For a while when I played in a men's hockey league in Los Angeles one of our regular opponents was an all-gay team called the Blades. That's right, they were the gay Blades.
One night we played in one of those dank old rinks where the locker room is dripping with rust and they never empty the barrels of wet athletic tape. The Blades were good, and to be honest they played a little angry, as if they had something to prove. They beat us badly.
Later in the locker room I realized we had no shower. The guys started snickering that we had to go into the Blades locker room to shower and cracked the usual jokes about dropping soap. But it was an odd thought. Our team was loaded with young actors, writers and producers. They were a good-looking bunch of guys, some of whom went on to become household names and power players in Hollywood.
I wondered: If we walked into the Blades shower room, would they have the same reaction as if a naked woman walked into ours? Would we be the objects of sexual attraction?
I think of this now on the occasion of the National Football League drafting its first openly gay player, which is treated like a major breakthrough. It's as if Michael Sam might be the first gay man to snap towels and play grab ass in the locker room. Some people in the NFL are afraid their manhood might not survive. But really, anyone who's ever been an athlete at any level has showered with a gay athlete. They just might not know it. One of the toughest guys I played high school football with was gay and I had no idea.
Homosexuality is openly all around us now. We see it in television entertainment, in restaurants, at PTA meetings, and even in the Sunday wedding section of the paper. When Michael Sam came out as gay in February the reaction of some of his college team mates was a good natured, "As if we didn't know."
But then it set off an uproar when Sam heard the news that he had been drafted and was filmed kissing his boyfriend in celebration. A member of the Miami Dolphins was suspended after opting a nasty message on the Internet.
I don't know what it's like for a teenage boy these days, but when I was that age we had a fear that a gay man could somehow mysteriously "get" you. It was as if they had some magical power of seduction and you had to be on guard. I had gay men hit on me in practiced ways that left me wondering, "Is this guy suggesting what I think he is?" It was unnerving. But when a man settles into his maturity he realizes there's no way another man could seduce him.
Amid the debate about gay athletes, one thing men don't talk much about is the strange homo-erotic tension in male group relationships. In the military, fraternity houses, and locker rooms, young men are constantly challenging each other's sexuality. When college boys get in trouble for hazing rituals, there's often a sexual element to the humiliations they mete out to their recruits. They are trying to separate themselves from a fear that they could be gay and not know it.
So there's something about an openly gay man that scares straight young men. They don't know there's nothing to fear.
The night my hockey team was beaten by the Blades I was hot and sweaty and wasn't going to drive home like that. I wrapped a towel around waist, walked into the Blades locker room, hung the towel on a hook, and showered. Not a single member of my team was there and I was surrounded by naked gay men.
I was in good shape and not bad-looking. But the gay guys didn't speak to me, look at me, or show any interest whatsoever. They certainly didn't hit on me. I have to say, part of me was a little insulted.