There was teasing and cajoling on either side. There was laughter, patience, relaxed spirits, even mooning the other team to tease. I took my turns, laughed a lot, had fun, and didn’t make most of the shots. During the competition, I sat back and realized that I wasn’t feeling any fear or discomfort. I was just one of the guys. And it felt amazing.
We played two rounds of the game, which lasted about four hours in total. After reaching a certain point in the game, a winning shot had to be scored by knocking down a pin in the middle of the field. In the first game, I scored the winning shot. And in the second game, I scored the winning shot again. It was a powerful victory for young adolescent Chad within me.
I sat in my tent at the evening a strange mix of content and bored and restless and exhausted and wound up. I laid back on my sleeping bag in my blue tent, listening to hooting owls and ululating roosters outside, and I pondered on manhood and adolescence and being gay and finding ourselves. I missed my sons for a moment, like I always do when they aren’t with me, and I vowed once again to raise them as best I can to feel loved and confident and powerful. And as I closed my eyes, I found myself grateful that although it took me a few decades longer, I feel, with myself, loved and confident and powerful as well.