BY TED SILLANPAA
In the 1970s, part of our Physical Education grade was based on whether or not we showered every day after class. Skill and participation in activities wasn’t enough. We had to take a shower, then hustle to our next class.
I was reminded of how casually most of us accepted getting naked in a locker room filled with other guys to shower. It came to mind when the grown men who play in the NFL voiced concern about what might happen if they happen to have a gay man on their team. It would be awkward to shower with a homosexual man around.
Awkward? A couple hundred 7th graders showed up with me the first day of school to learn we would be showering every single day after P.E. class. I had a group of 7, 8 really close pals. None of us had ever been naked in front of anyone, let alone showered in a group setting.
You want awkward? Imagine what it was like for the more bashful kids who knew that on Day 2 they would be taking off their school clothes in front of 50 others and dressing for gym class. Then, they’d end class by getting a clean towel from the equipment room, undressing and walking through the crowd of 50 or so other naked guys to shower.
In the early and mid-1970s, we didn’t know much of anything about homosexuality. We knew a great deal about finding another guy’s weak spot and making sport of picking at the soft spot for our own amusement. Some of us realized immediately that there weren’t many teen-aged boys without something to make fun of and fired right back. (It wasn’t high-brown humor. So, “Yeah…well…at least I don’t have a noodle” would do.)
Between daily P.E. classes and all the practices and games we had in interscholastic sports, we took hundreds and hundreds of showers. The camaraderie of the locker room was really appealing to my friends and I, so we spent a lot of time before and after the shower just … hanging out in the locker room.
My memory is exceptional, so I remember every time I had to shoot back at somebody who pointed out that a few more sit-ups might be in order. I was tubby, even though a good athlete, I was tubby for a long time. I don’t remember doing anything but showering quickly, toweling off at my locker and getting dressed. Once in the shower, we were about the business of showering.
Do you know how many times I can recall somebody making a snarky comment about our boy parts or about one of the fellows bullies found effeminate, oddly disinterested in girls or showing a physical response to showering with other guys?
Guess. By the time we hit high school and had big balls of hormones, we knew what homosexuality was and figured there had to be homosexuals on campus. So, guess how many times I heard someone get mocked for his perceived sexuality or for finding himself somehow responding to being in a room with naked guys.
Zero. None. Not a single comment I can remember was made about anything, like what professional athletes seem so worried about as more gays come out of the closet to enter the locker room.
The difference, of course, was that even the most heinous bully in gym class had no idea if the guy at the next locker was gay. Pro athletes have been in the same situation forever. Now, since men are acknowledging that they’re gay, the other guys are suddenly worried that the gay athlete won’t be able to keep from ogling all the muscular, squeaky clean bodies in the locker room.
I was a freshman in high school in 1971 when we all became aware that a boy named Mark Chadwick was a homosexual. He didn’t do a magazine interview, but he told people and … he was way ahead of his time. We’d had P.E. class with Mark Chadwick for three years and would shower with him for three years after he told whomever he told whatever he told them about his sexual preference.
Not a ripple. Nothing. If anybody was going to be a wise guy just to make Mark Chadwick’s life miserable, it would’ve been one of the guys on our basketball team in 1971. Most didn’t think Mark Chadwick was worth their time or trouble before, so they didn’t figure he was worth attention after he became the first gay most of us had ever known.
P.E. class in the 1970s involved seriously competitive competition in all sports. My buddy broke his leg trying to do a vault in gymnastics. Overweight kids were humiliated once a year as their mile times were shouted out by the coach during the President’s Physical Fitness Test. And, we had wrestling tournaments in gym class starting in 7th grade.
By 9th grade, the guys who could wrestle and enjoy the competition were known to all. The other guys put up a game effort in order to get a higher grade in P.E. We, of course, were paired against boys who weighed what we weighed. Guess who was the first guy to wrestle Mark Chadwick after he came out of the closet in 1971?
Chadwick had never enjoyed P.E., but he was hardly alone. A guy standing near me heard “OK…Sillanpaa versus Chadwick. To the mat, gentlemen!” That guy immediately realized that Chadwick would be rolling around on the ground with me on top of him. He started to say something about me and rolling around. I wasn’t good enough to out-wrestle the elite wrestlers, but I learned the moves and was confident. Then, I looked at Mark Chadwick and he looked like the most unhappy kid I’d ever seen in my life. Unhappy doesn’t accurately describe it, really. He knew what people circling the mat were thinking and he knew he was in a position he hadn’t considered when he acknowledged that he was gay.
The coach blew the whistle to start our match and I shot for Mark’s legs. He offered no resistance beyond sort of trying to fall to his knees. Some effort was required for is grade. I could feel that he wasn’t doing anything to prevent me from throwing him around like a rag doll. I knew he wasn’t completely with athletic skill. If he’d opted to use what muscle I’m sure he had, there would’ve been nothing to keep us from a match that required, effort, sweat, my trying to impose my will on him physically.
Mark Chadwick wasn’t going to let happen what everybody wanted to see happen. He wasn’t going to roll around and wrestle to quiet their curiosity. I couldn’t have grabbed, flipped and pinned a toy stuffed animal any more easily than I flipped and pinned Mark Chadwick. I realized he just wanted it to be over with. And, really, so did I. We learn compassion and empathy in the darndest places.
The match took, according to a friend’s unofficial count, 17 seconds. I did, of course, grab and hold and wind up on top of Chadwick. I learned in 1971 that gay males do not automatically become physically aroused simply being touched by or in the presence of another male.
If we learned all that 40 years ago in a small town in Northern California, accepted that we were just guys who had to shower and that maybe some of us were homosexual, it’s unbelievable to me that grown men want to keep gay men from making a living in pro sports because showering together would be awkward.
(Follow Ted Sillanpaa on Twitter @tedsillanpa. E-mail him: firstname.lastname@example.org)