Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Glenn Burke

Glenn Burke (1952-1995) was a major league baseball player perhaps best known today as the man who invented the “high five*.” But to gay athletes he left a legacy far more important than a hand gesture. Burke was, and remains, the first and only MLB player out to his teammates and team owners during his professional career (1976-1979). He was also the first American professional team sports player to acknowledge his homosexuality publicly during his pro career (sorry, Jason Collins).

*During a 1977 Dodgers game, Burke ran out onto the field to congratulate teammate Dusty Baker on hitting his 30th home run, raising his open palm into the air. Baker slapped Burke’s hand with his own open palm, and the rest is history. After retiring from baseball, Burke used the “high five” with other homosexual residents of the Castro district of San Francisco, where it became a gesture of gay pride and identification.

A California native, Burke, an African-American, played for both the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Oakland As. He made no secret of his sexual orientation to the Dodgers front office, his teammates, or friends. He spoke freely with sportswriters, as well, but they kept silent, commenting that they couldn’t write about such a thing in their publications. Indeed, the sports media found Burke's sexual orientation an inconvenient truth. Burke told People magazine, "I think everyone just pretended not to hear me. It just wasn't a story they were ready to hear." In fact, Burke was so open about his homosexuality that the Dodgers offered him $75,000 if he would participate in a sham marriage. Although his talent was so great that some were calling him the next Willie Mays, and he became the only rookie to start in the 1977 World Series, center-fielder Burke still refused, knowing that to do so put his career at risk.

One of the Dodgers who tried to talk Burke into getting married was his manager, Tommy Lasorda, whose own son Tom Jr. died from AIDS complications in 1991. Although Tom Jr. and Burke were friends, even dating for a while, to this day Lasorda Sr. refuses to acknowledge his son's homosexuality.

Burke wrote in his autobiography (Out at Home, 1995), "By 1978 I think everybody knew," and was "sure his teammates didn't care." Former Dodgers team captain Davey Lopes said "No one cared about his lifestyle." Burke told the New York Times that "Prejudice drove me out of baseball sooner than I should have, but I wasn't changing," and stated in his autobiography that "prejudice just won out." Glenn Burke left professional sports for good at age 27. He told People magazine in 1994 that his "mission as a gay ballplayer was to break a stereotype" and that he thinks "it worked. They can't ever say now that a gay man can't play in the majors, because I'm a gay man, and I made it”.

Dusty and Glenn spontaneously creating the "High Five."

But all was not well. Billy Martin, upon becoming a manager for the Oakland Athletics in 1980, used the word "faggot" in the clubhouse, and some teammates refused to shower with Burke. During spring training, Billy Martin, a world class bigot, was introducing the team to the new players who were coming in. When he got to Glenn, he said, "Oh, by the way, this is Glenn Burke, and he's a faggot." After Glenn suffered a knee injury, the Athletics sent Burke to the minors in Utah. He was released from his MLB contract in 1980, just before the season began.

"I didn't want to make other people uncomfortable," said Glenn, "so I faded away. My teammates' wives might have been threatened by a gay man in the locker room. I could have been a superstar but I was too worried about protecting everybody else from knowing. If I thought I could be accepted, I'd be there now. It is the first thing in my life I ever backed down from. No, I'm not disappointed in myself, I'm disappointed in the system. Your sex should be private, and I always kept it that way. Deep inside, I know the Dodgers traded me because I was gay."

After retiring from baseball, Glenn competed in the 1986 Gay Games in basketball and won medals in the 100 and 200 meter sprints in the first Gay Games in 1982. His jersey number at Berkeley High School was retired in his honor. In 1982, Inside Sports magazine finally broke the media silence by publishing an article in which Burke's homosexuality became public knowledge, and Burke echoed that story during a Today Show interview with Bryant Gumbel. Tragically, it was a downhill death spiral after that. An addiction to cocaine destroyed him both physically and financially. In 1987 his leg and foot were crushed when he was hit by a car in San Francisco. Even worse, Burke was subsequently arrested and jailed for drugs, and for a time was homeless on the streets of San Francisco. He contracted AIDS and spent his final months with his sister in Oakland.

However, when news of his struggle with AIDS became public knowledge in 1994, he received the support of his former teammates and the Oakland Athletics organization. In interviews given while he was fighting the disease, Burke expressed only one big regret – that he never had the opportunity to pursue a second professional sports career in basketball. Burke died at the tender age of 42.

An outstanding documentary, Out: The Glenn Burke Story, by Bay Area filmmakers Doug Harris and Sean Maddison, was released in 2010 but remains little seen. If the film had been shown on ESPN or another major network, Burke might have finally gotten the credit he deserved.

Actress Jamie Lee Curtis, who bought the film rights to Burke's autobiography years ago, now hopes, in the wake of recent revelations by out athletes such as Jason Collins and Robbie Rogers (see post in sidebar), to get a feature film on Burke into production.

Stay tuned, sports fans.

Here's the trailer for the documentary film Out: The Glenn Burke Story