Chris Kluwe's Game Changer

The Los Al High grad and Minnesota Vikings punter is prying open America's last closet: major-league sports

Though the NFL wasn't ready for him, Kopay was an early revolutionary in the fight for equality in professional sports. He went on to become a board member of the Gay and Lesbian Athletics Foundation, as well as an ambassador of the Federation of Gay Games. In 1986, he revealed a relationship with a former Washington Redskins player who died—still closeted—of AIDS that year, sending a message to other gay athletes that they weren't alone.

"That was groundbreaking," says Jose Guillermo De Los Reyes-Heredia, professor of sexuality studies for the University of Houston, of Kopay's coming out. "I think he did it because, at that moment, there were a lot of gay and lesbian movements going on in New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco."

Despite Kopay's bravery, football remained an unwelcome environment for gay people. The next retired player didn't come out until 1992—17 years later. Being gay was still the greatest taboo in football, and even the whiff of a rumor could be career-ending, says Tuaolo.

Chris Kluwe
Photo by Tony Nelson/Hair and makeup by Nicole Fae
Chris Kluwe
Hate-free zone
Joe Bielawa
Hate-free zone

During his nine years with five NFL teams, Tuaolo had to completely dissociate himself from his sexuality. He regularly witnessed fistfights in the locker room over players calling one another gay, and coaches sometimes joined in the hazing. It was enough to make him contemplate suicide.

"It was part of my life," he says. "That was my career. Everyone makes sacrifices in their life. For me, I had to sacrifice part of my humanity."

By the mid-2000s, the topic of homosexuality in major-league sports became impossible to ignore. In the span of a single week in 2007, retired NBA player John Amaechi came out as gay and former Miami Heat guard Tim Hardaway came out as homophobic, bluntly saying in a radio interview he wouldn't want Amaechi on his team.

"You know, I hate gay people, so I let it be known," Hardaway said. "I don't like gay people, and I don't like to be around gay people. I am homophobic. I don't like it. It shouldn't be in the world or in the United States."

Despite Hardaway's comments and several death threats, Amaechi later announced he had "underestimated America" and had been overwhelmingly welcomed with acceptance. For fans, hearing the controversial debate played out so publicly in a single week was unprecedented, says Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of Outsports.com, a gay-friendly sports website.

"Professional sports took a jump in our culture then," Zeigler says. "They saw both sides in that one week. . . . I think ever since that moment, the progress of gay equality in sports has sped up a lot."

Today, it's generally agreed that sports culture is more accepting of homosexuality, and the evidence is in the headlines. Last year, Phoenix Suns President Rick Welts came out, and former Dallas Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin appeared on the cover of Out Magazine, opening up in an interview about his gay brother. Former Pittsburgh Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy also came out as gay this year, as did retired Seattle Seahawk Wade Davis—the fourth NFL player to come out after retirement. And teams across the professional sports gamut are releasing "It Gets Better" videos with anti-gay-bullying messages, inspired by sex columnist Dan Savage.

"I think the past year has seen a tipping point for a variety of reasons," says Woog. "Everybody was sort of waiting for an athlete to come out in one of the major sports, and what happened instead was a lot of activity on the straight-ally front."

But the major leagues are not yet rid of homophobia. Most recently, Toronto Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar was suspended for etching in Spanish what translates to "You are a faggot" in the black paint under his eye during a game.

The fact that Escobar was only suspended for three days is evidence the league isn't fully committed to eradicating the problem, argues Dave Pallone, a gay, former baseball umpire and author of Behind the Mask: My Double Life In Baseball.

"The Toronto Blue Jays should have said, 'Go home. Take the last two weeks off,'" says Pallone. "What he did was beyond the scope of ridiculous and beyond the scope of hurtful."

Even with the emergence of allies such as Kluwe, the final test has yet to come, says Pallone. "There's only one thing that will knock down that wall entirely, and that will be for a male athlete in one of the major sports to come out while he's still playing."

* * *

One month before the amendment vote, Kluwe is getting ready to wait tables at a steakhouse. It's a Monday night, and Kluwe has agreed to work at a celebrity charity dinner organized by Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway. An hour before the event begins, Kluwe is in a hidden VIP room with black-velvet curtains and a flat-screen TV, perusing his Twitter feed on his phone.

"Just checking the jabber," he says.

In these final weeks before the election, Kluwe will be a blunt instrument in the "Vote No" campaign. Minnesotans for Equality has transformed the highlights of his now-famous letter into T-shirts that read, "Lustful Cockmonster" and, "Beautifully Unique Sparklepony." Half of the proceeds will go to the campaign, the other half to Kluwe's charity. The group is also trying to arrange a debate between Kluwe and any willing Republican. So far, no one has volunteered.

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