Slugger’s journey to coming out
Former Orioles minor league all-star Tyler Townsend on life in baseball’s closet and finding redemption in helping others
If not for a recurring hamstring injury, Tyler Townsend just might have become Major League Baseball’s first openly gay player.
Townsend, now 27, was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in 2010 in the third round, opted out of his senior year at Florida International University and entered the minor league system.
An all-star first baseman, he quickly progressed through the system, playing stints in Aberdeen, Frederick and Salisbury, all within the Orioles operation. And through three years of minor league ball, Townsend played from the closet, keeping his sexual orientation a secret from teammates, coaches — and the female fans who followed the team and offered phone numbers to players.
“I was afraid of what would be said by teammates and fans,” he said in an interview with the Blade from his home in Rehoboth Beach, Del. “I always had a goal of getting to professional baseball since I realized I had the ability to do it and I just didn’t want anything to take away from that. I didn’t want the person who didn’t understand it to not give me a chance because they didn’t want to deal with my personal life. That was my fear. And there wasn’t anybody to look up to who was out playing sports.”
Despite his apprehension, Townsend said his plan all along was to delay coming out publicly until he made it to the big leagues.
“I would have come out if I’d made it to the pros,” he said, with a hint of regret.
For someone coming out publicly in the media for the first time, Townsend is relaxed and poised, reclining slightly in the well-appointed living room of the townhouse he shares with his partner not far from Rehoboth’s beaches.
His story rings familiar to legions of gay people who are — or were — out in their personal lives, but closeted at work. He had a boyfriend and lived in D.C. when not on the road, living an openly gay life, though he didn’t frequent gay bars. But when it was time to play ball, Townsend dodged questions about his sexual orientation — and why he never called those women who hit on him. His boyfriend at the time, who was older, attended games as his “uncle.”
“I was out in the off-season, so six months of the year I was happy and out and being myself and once spring training came around it was back in the closet,” he said. “I should have done things differently but I feel like telling this story now makes up for it a little bit.”
Townsend, like so many American boys, started playing baseball at age 10, joining a Delaware travel team and continuing through his high school years at Cape Henlopen High outside of Rehoboth, where he grew up. Rehoboth is a popular beach destination for gays from Baltimore, D.C. and Philadelphia, so Townsend was no stranger to the sight of two men holding hands.
“I always knew I was gay,” he said. “And growing up in Rehoboth, I knew what gay was. Once I realized I was attracted to other guys, I knew right away what it was.”
After earning a college scholarship and playing three years for Florida International, Townsend realized every little league player’s dream.
“To hear your name on TV on draft day is one of the best memories, it’s what I worked for my whole life,” he said. “Nothing else mattered.”
But the euphoria of that moment soon gave way to the harsh realities of a career in pro sports — long stints away from home, injuries and, for Townsend, the pressure of guarding his secret. After being drafted by the Orioles and signing his contract, Townsend played advanced rookie ball in Aberdeen, Md., then went to Pensacola, Fla., for training in the off season. That’s when he first tore his hamstring doing sprints, which led to continuous struggles with injury.
That’s also when he decided to start the coming out process by telling his family.
“I just couldn’t live with it anymore,” he said. “I thought the whole world was going to be against me. I couldn’t live with the lie anymore so I decided to tell my family and that was it.”
His family, which includes his mother of Lewes, Del., father of Georgetown, Del., a sister, half brother and half sister, proved supportive and accepting. “I was in Miami when I told my Dad and he got in the car and drove down to make sure I was OK.”
Locker room epithets
The acceptance he found off the field didn’t translate to the locker room, where homophobic epithets were commonplace and where he feared coming out would doom his chances of playing in the big leagues.
“So many times, I heard homophobic remarks in locker rooms but didn’t say anything because if I get to the position where they’re going to call me up and it’s between me and somebody else, I didn’t want the person making the decision saying, ‘I don’t want to deal with the publicity or the discomfort of other players,’” he said. “I didn’t want anything to hinder my chances and being openly gay would have hurt.”
He recalled one teammate who was religious and read the Bible every day, who told Townsend there’s nothing wrong with being gay as long as you don’t act on it. Another time, he said a coach called a player a faggot because he touched his belt. And at spring training in Florida, Townsend said an older gay man would often come to games and bring bubble gum and snacks for the players. On his birthday one year, the coaches joked about taking a video of the team in the shower and giving it to the man as a gift.
“Little things like that always made me realize there was no room for an openly gay player,” Townsend said. “If they’re that uncomfortable with the idea of someone being gay, what would their reaction be if they actually had to take a shower or change or play or trust someone on their team who’s gay?”
As a result, he never came out to anyone on the team, though one locker room incident brought him close. There was a man in North Carolina, Townsend said, who would sneak into locker rooms and impersonate cleaning staff while spying on players getting undressed. When someone finally caught on and kicked him out, the mood in the locker room turned angry, with players using anti-gay epithets and threatening to beat the man. According to Townsend, one player said, “I don’t care how close I am to somebody if I ever found out they were gay I would disown them.”
The threats of physical violence prompted Townsend to speak up, challenging his teammates, who demanded to know why he was defending the trespasser.
“I told them they were doing something stupid — it was the one time I spoke out,” he said. “People are ignorant and maybe it would have been different if I came out but I just felt that the majority of them had a preconceived notion of what all gay men are and it wouldn’t matter.”
After battling the hamstring injuries for most of his professional career, Townsend finally accepted that he needed a break in 2013.
“It was discouraging. It was one of the two toughest decisions I’ve had to make — leaving baseball and coming out.”
‘There’s still a lot of hatred’
Major League Baseball has never had an openly gay active player. The NBA had Jason Collins, who came out in 2013 and played briefly before retiring. The NFL had Michael Sam, who was drafted but failed to make a team and just last week quit the Canadian Football League, citing mental health issues. Publicly at least, Collins and Sam were heralded in the media and showered with attention — Oprah interviews, Sports Illustrated covers — all the trappings of a carefully orchestrated modern-day coming out story aimed at downplaying criticism and maximizing endorsement and speaking engagement potential. Anyone who tweeted their disgust with the newly out players was quickly reprimanded and the offending tweet deleted.
Just this week, David Denson, a minor league player with the Milwaukee Brewers system, came out as gay. He told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that his teammates on the Helena Brewers accept him. Maybe he’ll make it to the big leagues and become the first active out gay player, overcoming the skepticism of many observers who see baseball as the last frontier for gay athletes.
“Sports in general has that macho persona that you need to put out,” Townsend said. “Baseball is 85 percent players from conservative areas like Latin America and the Bible Belt and you have 18-year-old kids who’ve never been exposed to anything.”
The view that baseball will be the last major pro male team sport to have an out gay player is common among sports fans the Blade has spoken to about the subject. To help address the problem of homophobia in baseball, MLB hired gay retired player Billy Bean as its first “Ambassador of Inclusion.” Bean counseled Denson on coming out.
“The beauty of what could come from this is he can be an example that can help change that perception and change the stereotype that there would never be a gay person on a men’s professional sports team,” Bean told the Journal Sentinel. “That was something I struggled with.”
Townsend said he also turned to Bean for help with coming out publicly.
“Billy Bean has been a help, but he couldn’t come out either and it’s the same in 2010 as it was in the ‘80s,” he said. “ The locker room is a free-for-all, there’s still a lot of hatred and something needs to be done about it.”
So what’s to be done? Townsend cites sensitivity training for coaching staff as key, because younger players are emboldened when they hear coaches using homophobic epithets. The other solution, he says, is more out gays in the game. “We need someone like Jackie Robinson to break that barrier.”
Today, Townsend has mostly left baseball behind, though he recently played in a softball tournament. He’s resumed his studies at Florida International University, pursuing a degree in hospitality management. He works part-time as a bartender in Rehoboth and hopes to one day open a restaurant of his own.
He met his partner, David Gonce, a regional sales director for an information document managing company, about a year and a half ago in Dewey Beach, Del. The two exchanged glances at the Starboard, a bar and restaurant popular with the straight college crowd. But Gonce thought Townsend was checking out the female friend who was with him.
“I asked the waitress if he wanted to meet my buddy’s girlfriend and she said, ‘No, he’s gay and he’s looking at you.’”
They started dating shortly after and now, 18 months later, a plaque of the Starboard’s logo hangs in their living room.
“It’s got to be really difficult to suppress who you are in front of all these people you’ve gotten to know so well for such a long period of time playing baseball,” Gonce said. “I give him a lot of credit for doing that, it’s very difficult.”
Reflecting on his years in professional baseball and just how close he came to the majors, Townsend betrays some regret.
“It’s sad looking back now, I wish I could have been that person but I didn’t have the courage at the time,” he said. “That’s not right on my part … I would do it differently if I could. There’s that 16-year-old kid, I want him to know not to be scared and don’t let other people steer you away from who you are.”
He added that he’s still friends with some players on Facebook and isn’t sure how they’ll react to this interview but that he no longer cares.
“This is my way of letting the guilt go, so I’m doing this for me and for people who are struggling with the same things I struggled with to try to help them. My regret was not coming out sooner and being that role model for somebody but I still have the passion to help.”
Los Angeles Dodgers apologize, reverse decision on disinviting drag group
Pride Night to take place June 16
In a tweet Monday afternoon, the Los Angeles Dodgers Major League Baseball franchise reversed last Wednesday’s decision to disinvite the LA Chapter of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence from a scheduled “Community Hero Award” presentation for the team’s annual Pride Night on June 16.
May 22, 2023
Los Angeles County Supervisor Lindsey P. Horvath announced on Twitter Monday afternoon after the Dodgers apology, and its accompanying public acceptance by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, that she had been pleased to have assisted in facilitating a meeting between the team, the Sisters and stakeholders in the LGBTQ community’s leadership both non-profit and political to come to an understanding.
Thanks to the @LADragnuns for your work to serve & uplift the LGBTQ+ community. You model the best of my faith.— Lindsey P. Horvath (@LindseyPHorvath) May 23, 2023
@Dodgers, it is rare for an organization like yours to publicly recognize mistakes & commit to doing better – thank you 🙏🏼
In a Monday afternoon phone call with the Los Angeles Blade, Horvath explained that important dialogue between the Dodgers and other parties had commenced. She said that earlier on Monday, in a meeting at Dodger Stadium, the stakeholders met to work out a solution.
“I was honestly moved and grateful by the commitment in the room by all the parties, especially Dodgers president and part-owner Stan Kasten,” Horvath said.
In addition to the representatives from the Sisters drag group, the meeting was also attended by Los Angeles LGBT Center Chief Executive Officer Joe Hollendoner, LA Pride President Gerald GarthBoard, West Hollywood Mayor Sepi Shyne, state Assemblymember Rick Chavez Zbur, and state Sen. Caroline Menjivar. Zbur and Menjivar attending on behalf of the California Legislative LGBTQ caucus.
Horvath indicated that she felt it was a critically important meeting with all stakeholders as they worked through the anger, sense of betrayal, and misgivings over the Dodgers actions. She pointed out that she was convinced that the Dodgers president was genuinely remorseful and apologetic.
In an email Monday night, Zbur told the Blade: “It was clear that today’s meeting followed meaningful internal dialogue among Dodgers management, with whom I had numerous frank conversations during the week and weekend. I’m pleased that the Dodgers came to understand the genuine hurt and injury caused by the decision to exclude the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence — one that did not reflect our Los Angeles or California values.
As the only LGBTQ members of the Legislature representing Los Angeles, Senator Menjivar and I participated in the meeting at the request of the California LGBTQ Legislative Caucus to express the serious and uniform concern of Democratic members of the California Legislature.
After hearing the perspectives of the Sisters, L.A. Pride and the LGBTQ+ leaders in the room, the Dodger management apologized unequivocally for their mistake, re-invited the Sisters to participate in the event, and engaged in a discussion about the steps that they could take to reconcile with LGBTQ+ community.
I was proud of the Sisters, who demonstrated resilience, strength and a commitment to the LGBTQ+ community during the discussion, and I was impressed with the sincerity of the apology by the Dodger management.”
The Los Angeles LGBT Center had called on the team to cancel Pride Night altogether. After the Dodgers had made their public apology, Hollendoner issued the following statement:
“Today’s decision by the Dodgers to publicly apologize to the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and roll back their exclusion from next month’s Pride Night is a step in the right direction, and we support the Sisters’ vote to accept their much-deserved Community Hero Award.
Last week’s debacle underscores the dangerous impact of political tactics by those who seek to stoke the flames of anti-LGBTQ bias at a time when our rights are under attack. We must continue to stand together as a community in defense of the rights and recognition of LGBTQ+ people in Los Angeles and beyond.
The Center is filled with gratitude to our Los Angeles community, who mobilized to support the Sisters, all of which compelled the Dodgers to ultimately do right by LGBTQ+ people everywhere. We are proud to stand with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and will join them at Pride Night to honor their many important contributions to our movement.
The Dodgers’ course correction and the conversations we have had with the organization’s leadership since last week demonstrates the version of allyship we have come to expect from the team over the years. The Center will always strive to hold our corporate partners accountable — which means so much more than waving a rainbow flag.”
The team announced last week it would drop the drag group from its celebration of LGBTQ+
fans, the day after a letter-writing campaign was launched by the anti-LGBTQ Catholic League. Catholic League President Bill Donohue accused the team of “rewarding anti-Catholicism” by honoring the group.
“The Catholic League has been the leading critic of this bigoted organization for many decades,” Donohue wrote on the organization’s website. “… These homosexual bigots are known for simulating sodomy while dressed as nuns.”
He added, “Just last month, they held an event mocking our Blessed Mother and Jesus on Easter Sunday.”
One of those writing, was U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) who also sent a letter to Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred, stating that he was questioning whether the League is “inclusive and welcoming” to Christians.
At the time, the Dodgers said they removed the group from their Pride Night celebration “given the strong feelings of people who have been offended by the Sisters’ inclusion in our evening, and in an effort not to distract from the great benefits … of Pride Night.”
On Saturday, Anaheim Mayor Ashleigh Aitken invited the drag group to Angels Pride Night in a tweet, as reported by the Blade: “I’m inviting the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence to join me for @Angels Pride Night at Anaheim Stadium on June 7. Pride should be inclusive and like many, I was disappointed in the Dodgers’ decision,” tweeted the Mayor .
Neither the Angels nor the mayor’s office confirmed that invitation as of press time, and also did not comment on the Dodgers’ reversal.
However, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange took aim at Aitken for extending the invitation to the drag group:
“The decision to openly embrace a group whose demeaning behavior is anti-Catholic and anti-Christian is misguided and disrespectful to the sisters of the Catholic Church who minister in Orange County and selflessly dedicate their lives to God’s underserved people,” said Jarryd Gonzales, spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange on Monday.
“We cannot condone any actions that have historically shown such high levels of disregard for the sincerely held beliefs of the faithful,” he added.
“Our June 7th Pride Night is part of Major League Baseball’s league-wide effort to raise awareness and promote acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community. As in the past, OC Pride has assisted our Organization in the planning of this event as well as outreach to all fans throughout Southern California,” an Angels spokesperson said on the mayor’s invitation.
The Sisters have not indicated publicly if they plan to attend the Angels Pride Night as of yet.
Sources tell the Blade out gay Dodgers Vice President Erik Braverman was being advised on this crisis by Outsports co-founder Cyd Zeigler. When contacted by the Blade, Zeigler declined to comment.
A spokesperson for the Dodgers did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Vice president meets Brittney Griner before first game back
Russia released WNBA star from penal colony late last year
Vice President Kamala Harris accompanied by her husband, second gentleman Doug Emhoff, greeted WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury star center Brittney Griner and her wife Cherelle Friday night before Griner’s first professional basketball game back since being released from a Russian penal camp last December.
According to the White House Press Pool reporter traveling with Harris, she and Emhoff arrived at Crypto.com Arena in downtown Los Angeles and met with the Griners prior to the game between the LA Sparks and Phoenix Mercury.
After conversations between the four, the vice president met with the rest of the Mercury in their dressing rooms before meeting with host team the LA Sparks in theirs.
According to the Advocate’s reporter Christopher Wiggins, in her meeting with the Mercury, the vice president said:
“I came here to talk to the team to congratulate you on exhibiting excellence in every way. You are some of the finest athletes in the world, and to do what you do every day shows that it is right to have ambition,” she said.
“It is right to have aspirations. It is right to work hard. It is right to compete when you know you have put everything into it; when you have trained, when you have discipline, when you have intelligence and when you have brilliance.”
She added, “It makes me so proud as vice president of the United States to go around the world talking to folks about a variety of issues, and one of the subjects that does come up is the WNBA. [The world] is watching what you guys are doing, lifting up the excellence of the finest athletes in the world.”
After meeting both teams Harris then showed up at center court to cheers from about 10,000 people and received an honorary jersey from the Sparks.
Great time at the game tonight cheering on the @LASparks and @PhoenixMercury as we celebrated @BrittneyGriner‘s return to the court.— Vice President Kamala Harris (@VP) May 20, 2023
Her grace, courage, and determination are an inspiration to all. pic.twitter.com/0fTx952IWj
The Sparks beat the Mercury 94-71, although the Advocate pointed out: “Griner’s return to the floor and doing what she loves was more important than the result. Six rebounds, four blocks, and 18 points rounded out her performance.”
West Virginia University basketball coach apologizes for gay slurs
Bob Huggins used the “F word” in a radio interview discussing a rival team when he was coaching men’s basketball at University of Cincinnati
The coach of the West Virginia University Men’s Basketball team said he’s sorry for homophobic slurs he used to described fans of a rival team during a radio interview on Monday. Administrators said they are reviewing the incident and Coach Bob Huggins said he is prepared to face the consequences.
“All those fags, those Catholic fags,” Huggins said, when he was asked about Xavier University on Cincinnati station 700WLW’s “Bill Cunningham Show.” Huggins was discussing his 16-season tenure with the University of Cincinnati and the school’s intracity rivalry with Xavier.
The host asked the former coach of the Bearcats about a moment during a Crosstown Shootout game against the Musketeers. Huggins said Xavier fans threw sex toys onto the court.
“It was transgender night, wasn’t it?” asked Cunningham, making a wisecrack since there was no such thing. “It was the Crosstown Shootout,” Huggins replied. “What it was, was all those fags, those Catholic fags, I think, threw them.”
Huggins added that the fans would “throw rubber penises on the floor and then say they didn’t do it.”
“They were envious they didn’t have one.”
⚠️ Here’s the audio of Bob Huggins calling Xavier fans “Catholic f–s” during an appearance on Bill Cunningham’s WLW radio show in Cincinnati pic.twitter.com/JTftGx9rQE— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) May 8, 2023
The Mountaineers coach issued a statement of apology within hours of those comments:
“Earlier today on a Cincinnati radio program, I was asked about the rivalry between my former employer, the University of Cincinnati, and its crosstown rival, Xavier University.
“During the conversation, I used a completely insensitive and abhorrent phrase that there is simply no excuse for — and I won’t try to make one here.
“I deeply apologize to the individuals I have offended, as well as to the Xavier community, the University of Cincinnati and West Virginia University.
“As I have shared with my players over my 40 years coaching, there are consequences for our words and actions, and I will fully accept any coming my way. I am ashamed and embarrassed and heartbroken for those I have hurt. I must do better, and I will.”
The university condemned Huggins’ comments and said in a statement, “The situation is under review and will be addressed by the university and its athletics department.”
May 8, 2023
Former Cincinnati City Councilman Chris Seelbach, the city’s first openly gay councilmember, told WKRC-TV he’s neither surprised by the comments nor by the fact that they were celebrated on Cunningham’s show.
“I feel sorry for him, he holds that kind of hatred for people that are different in his heart, because that’s clearly where it’s coming from,” said Seelbach. “I get angry because I’m a Catholic man, I am a graduate of Xavier, and I’m gay.”
Seelbach says he believes most Catholics don’t have the same views as Huggins and Cunningham.
“I want him to say that to my face, because there’s a lot of us who are taxpaying regular citizens who happen to be Catholic and gay who don’t appreciate it, and I don’t know if he would have the courage to say it to our face,” said Seelbach.
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