Emotional Hurdles

Any out gay man or lesbian surely knows that coming out into any context or community is never an easy experience. But some spaces are definitely harder to come out in than others. Orange County, notorious for its conservatism, would have to fall into this category. Things get even trickier if you happen to be gay and a track coach at Huntington Beach High School.

This is exactly the social setting in which Eric Anderson, author of Trailblazing: The True Story of America's First Openly Gay Track Coach, was obliged to come out. In this memoir he reflects on his dual identities: a gay man and a track coach to high school distance runners. His story is of a long and difficult struggle to bring together these two aspects of himself, the many tiny steps he had to take before coming out in the undeniably homophobic field of athletics. And he writes of the many emotional obstacles his honesty presented to him when he continued to coach after coming out: “In the next four years, I would experience my greatest struggles, fears and anger, all while also experiencing incredible joy, pride and love.”

Though writing from a unique perspective, his journey rings true to the coming-out experience as a whole.

Even more challenging were the physical obstacles placed in his way, ranging from taunts and slurs against him and his athletes to death threats and sickening physical violence. But, ultimately, his story is one of gradual reconciliation, the opening up of a collectively closed mind, and the creation of common ground between two once-conflicting worlds.

The book, full as it is of insight into “the gay experience” and detailed explorations of track scenarios, should definitely appeal to readers from both worlds. But the narrative's dramatic tension at times overly relies on the reader being invested in track. As someone not particularly interested in the sport, I often found my interest drifting, particularly in the chapters devoted to the achievements and victories of his star athletes, whom he lovingly named “The Duo.” These chapters were full of jargon and observations that I suspect appeal only to a very specialized interest group:

“Qualifying for the state meet would not be easy for us this year. We had five senior runners: Tony, Dan, Jake, Ronnie and Simon, but overall they were not as good as the previous year's team. Having Dan and Tony up front would help, but how much better can you do than first and second place? I expected them to improve and to lower their personal records, but their improvement was not likely to help us lower our team score. Jake's placing would certainly improve over last year, but would Ronnie even be as good as Jake was last year?”

Anderson is not yet a strong enough writer to pull readers who are uninterested in sport into his world. He regularly falls into sentimentality wrapped in clichd metaphors, and rather than probing more deeply into matters, he too often lapses into surface commentary. Reflecting on the dissolution of his first gay relationship and the breakups of some of his athletes with their girlfriends, all he can say is, “Love and track don't seem to mix.”

The overall effect is that the undeniable drama and urgency of his life situation are reduced to soap opera, conveyed in the language of melodrama: “Internally, however, I worried Dan might choose not to run for me, or that his parents might not allow him to run on the team . . . if they knew the whole truth.”

The book is more vivid and feels far more authentic when detailing the many chaotic incidents that occurred after his coming out. Some of this chaos had an element of surprising comedy, which Anderson deftly relates, as in this passage recalling what occurred after his team won a particular track meet:

“Alongside us, a coach drove a van filled with runners from another school. The coach pulled even to our speed and shot me an odd look. I wasn't quite sure why, or what his intentions were. I responded with a friendly wave, and then my eyes wandered to the back of his van. Against the van's window, a runner held a sheet of lined notebook paper reading, in large black letters, YOUR COACH IS A FAG. I couldn't believe a coach would participate in such a juvenile act. My athletes asked me to pull alongside so they could display their own sign reading, MY COACH HAS THE FIRST-PLACE TROPHY.”

Other scenes have no comic component, illuminating as they do the intense threat that a gay presence posed to the masculine psyche of many athletes. There's the sickeningly predictable accusation that Anderson has been molesting his athletes, and a horrifyingly detailed description of the assault (by association) on one of Anderson's athletes: “Josh tackled Jerryme and sat on him. He pounded Jerryme's face with closed fists. He fractured one side of Jerryme's jaw and continued to pulverize, breaking the other side while yelling, 'I'm going to kill you, you fucking cross-country faggot!'”

It is in scenes such as these that Anderson's gifts for writing are most evident. Despite the book's flaws, it has a real social purpose, and though we have moved into the 21st century, none of the homophobic violence that Anderson relates has evaporated. His writing about the angry protests staged by homophobic students at Fountain Valley High after two brothers formed a gay-straight alliance group was sadly all too reminiscent of the Anthony Colin saga that went on at El Modena High earlier this year. Anderson's documentation of his struggles may make it slightly easier for young gay athletes (like football co-captain Corey Johnson, who addressed April 30's Millennium March for Equality in Washington) to come out. His message is as necessary as ever.

Trailblazing: The True Story of America's First Openly Gay Track Coach by Eric Anderson; Alyson Publications. 209 pages. Paperback, $13.95; Anderson signs Trailblazing at DIFFERENT DRUMMER BOOKS, 1294 S. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-6699; www.differentdrummerbooks.com. Sun., 2 p.m.; and at barnes N noble, 791 S. Main St., Orange, (714) 558-0028. June 16, 7 p.m.

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