When I was in the last years of grade school and an underclassman in high school - both Catholic, middle class, and predominantly white - there was one word that almost always guaranteed playground or sandlot bloodshed among adolescent males.
The word was "faggot."
If you've seen 42, then you know its most heated scene consists of Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman standing on the dug-out steps shouting variations of our most hated racial epithet at Jackie Robinson - over and over, in a chanting cat-calling cadence that is designed to evoke a physical response.
Fight or flight, the human instinct particularly sharpened in the nervous systems of young men.
Ben Chapman had nothing on some of the guys I grew up with, although their special milieu wasn't race, it was sexual orientation. "C'mone, faggot!" was the tag line of one particular 70s bully whose name does not escape me. You fought (and probably suffered) or you ran. I, for one, took off at full gallop. Others fought and were patched up by the school nurse.
None of us questioned the underlying challenge. In point of fact, we barely understood it - except for those among us who were, of course, gay. I'm sure they got it. And I'm certain they suffered worse in silence than the cuts and bruises the non-runners tolerated.
What was this challenge? That being called gay - the term was not widely in use at the time; the more polite noun was actually "homo" - was the worst put down, right up there in fight challenge parlance with questioning the sexual proclivities of the maternal? And that it meant weakness, a failure of proper gender, the banishment of the outsider? I didn't stop to think - yes, I was too busy running. But I just wasn't prepared for it either. The culture would barely support the conversation.
I feel some shame at this memory. In my amended biography, it would be nice to find a heroic chapter in which I stood up and shouted "yeah, I'm a homo - what of it, buster?" But my Pro Keds and their fleet tread provided the best option for my adolescent legs. I ran from conflict with the slur, yes - but I mainly ran from fear of physical violence. And when I didn't run, I was silent. Sad to say, we all pretty much were.
In truth, acceptance of this despised "other" was easy - in no small part due to the catechism of liberal 60s and 70s Catholicism. I felt no hatred, no real dislike, and little revulsion - certainly no more revulsion than I felt for the hormone inebriated monster that inhabited my own body. I read a lot and learned, in theory, about the many flavors of man at a fairly young age. But I didn't stand up, and of course, the moment passed. Older high school boys became more polite and less bullying, in general. And college provided the wonders of real diversity and experience. I stopped hearing "faggot" on the playground because I'd left the playground.
And then it was 1998.
In October of that year, a young gay student at the University of Wyoming was tortured and murdered near Laramie, Wyoming. His name was Matthew Shepard and his killers left him hanging from a wire fence to die because he was homosexual.
By all accounts, Shepard was a sweet kid, smart and promising. His father said Matthew was "an optimistic and accepting young man who had a special gift of relating to almost everyone. He was the type of person who was very approachable and always looked to new challenges. Matthew had a great passion for equality and always stood up for the acceptance of people's differences."
More than anything - yes, even more than the tragic AIDS plague of the 80s, I'd have to admit, though I was a "liberal" throughout - Shepard's murder made me realize the real stakes in "gay rights." This was a civil rights crusade. It was about the rights of non-heterosexual Americans to live as freely as everyone else. And it was about the forces of darkness, the spit-flaked speech of the playground, the incitement to violence and shunning and shame.
I began to think that it wasn't the Matthew Shepards of the world who needed the courage to come out of the closet - and be welcomed by the normal world - it was the rest of us who needed the collective courage to tear the damned closet down.
Nothing in American political life of recent vintage has been as stunning and inspiring as the success of equal rights - political, social and cultural - for gay citizens. That advance in less than a generation is one of this country's most hopeful signs for the future. And the refusal of my children's generation to even categorize LGBT people is astounding and welcome.
So in some ways, the brave decision of NBA center Jason Collins to come out in Sports Illustrated this week feels more like an important postscript. I know it's not, of course. Marriage is still before the U.S. Supreme Court. Sodomy laws remain on the books in many states. Religious establishments protect prejudice. Things don't change quickly enough.
Yet the reaction to Collins's courage was swift and validating - especially among his former teammates and professional athletes. That reaction in response to the elegant SI essay really matters, it seems to me. The passage in which Collins talks about wearing 98 in tribute to Matthew Shepard was deeply moving. (And how cool was it that Collins is a classic NBA enforcer, a journeyman Anthony Mason?) More gay athlets will clearly live in public. Their teammates will support them. Those athletes can change the playground rules. Sports culture is a stubborn hold-out on all fronts of sexual and gender equality. But under the hoop, maybe we won't hear the real F-bomb as much any more.