Picked Last

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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.

Boys will be boys

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“Boys will be boys,” parents say, to excuse skinned knees, black eyes, broken windows, and bad smells.

“Boys will be boys,” school officials say, to explain absences, aggressive behavior, and drug and alcohol use.

“Boys will be boys,” wives say, to quiet doubts about late evenings at work, lipstick smudges, raised voices, and household budgets.

“Boys will be boys,” the courts say, to dismiss drug offenses, sexual assaults, and domestic violence.

And in this boy-loving culture, where boys fill the seats of court stands, elected offices, church leadership positions, and chief executive officers, the boys are excused, the bad behavior overlooked and shrugged off. Because, after all, boys couldn’t possibly help their very nature. They are driven toward aggression, sex, and conquest, and it simply can’t be avoided. In fact, boys who aren’t driven toward those things are aberrant and less valuable.

And thus, the politicians go to war over oil and debt and revenge, and millions are killed, while human atrocities are ignored, rape and famine seen as the natural consequences of male behavior. And the fathers smile at their sons, pat them on the back, tell them “I’m so proud of you.”

And this was the world in which Stu Ungar was raised in. Stu, often called “the Kid” affectionately, lived from 1953 to 1998. Stu’s father, Ido, had a wife and a child when he started his bookie business, paying off all those he needed to to keep the cops and the mafia off his back. Ido soon left his wife for one of his mistresses, Fay, a beautiful socialite who liked a lot of attention. But that’s okay for Ido, because boys will be boys.

Fay had two children, and the oldest, Stuey, had an aptitude early on for cards, realizing that a mix of skill in the game and a capability of reading people lead to victory every time. Using contacts from his father’s business, Stuey played a lot of cards and won a lot of money, shirking school to do so, because boys will be boys.

After Ido died, Fay sunk into drugs and depression, and Stuey found a new mentor in Victor Romano, a made mafia man, one who had memorized the entire dictionary during his lengthy prison sentence. Romano got Stuey involved in mafia-led card games of Pinochle, Poker, and Gin Rummy, giving him protection and women and money for as long as he kept winning for them, because boys will be boys.

And as Stuey watched men around him die and disappear in mafia hits, he racked up debts, more than he could pay off, so he ran to Las Vegas to try and make more money. Without a drivers license or a Social Security card, and having never worked for a wage, Stuey drifted from game to game, winning vast sums then losing every dollar within hours, over and over and over, for years, because boys will be boys.

And then Stuey started cheating on his wife, leaving her home with his daughter and stepson and using drugs, disappearing for weeks at a time. But he was great at poker and began winning world championships, and he was celebrated, lauded, and honored, because boys will be boys.

And when Stuey’s stepson committed suicide by hanging himself at a construction site, Stuey grieved by gambling and snorting cocaine, until his nasal cavity finally collapsed in on itself, because boys will be boys.

And when Stuey was found dead at 45, in a hotel room, from a drug overdose, everyone shrugged at the sadness, because boys will be boys.