I was raised in the arch-conservative Florida panhandle near the Alabama border in the late 1950s and 1960s. In those days, and especially in that location, being gay was the same as being a sexual deviant. In fact, the word “gay” still was commonly used to mean happy-go-lucky. “Queer” was the popular derogatory term used and it implied pervert, deviant, pedophile, and a dozen other terms for depraved. To be queer was also to be an effeminate, cowering “fag.” Real men did not like other men “in that way.”
I did my best to fit in, to fight, or at least to deny, my growing attraction to other boys. For me, that meant playing multiple sports and hoping that, if I was athletic and masculine enough, my attraction to other boys would go away. After all, as far as I knew then, there were no gays in sports.
In high school, I got involved in playing football on two state championship teams as well as pole vaulting on the track squad. I continued with both sports when I attended Brown University. Despite not being overly talented at either for competition at that level, my desire to succeed in athletic activities knew no bounds, since playing sports was the only way I knew to be “normal.”
After grad school, in 1975, I moved to Washington, D.C. to start my first job, in international monetary affairs at the U.S. Treasury Department. While gay liberation had started to take hold in places like San Francisco and New York; Washington, D.C. was, for the most part, a bastion of conservatism, with the homophobic rhetoric of the 1950s McCarthy era still echoing in the halls of the capital.
A college fraternity brother invited me to share his D.C. apartment, but I declined the offer because of my fear of being “discovered.” I no longer had sports to hide behind or to become absorbed in. I sort of knew on the inside that I was gay, but at the same time, I couldn’t imagine having a happy life as an openly gay man. And, then, if, somehow, I decided to accept that I was gay, I still had no idea how to come out. I was so confused that it seemed advisable to deal with this issue on my own, away from the security of old friends.
My first visit to a gay bar, a couple of months after I arrived in D.C, was a bit of a disaster: I’d had a few drinks and met someone. I wasn’t really attracted to him, but the attention he paid me was very flattering. It moved so fast that, before I knew it, we were back at his place. We smoked a joint to relax. Then, without even a kiss, we began awkwardly groping each other. I had entered a forbidden zone in which my mind couldn’t reconcile with what my body was feeling. I suddenly began to shiver uncontrollably. The guy was understanding, took me into his bedroom, and tucked me into his bed with my clothing still on, laying next to me until I fell asleep. In the middle of the night, I woke up with his face buried in my groin. It didn’t take much for my body to explode in orgasm. When it was over, I dressed quickly and left.
The next day, I felt disgusted with myself, yet my desire for male intimacy, sex, or whatever else I was calling it in my mind remained steadfast. I was miserable, torn between what I’d been taught at school, by my religion, by my family, and by my friends, and the different message that my heart was sending me.
Then, on December 11, 1975, while walking to my office, I passed a newsstand and spied a headline on a newspaper staring up at me: “FOUR PART SERIES ON HOMOSEXUALITY IN SPORTS”. My heart skipped a beat! “Is that true? Could jocks be queer, too?!?”
I looked closer and read more: “Dave Kopay: Former NFL Redskin Star Comes Out!”. I quickly purchased the paper, stuck it under my jacket, and snuck away, making sure no one saw me. Once inside my office, I locked the door and devoured the entire story.
“Dave Kopay was a pro football player and he’s gay!” I thought, in amazement. “But, he’s not effeminate, degenerate, or any of those other things I’ve been told about homosexuals.” Here was someone who had reached the top of his career, as an athlete no less—and then voluntarily announced that he was gay! And, the article wrote about him like he was normal!
That meant I could, perhaps, be normal and still be gay. I was still unsure of myself, but this one story was a ray of sunshine in the otherwise dark depressing storm that was my life.
The article detailed the history of Kopay coming to grips with being gay and portrayed the challenges he faced now that he was outing himself. I read the story over and over, rejoicing that I had finally found a kindred spirit.
I decided to write him a letter. I had no expectations, except that I wanted in some way to connect with the one person in the world who I knew was like me.
I sent the letter directly to the newspaper, to the attention of the writer of the story, hoping the letter might be forwarded to Mr. Kopay. I was afraid to send it, fearing that somehow, with my name and address on the envelope, I might be “exposed,” like a McCarthy-era spy. But, then, if I didn’t include that info, Mr. Kopay wouldn’t be able to respond. I dropped it into the mail and waited, not knowing what to expect.
A few weeks later, I was napping in my Georgetown apartment on a cold, dreary winter Saturday afternoon, when the phone rang. I groggily picked it up.
“Hello, is this Mike Balaban?” the voice asked?
“Yes.” I replied, somewhat hesitantly. The voice was thick, deeper, older. I had no idea who it could be.
“Hi, this is Dave Kopay…” he continued.
I was speechless. He explained that he had found my number in the phone book. He then invited me out for a drink that same evening. Apparently, my letter was so moving that he had wanted to respond and meet me.
We agreed to meet at a nearby grill in Georgetown. I was nervous. I had no idea what to expect. I was shamefully homophobic and filled with trepidation about meeting him. I wasn’t sure I was even gay! Was he looking for sex or just to talk? A thousand thoughts ran through my head, as I headed out to the restaurant.
I recognized him immediately when I entered the restaurant, and walked over to his table. He stood up and shook my hand. He was friendly, calm, and reassuring.
“Call me Dave.”, he said in an open, friendly way.
We ordered drinks and he proceeded to tell me about his own life and about his coming out and to ask me about mine. Then, he offered suggestions about where to go in D.C.—some gay bars that I might feel welcome in. I relaxed a bit— this wasn’t going to be a “pick-up” date. Dave was just an older man (He was 34 at the time.), offering me advice on how to reckon with my own sexual orientation.
After a few more drinks and more conversation, Dave and I walked down the street to Winston’s, a straight singles bar, where he was intent on picking up a “straight” bartender he had a crush on. I laughed at his boldness. We parted ways and planned to get together again soon. I felt like a 100-lb. barbell had been lifted off my chest.
Dave became my first gay friend and a regular bar buddy. I mostly met him at the Lost & Found and Pier Nine, the two main discos on Capital Hill, where gay men gathered then on weekends.
One night at the Lost & Found, just after he’d appeared on the nationally-syndicated “David Susskind Show” discussing gay rights, Dave asked if I’d seen his appearance and what I’d thought of it. I had watched it and had noticed that he’d stammered and paused embarrassingly numerous times during the interview.
“Truthfully, Dave, you looked great, but you should probably practice a little more before your next appearance, if you intend to keep on billing yourself as a gay spokeman.” I answered.
“Well, not everyone is as smart as you, Mike!” he shot back defensively.
I apologized, but held firm. He needed to be a bit more practiced and to come across a little more self-assured, if he was going to represent me and other gays seeking greater acceptance by society at large.
“Wow!” I thought later, as I drove home. “How far I’ve come. Here I am—giving advice to Dave Kopay, the first out gay-and-proud former NFL player!”
AFTERWORD: I’ll always be eternally grateful to Dave for reaching out to me and taking the time to let me, a frightened, closeted and homophobic young gay man, know that I could be my genuine self and still build a happy and successful life for myself.
In 2012, I became the founding Board of Directors Chairman of Athlete Ally, Inc., a non-profit whose mission is to help make sports more welcoming and inclusive for LGBT athletes, and to mobilize all athletes to stand up for LGBT rights outside of sports. I immediately contacted Dave and asked him to join our Advisory Board, which he did. Sports has been instrumental in my life in many ways, but my involvement with Athlete Ally and Dave’s participation on its Advisory Board have brought it full circle.—Mike Balaban