My Gay Community Day

By Mike Walsh, written in 2003.

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It was a Sunday morning. My wife and I were at a house with some friends in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. I sat down with the Philadelphia Inquirer, opened up the sports section, and read a letter to the editor with the heading “Keep Sexual Preferences Out of Vet.” Dan Landis of Broomall, Pennsylvania, wrote, “It’s not the gayness, it’s the ‘in-your-face’ approach that is disturbing to us. We go to games to watch the sport and would like not to be confronted by anyone proclaiming their sexual preferences by hanging ‘Gay’ banners. It’s that propensity of gays to show the world that they’re different and proud of it that is troublesome…. One day, hopefully soon, gay groups will not see the need to include their sexual proclivities in their names.”

Landis was referring to the August 12, 2003, game at Veterans Stadium in South Philadelphia between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Milwaukee Brewers. The game was like any other Phillies’ home game except that 800 members of three Philadelphia area gay organizations—Gay & Lesbian Lawyers of Philadelphia, the Gay & Lesbian Medical Association, and the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association—filled eight sections in the upper deck. I wondered which group name included the sexual proclivities Landis found so offensive.

Since the groups had sold so many tickets, the event was deemed “Gay Community Day,” and that designation was displayed on screens at the stadium for a few minutes. A gay man also threw out the ceremonial first pitch.

Such a promotion was a first for the Phillies, but at least six other major league baseball teams have had similar promotions for gay groups. Nonetheless, “Gay Community Day” at the Vet generated lots of complaints like Landis’. Indignant fans wrote angry letters to the team, to the local newspapers, and on web messageboards. The local sports-talk radio station received dozens of calls complaining about the Phillies. The American Family Association of Pennsylvania, an anti-gay group, issued an “action alert” denouncing the Phillies for offering “a stamp of approval to the homosexual lifestyle.”

Kathy Killian, Phillies director of group sales, had a different take. In various newspaper reports, she is quoted as saying, “What we started here is just an open door policy, regardless of what your beliefs are…. Our job is to put fans in the stands, and this is one more group that wants to buy tickets…. It says a lot about our organization. It says our doors are open and baseball fans are baseball fans.”

I mentioned the controversy and Landis letter to the friends we were staying with. To my surprise, a woman (we’ll call her “Jennifer”) immediately launched into a heated criticism of “certain” gay groups. The conversation went something like this.

“I don’t need it thrown in my face everywhere I go,” Jennifer said. “Some of these gay groups, like Act Up, are always so confrontational and aggressive.”

“But heterosexually is in the face of gay people all the time,” I countered. “On TV, in movies, just walking down the street—heterosexuals kissing, holding hands, having sex. Why shouldn’t gay people be allowed to be in your face with their sexuality too?”

“Look, I’m sorry to be politically incorrect, but that’s just how I feel. I don’t want gay groups throwing their lifestyle in my face, especially at a baseball game. It’s inappropriate.”

“I think gays ought to be able to do anything straights can do.”

“You don’t see straight groups hanging banners at Veterans Stadium and getting involved in these incidents.”

I had no idea what “incidents” she was referring to. None of us had actually attended the game. I’ve since read a few reports of the game, and the only incident of note was that four fundamentalist Christians were escorted from the stadium when they refused to remove their banner, which read, “Homosexuality is sin, Christ can set you free.” They were given free tickets to another game.

I also read that a man danced with a rainbow flag, a woman draped a rainbow flag over the Phillie Phanatic’s shoulders, and a man proclaimed, “We’re here, we’re queer, and we want cold beer!”

Jennifer continued to berate “in your face” gay groups. I wanted to end the conversation, so I stopped responding and went back to reading the newspaper.

After brunch, I got a shower and changed. When I ran into Jennifer a little while later, she said to me, “You better not wear that shirt to Vet Stadium.”

I didn’t know what she meant until we were driving home and I realized that I was wearing a Philadelphia Gay and Lesbian Film Festival tee-shirt.

I volunteer occasionally at cultural events, and I had ushered a couple nights at the Philadelphia Gay and Lesbian Film Fest. When you volunteer at these events, you often get a free tee-shirt. I’m not gay, but I saw no reason to not wear the tee-shirt occasionally, especially since it’s in better shape than most of my other tee-shirts.

I laughed at Jennifer’s comment. She was making an effort to break the tension between us, and I appreciated that.

Not far outside of Jim Thorpe, we stopped at a Ukrainian Festival. We had some time, and we thought it might be a fun cultural diversion.

We watched a group of youthful Ukrainians in colorful garb dance and sing on an outdoor stage. I noticed a dozen or so people to the side of the stage surrounding a tall, stylishly dressed man with a fastidiously manicured moustache and mullet. He was signing autographs. His shirt was unbuttoned down to his navel, he had a gold chain or two around his neck, and he was wearing a brightly-colored sports jacket with the sleeves rolled up. He looked like Engelbert Humperdinck. I imagined him singing romantic, sexy songs in Ukrainian for a gaggle of swooning women. I was hoping he would perform. Bizarre spectacles always brighten my day.

We were soon bored with the singing and dancing, so we wandered through the booths of Ukrainian crafts. I stopped at a booth where cassettes and CDs were being sold. When the tall, heavyset young man behind the counter noticed me, he chuckled loudly and said, “Hey, nice tee-shirt.”

Several people, myself included, stopped and looked at my shirt. I realized that the young man as well as his customers thought I was gay.

The young man went back to work, his customers went back to looking at CDs, and I moved on. I told my wife what had happened, and we exchanged whispers wondering if the kid were gay and if he had mentioned the shirt to start a conversation. I imagined that a big, awkward gay kid might feel a bit out of place at a Ukrainian festival in a small town in the hills of Pennsylvania.

Realizing that most of the people at the festival who saw me in the tee-shirt would think I was gay, I began to feel very conspicuous. However, this wasn’t the first time I’ve felt uncomfortable in that tee-shirt. I’ve worn it occasionally around the small, working-class town where I live, and on a few occasions I got strange, unfriendly frowns from people, which I later attributed to the shirt.

My wife and I walked back past the music booth again. I stopped and said to the large kid, “Hey, do you know who that guy is other there?” I pointed to the man signing autographs.

“Who?” he asked.

“He’s over there near the stage,” I said and pointed toward the crowd around him. “He looks like Engelbert.”

“Why?” the kid asked. “Do you want his phone number?” The kid snickered again, and a couple of customers snickered as well. A bit stunned that I had given this kid the opportunity to mock me as being gay in front of other people, not once, but twice, I walked away. The kid was either homophobic or a closeted gay who found some sort of warped pleasure in publicly humiliating other gays. The only problem was that I wasn’t gay, but I didn’t tell him that because I thought it was beneath me to respond.

As we bought some beer and food, I watched the eyes of everyone I encountered to see if they stared at my tee-shirt. I also wondered if gay people normally felt as shunned as I felt at that moment.

We ate at a picnic table. The food was generally bad, and we regretted even stopping at the festival. There wasn’t anything truly interesting about it. Even the Ukrainian Humperdinck had packed up and left.

When we got home, I took off the tee-shirt and dropped it in a trashcan. As I lay in bed that night waiting for sleep, I castigated myself for getting so rattled just for being perceived as gay by a person I didn’t know, didn’t care about, and would likely never meet again. I also wished that I had leaned over that table full of Ukrainian CDs and cassettes and punched that kid a few times right in his snickering proclivity.


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