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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:  tsillanpaa1956@gmail.com)

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Comments

9 Comments

  1. Terrance

    I’m not homophobic, but having a gay male in the locker room is almost the same as having a woman in the locker room. Both are attracted to men. It’s almost impossible to think of myself, taking a shower in an all women’s bathroom and not even once, looking to see how fine they were or admiring their body. These are professional athletes, with bodies like an Adonis and handsome/attractive..and some like Refrigerator Perry.

    All I’m saying is that I can understand where some of these guys are coming from. It’s impossible to be naked with some attractive people and not to have thoughts running through your mind. I’m sure Sam is very professional and a great teammate but I bet while all of the players on his team supported him and coming out to the world, they had their hesitation/reservations in the locker room. I hope he does great and has a great season.

    February 21st, 2014 3:59 pm

  2. overtime

    From: TED SILLANPAA

    Terrance…Thanks for reading. I appreciate it. Let’s try this from a gay man I went to high school with. He wrote: “Gay people don’t need to have clothing removed to know whether they are attracted to another person or not. As for the showering question, if the idea that a gay colleague might be checking them out puts some straight players off their game, then the NFL teams could invest a small chunk of their billions to install modesty partitions, or for the particularly sensitive, a few private showers (with a lock on the door for added security).” … A woman I know suggested that heterosexual males who feel that the homosexual athlete would be checking them out in the shower must have an incredibly high opinion of themselves. … Finally, I was just at the health club I’ve attended for years. Do we really believe heterosexuals haven’t showered publicly with homosexuals there, with no problem, for yeas? (I noted that the club now has put curtains up to make the showers private.)

    Thanks for the civility and your thoughts.
    TED

    February 21st, 2014 5:46 pm

  3. Bob Dreyer

    The writer and I are from the same era and I have similar memories. I also gotta agree that I’ve never really cared about sexual preference and even as a teenager didn’t understand why anyone cared about someone else’s sexuality.

    Also as someone who played competitive sports through the community college level and who has worked out at various gyms for years, I’ll wager I’ve showered with plenty of gay men and didn’t know it.

    February 24th, 2014 2:27 pm

  4. Suzanne

    @ Terrance – Really? “Both are attracted to men.” Get over yourself. Gay men aren’t attracted to ALL men. Why would you automatically assume that all of them would want to oogle you? In a female locker room, women are constantly looking at each other and judging each other. Hell, it might be refreshing to change in a men’s locker room where they are actually admiring you instead of judging you. I’m under no false impression that a lesbian is going to eyeball me simply because I’m a female. Just like I’m under no false impression that a man is going to eyeball me simply because I’m a female. A PERSON (male or female) that is eyeballing me is eyeballing me because he or she happens to find me attractive. Which not everyone does…

    February 25th, 2014 8:28 am

  5. overtime

    From: TED SILLANPAA
    Suzanne….Thanks for reading. I appreciate you taking the time. I don’t think people really give much thought to men showering with men, physical attraction, etc. in a practical sense. So, it helps to have it explained from a logical perspective.
    Ted

    February 26th, 2014 12:53 pm

  6. overtime

    FROM TED SILLANPAA
    Bob…I appreciate you reading and sharing your thoughts. And…I can’t remember my ever just figuring every female would find me attractive and eyeball me when I was a kid in P.E. class, so the knowledge that there might be gay boys in the shower didn’t mean a thing either. Like you, we didn’t think about it … but, as we learned, there were gay males showering with us from 7th grade forward and nothing anywhere near uncomfortable for heterosexuals happened. But, I realize that heterosexuals who just oppose equal rights for gays would cling to the idea that the shower room would be an insurmountable problem. Ted

    February 26th, 2014 12:57 pm

  7. John

    There will be always a percentage of men who are gay, so we shoud just get over with it. And come on hot guys, handsome guys doing a towel dance look really pathetic. Share the sweet bits and stop crapping around!

    March 19th, 2014 4:20 pm

  8. Kimball Wilson

    Mr. Sillanpaa,
    Thanks for writing about this very important topic. I believe America must follow the law. We are a nation of laws and we must at all cost preserve that ideal. As of June 26, 2013 this became and equal rights issue. Prior that date and when the DoD repealed the DADT, I only requested the base fitness center install shower curtains. I truly felt uncomfortable and wanted a separate locker room and shower room but I knew it wasn’t allowed under the law at the time so again I requested what was, a shower curtain. The curtain was denied because it was same sex attraction and not opposite sex attraction and President Obama had ordered no changes to shower and locker rooms. However, when the Supreme Court ruled (1) Homosexuality and heterosexuality are equal sexual orientations (2) homosexuals and heterosexuals must be treated equally (3) to deny either homosexuals or heterosexuals equal treatment due to Gender is Sexual Orientation Discrimination. The idea that for some should feel differently if looked upon in the locker room or shower room by a homosexuals vs a heterosexual in DISCRIMINATION in itself and should not be tolerated. If America wants to deny male and female access to the same locker rooms, shower rooms, rest rooms and dorm bed rooms that is ok but it must be done in accordance with the law and to also deny homosexuals access to heterosexuals in these same areas. Everyone deserves dignity and respect. Though I don’t agree with homosexual marriage I can respect and treat homosexuals with dignity. I only ask they and people like you respect and treat me and other with dignity and respect by allowing for equal privacy, which happens to be the LAW.

    April 29th, 2014 6:42 am

  9. overtime

    Kimball,

    Thanks for reading. It shouldn’t have been or be difficult to use shower curtains or something for privacy. They have private showers at my health club, as well as at the 24 Hour Fitness I visited.
    Ted

    May 11th, 2014 4:19 pm

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