Open Letter to the Men’s Soccer Team

I joined the Sarah Lawrence College Men’s Soccer team for the straight men. Shortly after, I made an appearance at the sports center to tell the coaches I couldn’t make it on the first day because I had tickets to see Madonna and I’d already selected my accessories. They smiled. The first time I asked about a practice I called it a rehearsal.

The shoes were probably the only aspect of the experience that didn’t terrify me. So many boys, most of larger stature than I am, doing athletic things I didn’t understand. In this new setting, I, at the exact height of Daniel Radcliffe, felt like a boy scout who accidentally showed up at a gym instead of a troop meeting. I was just pleased to have enough stamina for the practices, even if the only thing I knew about soccer was that David Beckham plays it. Regardless, I was welcomed without reservation by the whole team from the first moment I showed up to practice.

It wasn’t long before the food problem happened, which I was scared of most of all. The vans were parked near Subway as they usually were that season, and we migrated past the intersection and parking lot. My glasses were in my duffel bag, leaving me mostly unable to read the print of the menu plastered to the wall. The mission was to avoid having to discuss with the team the fact that I have had problems with eating since I was a toddler. My diagnoses from several different doctors included the phrases Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder,Selective Eating Disorder, Eating Disorder (Not Otherwise Specified) and Food Neophobia.’

This might’ve been easy enough to discuss, but it didn’t matter because I wasn’t going to do so.

I was standing in line in Subway without my glasses because it provided a distraction, something I could discuss and maybe use to justify the fact that I was a 20-year-old boy that couldn’t navigate ordering a sandwich. A teammate helped me read the menu and figure out what to order. We sat down together and I ate part of my sandwich so I’d fit in as he drew a diagram of a soccer lineup to share with me the first information I would learn about the sport I had signed up for like a blindfolded man diving into a lake.

The games and practices continued with the experience being more enjoyable for me than I had probably anticipated, though I wasn’t sure I’d play another season. Then a curveball: I was in a hotel room with two dudes and we weren’t even going to have sex. Six months afterward, though, (miraculous for it to take so long) I realized it wouldn’t have been the worst idea. I actually still think it would have been a huge success. We were on an overnight trip to Albany for two games, and as I’ve illustrated, my experience there wasn’t sexual. Being on the team never was, though I’ll admit that I might’ve “assessed the situation” on occasion. Looking good, boys.

My focus, however, going into the trip was on the approaching meals I was already anxious about on the bus, wondering what we’d eat and meticulously considering how many meals there would be, and on being poised to spend two days with a group of boys whose grip on masculinity was far more traditional than mine. The idea scared me, so I was thrilled to see myself making it through the meals and bonding with the guys at the hotel. The two boys and I spoke mostly about casual topics I scarcely remember. I described my experience with recovering from depression, and I felt comfortable, respected and as if I had just leapt and landed somewhere new. I had trusted two men, neither of whom identified any way other than heterosexual, to my knowledge, and it had ended well. Homoerotic athletic trappings aside, it wasn’t even slightly about sex. I didn’t feel like a broken gay kid.

Initially, I wasn’t sure I would do the second season. I thought of the games with all the big dudes on the field barreling down on me, surely capable of throwing me like a paper airplane, and I thought of the pre-game drills. The dribbling, which I couldn’t do well, and yelling other boys’ names. Yelling a boy’s name out of bed didn’t seem so natural. Sometimes I wished we’d stop after the warm up so we could eat snacks, tell secrets and paint our nails.

The period of time between my two seasons was an eventful one in my life. I called an eating disorder clinic to have them react to my description of symptoms with confusion and professional negligence. They were within walking distance of a Pizza Hut, so I was sad to see the possibility of a doctor-supervised pizza field trip go.  I called a hospital

to schedule an intake appointment for the eating disorder program, all
the while being insecure of them hearing my voice, a sensitive one
perhaps, but still a man’s.The soccer team and my outpatient program were two places I felt convinced weren’t accessible to me, but, while different, were intended to foster positive personal growth and a sense of community. I’m thankful for both of them for being more welcoming than I could have imagined. I spent two seasons with the soccer team having a wonderful time, always feeling respected and appreciated.

One of my main anxieties, of course, was being a person who was frequently called a, “flaming homosexual.” The first time I had a good tackle at a game everyone cheered for me when we were eating afterward, and I narrated in my head, “straight men are cheering for me.” They played some Britney for me at a party once. One of them gave me advice about a boy I had a crush on. After years of discomfort with the idea of swim suits, I slipped one on and went to the gym pool. Like a prayer, one of the soccer guys helped count down from 20 so I could jump in. One time we were playing some sort of soccer volleyball and when I had an especially good kick, everyone cheered.

I’m pretty sure we all knew I didn’t stumble onto the soccer team after a youth spent in athletics (in fact, I had never been on a sports team before), and the guys were all sensitive and supportive. They melted my heart, and I loved them.

I wasn’t just like all of them, and who cares? If any of the boys on the team had experience with weigh-ins it probably stemmed from high school wrestling. My summer before my second season was not associated with images of going to the beach or working a job or seeing friends or revving up for preseason, but instead a nurse checking my blood pressure and stripping for a tacky light blue hospital gown. Standing in the kitchen assembling a meal one day, the experience of eating and being a young man felt like ones with which I approached success, normalcy, but couldn’t quite handle. It was like Britney’s ‘Gimme More’ hitting #3 on the Billboard Hot 100. It was one dimension in a broader double life of sorts I’d led so many times in so many environments. Gay child pretending his eating habits are normal, gay teenager pretending to be straight around certain people; hiding was always there since my earliest memories.

I needed the second season on the soccer team because I had yet to fulfill the purpose that had led me there. After a game we all crowded together in a room in the sports center so everyone could break bread. I stood at the edge of the room, preoccupying myself with my duffel bag when one of the coaches approached me and asked if I was going to eat. I offered a vague explanation and later convinced myself there was nothing to be embarrassed by, and I could explain with more detail. From that point on there was always a box of food ordered specifically for me with my name on it, and I was always asked if I could eat at a restaurant if we were stopping to eat.

Being someone who always loved naked men, it seems I may not have grown to love men until recently. It was the games, I think, with me running around with men, trying to avoid bumping into the tall, strong ones (or all of them, I’ll admit it). The fear couldn’t dictate, I learned, even if I was running toward to a 6’5” lumberjack. One must be careful, but if I entered a tackle for a ball as if I expected to be body slammed, it was more likely to happen. It was this concept of clarity of movement that—combined with the Subway meals and the growing bonds with a group of boys who, as far as I know, weren’t sexually interested in other boys—started to break down some walls I’d always known so well. By age 20 I wanted to start over in so many ways, and thought I could if I tried hard enough. I went into the team hoping to see them eat meals and discuss food and girls. If I watched people who weren’t distressed by sexual orientation or eating, maybe I would believe living such a life were possible. When I ate with them it felt like bird watching.

Later on, working with doctors on dissecting my relationship with food made me more sensitive than the boy who already cried every time he watched ‘The Lizzie McGuire Movie’ because I could see sensitivity as a physical concept. If I’m slipping on a pair of shoes or brushing my teeth, there can be a layer of care resting upon the ordinariness of routine. If I touch another man with romantic intention, I can express a type of love with my hands. Eating can’t be the same after that, regardless of a food phobia. Never before have I loved men platonically or romantically more than I do now.

My experience as a member of the soccer team and as a Sarah Lawrence student was about words. Coming across one teammate by chance in the science building, I took a moment to tell him how much I care about him. People need to hear it. My coaches and teammates used their words to support me and make me feel at home in a place unlike any I’d inhabited before. I mentioned my eating disorder program to a teammate at Bates once during a moment of distrust with pancakes, and it wasn’t uncomfortable. Being on the soccer team gave me the opportunity to say “I’m gay” to a large group of heterosexual men, (not that anyone suspected otherwise). In the end I realized I wasn’t the gay kid on the soccer team, I was just a member of the soccer team. In fact, I wasn’t even a gay kid, and I definitely wasn’t a broken one. In that environment, and now in all others, it doesn’t matter if I’m not like all the other men. And it definitely doesn’t matter if my relationship with eating, very much a work in progress, is not referred to as normal. While I previously had a whole collection of hurtful, often-homophobic phrases I replayed in my head, now I find opportunities everyday to commit to the phrase, “no shame ever.”

 

Photo by Brent Terry

6 Comments

  • Reply February 11, 2014

    Natasha

    I’m so genuinely happy that you were able to have such a positive and moving experience with the team. As an athlete myself, this all that I can hope for anyone who takes the leap and joins a team. This is what Sarah Lawrence athletics is supposed to be. Beyond challenging on so many levels at times, but ultimately a positive source of growth and transformation. I know a lot of the soccer team and I love a lot of them dearly, but a lot of the credit goes to you to being open – open to the legitimately nerve-wracking experience of joining team for the first time, and for opening up to these men who ordinarily might represent a demographic that you do not feel safe with. Thank you for sharing :)

  • Reply February 11, 2014

    Lamp

    I’m sorry but after reading this and reading about the sexual advances/arousal you experienced from being on a men’s sports team, it’s exactly why people are wary about a openly gay NFL player in a lockeroom (Michael Sam). This article couldn’t have came at a worse time.

  • Reply February 11, 2014

    Mark

    This was beautiful. Beautifully written and beautifully told.

  • Reply February 11, 2014

    Myles

    What a fantastic story. I went to Sarah Lawrence (I graduated in 2010). I do some work now with NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association. If you’d ever like to chat or need someone to reach out to please feel free to hit up NEDA or myself directly.

  • Reply February 15, 2014

    Dom

    This was such a wonderfully written and articulate article, which I think sensitively unpacks issues with body and masculinity. Though I’m no longer on any sports teams, the way you talked about the power of sports (which I think also applies to other movement practices like dance, yoga etc) to develop a different and positive awareness of our bodies really made sense to me.

    Lamp, if all you got from the story was that he is attracted to men, and as such, sometimes attracted to men in social situations around him, like those on his team, then sadly you are missing the point entirely. There was no mention of any advances and none really of arousal. When he says “Being someone who always loved naked men, it seems I may not have grown to love men until recently.” or ” “Never before have I loved men platonically or romantically more than I do now.” what he is saying is that being on a team allowed him to see men not as just other bodies, or potential sources of bullying, pain, or pleasure, but as complex whole beings. Love isn’t always sexual.

    Anyways, openly gay or not, gay athletes are still gay, so I don’t really understand your point. Whats more, in addition to being gay, they are also athletes and humans, who compete with the same professionalism as other athletes, and should be allowed to live their lives with the same level of openness as any other person.

    Regardless, I loved this article, and thought it articulates a lot that is usually left unsaid. I hope that sports at SLC continue to be a place where things like this can happen.

  • Reply February 19, 2014

    Callum

    I thought this was a brilliant article and I was genuinely moved by it – thanks so much for sharing your experiences. I’m a student at Oxford University, but I’m coming to Sarah Lawrence this Spring on an exchange programme to research some of the social issues surrounding soccer in the states (particularly with regard to women, people of alternative sexualities and ethnic minorities). If yourself or any fellow players or fans of soccer would be interested in helping me out, I’d love to get in touch (callum.macrae@wadh.ox.ac.uk). Thank-you.

Leave a Reply