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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

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Tyler Townsend, gay news, Washington Blade
Tyler Townsend, gay news, Washington Blade

Today, Tyler Townsend has left baseball behind and is pursuing a degree in hospitality management. (Blade photo by Kevin Naff)

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’

Tyler Townsend, gay news, Washington Blade

Tyler Townsend played in the minor league system after being drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in 2010. (Photo courtesy Frederick Keys)

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.”

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Las Vegas Raiders head coach resigns after homophobic emails surface

Discovery made during misconduct investigation into the Washington Football Team

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Courtesy of ESPN

LAS VEGAS — The head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders, Jon Gruden resigned his post Monday after an article in the New York Times reported that he frequently used misogynistic and homophobic language directed at Commissioner Roger Goodell and others in the National Football League, (NFL).

The emails were discovered in a workplace misconduct investigation into the Washington Football Team the Times reported, but ended up costing Gruden his job when they also showed Gruden denounced the drafting of a gay player and the tolerance of players protesting during the playing of the national anthem among other issues.

In a statement released by the team late Monday, Gruden said; “I have resigned as Head Coach of the Las Vegas Raiders. I love the Raiders and do not want to be a distraction. Thank you to all the players, coaches, staff, and fans of Raider Nation. I’m sorry, I never meant to hurt anyone.”

The sequence of events started last Friday when the Wall Street Journal reported that Gruden used a racist term to describe NFL union chief DeMaurice Smith in a 2011 email to the Washington team’s former executive Bruce Allen.

According to the Associated Press, Gruden apologized for his “insensitive remarks” about Smith, saying they were made out of frustration over the 2011 lockout. But the latest emails sent from between 2011-18 when Gruden was an analyst for ESPN show his use of derogatory language went well beyond that.

A league source confirmed the accuracy of the emails to the Associated Press and said they were sent to the Raiders last week. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the league hasn’t made the emails public.

The New York Times and the Associated Press both noted that Gruden used a gay slur to insult Goodell and said he was “clueless” and “anti-football.” He also said Goodell shouldn’t have pressured the Rams to draft “queers,” a reference to Michael Sam, who was the first openly gay player drafted by an NFL team.

Gruden’s abrupt resignation was announced live on the Colts/Ravens “Monday Night Football” broadcast when the NFL ran multiple LGBTQ-inclusive advertisements, including one featuring an NFL logo wrapped in the colors of the Trans Flag and Rainbow Flag Gay City News Editor Matt Tracy reported.

Raiders owner Mark Davis issued a statement which only said that he accepted Gruden’s resignation. In a separate statement the Raiders announced that special teams and assistant head coach Rich Bisaccia will serve as Interim Head Coach of the Las Vegas Raiders, effective immediately.

“Coach Bisaccia will meet with the media at the regularly scheduled media availability on Wednesday,” the team said.

According to ESPN and the Associated Press, Bisaccia has been a special teams coordinator in the NFL for 19 seasons with the Raiders, Chargers, Dallas and Tampa Bay. He has no head coaching experience but his elevation will allow other assistants in the Raiders organization such as defensive coordinator Gus Bradley to stay in their current roles.

Jon Gruden resigns as Raiders head coach | SC with SVP

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New Zealand university names trans athlete ‘sportswoman of the year’

Laurel Hubbard is first out trans woman to compete in Olympics

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Screenshot via CBS Sports

DUNEDIN, New Zealand — Olympic weightlifter Laurel Hubbard was named “sportswoman of the year” at the prestigious 113-year-old University of Otago and OUSA Blues and Golds Awards event this past week.

The 43-year-old Queenstown, South Island, native was the first openly transgender woman to compete in an Olympics when she competed in the women’s 87kg weightlifting event at the 2021 Tokyo Games.

In a statement to the local newspaper, the Otago Daily Times, Hubbard said she was ‘‘grateful for all of the support and kindness received from the teaching staff and students at Otago University.’’

‘‘It is not possible for athletes to complete at the Olympic level without the encouragement and aroha [a Māori word meaning “love”] of friends, family and supporters.

‘‘This award belongs to everyone who has been part of my Olympic journey,’’ she told the paper.

Hubbard’s participation at the Tokyo Games had provoked controversy as she had prepared for competing as the world’s first out transgender woman Olympian. The director of medicine and science for the International Olympic Committee, Dr. Richard Budgett, directly addressed those who had attacked and mocked the New Zealander and claimed she shouldn’t be competing with cisgender women, saying  “everyone agrees that trans women are women.”

“To put it in a nutshell,” he said, “the IOC had a scientific consensus back in 2015. There are no IOC rules or regulations around transgender participation. That depends on each international federation. So Laurel Hubbard is a woman, is competing under the rules of her federation and we have to pay tribute to her courage and tenacity in actually competing and qualifying for the Games.”

Otago University Students’ Association president Michaela Waite-Harvey told the Otago Daily Times that the Blues awards aim to highlight Otago students excelling in their chosen sport.

‘‘We could think of no-one more worthy of sportswoman of the year than Laurel Hubbard who represented Otago and New Zealand incredibly well at this year’s Tokyo Olympics.’’

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Gold medalist Tom Daley battled COVID in hospital prior to Tokyo games

An x-ray revealed “blotches” on his lungs, and he was kept at the hospital for 10 hours to increase his oxygen levels

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Tom Daley (Photo by sportsphotographer.eu via Bigstock)

LONDON – British Olympic champion diver Tom Daley acknowledged in an recent interview with British newspaper The Times, that he had been secretly rushed to hospital seven months prior to the summer Tokyo Olympic games after contracting the coronavirus.

Daley told the paper “[my] lungs felt pressurised, as if they had sacks of rice around them”, and added: “Every time I stood up, I felt the room spinning and a blinding white light, as if I was going to faint, and as if I couldn’t get enough oxygen into my body.”

He went on to describe his ordeal in graphic details telling Times journalist Jane Mulkerrins that he gave specific instructions to his husband, screenwriter D. Lance Black one night as he headed off to sleep, what to do in the event he quit breathing.

He also told Mulkerrins he was frightened for their son Robbie if he and his husband both contracted the COVID-19 coronavirus, especially after he was rushed to hospital by ambulance unable to breath correctly.

When his head began to feel like it had “a vice tightening around it” and his “oxygen levels were dropping,” it was at that point Daley said he decided to call 111. [The UK’s emergency phone number]

‘My oxygen levels were dropping’

He was rushed to hospital in an ambulance and put on oxygen. An x-ray revealed “blotches” on his lungs, and he was kept at the hospital for 10 hours to increase his oxygen levels, The Times reported.

“I understood how quickly things could potentially go downhill,” said Daley.

“I had flashes of fear about whether I would be put on a ventilator, and my time being up. I was really terrified.”

He also described his reasons for keeping his ordeal secret so that his rivals in his sport wouldn’t know.

The episode kept the Olympian diver out of training for nearly seven months although Daley along with his British teammate diving partner Matty Lee won the gold with a score of 471.81 in the men’s synchronized diving on at the Tokyo 2021 games.

After tough competition in the Men’s 10m platform diving from China’s Cao Yuan who picked up the Gold Medal and his teammate Yang Jian cinching the number two spot with a Silver Medal, the 27-year-old Daley secured a Bronze Medal win with a score of 548.25.

It was the second Olympic Bronze Medal for the Plymouth, England native, in individual diving completion since he won bronze at the London Games in 2012. Daley and his teammate Daniel Goodfellow won a Bronze Medal in the 10m synchronised at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.

The Times interview comes as the paper’s magazine is serializing Daley’s new book, Coming Up for Air: What I Learned from Sport, Fame and Fatherhood, which is due to be published by Harper Collins on October 14.

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