Advice To Newly-Minted Gays

Thanks to Towleroad and Outsports, I came across this blog by a high school kid named Sam.  Sam just recently came out to his family, and is beginning his journey toward gay adulthood, which runs on a different time scale than that of heterosexual teenagers because of a later starting age (although it’s been getting younger and younger in the past decade.)  Sam is three years younger than I was when I came out, and I admire his bravery.  He is also, I gather, from an area near-ish to where I grew up, so I understand the community and the culture.

Sam’s posts got me thinking about what I would tell a newly-out gay teenager (other than “It Gets Better,” to which I direct you to this website.)  Gay people, unlike most other minority groups, cannot generally look to older people in their families as role models.  It is rare for a gay child to have a gay older sibling or a parent, and one is very fortunate if he or she has gay uncles, aunts, or older cousins.  Instead they have the Internet, which is not necessarily a force for good.

So dear gay teenagers, consider this post advice from an ersatz older brother.

1.  If things have gone well thus far, congratulations.  If not, I’m so sorry.  Please know that your life will change.

2.  It gets better is a misnomer.  “It” does not get better.  You get better.  You get stronger.  The situation may or may not change, but you will develop enough strength to make it tolerable or even enjoyable.

3.  If your parents are having a hard time with this, be patient.  Give them a year.  Remember that in their eyes they are seeing all their dreams for you fall apart.  Given time (and help from PFLAG), they will realize that is not the case, and will embrace you for who you really are.  If their behavior does not get better though, find some adult who will support you emotionally.

4.  Just because you can pass as straight and consider yourself masculine, doesn’t give you the right to ever look down on the effeminate gay kids.  Unlike you, they could not hide, and they got the beatings that you escaped.  As a result, they got tougher, and they fought back.  The benefits and the progress that we all enjoy now are because of the effeminate kids.  And the lesbians.  Never think otherwise.

5.  There’s no way around it, American television and movies are almost universally terrible when it comes  to LGBT-themed projects.  The things that we are told we should like–Will & Grace, the American Queer as Folk, Brokeback Mountain, Glee–are not actually that good, and occasionally insulting.  If you want good quality gay-themed entertainment, look to the British who have some excellent gay-themed movies (Beautiful Thing, My Beautiful Laundrette, Derek Jarman’s Edward II) and television shows (Beautiful People and the original Queer as Folk.)  The excellent movie Maurice is an American film, but it was adapted from a British novel.

6.  Make sure you read books and make sure they have some kind of lasting value.  Trust me when I say that people can take only so much talk about Glee and the items you find in Entertainment Weekly.  Books will help you develop interesting things to talk about.  Beauty fades, but intelligence does not.

7.  Music did not start in 2004, and Lady Gaga, as wonderful as she may be, is not God’s gift to us all.  There is a whole world of music spanning centuries and countless genres.  Take in as much of it as you can.

8.  Don’t be too eager to go to bars and clubs; you’re too young.  I know you don’t want to hear that, but it’s true.  You’re not ready for that kind of predatory atmosphere, and you will be preyed upon.  Hell, most of the people who legally frequent these places aren’t ready.  Be comfortable in your own skin first.  The bars will be always be there, even if the names and locations change.

9.  Along the same lines, don’t be so eager to get a boyfriend now that you have just come out.  Believe me I understand why you want one.  Our culture tells us we need to be in relationship, your straight friends are all dating, and you’re lonely.  Here’s the problem though, boyfriends are a lot of work and a lot of drama.  I agree that you need love right now, but this is the time when friends and family have to give you that love.  The boyfriend will come later.  That’s what college is for.

10.  Keeping your virginity throughout high school is not the worst thing in the world, but if you do insist on having sex, always use condoms.  If you don’t want sex, don’t let him pressure you.  If you just want to be held, say so.  Don’t mistake sex for intimacy even if the two are closely related.  If he is not willing to accommodate what you need, get the hell out and never look back. You’re life is precious, and you’re a worthy human being.

11.  Get involved with your Gay/Straight Alliance.  If your school does not have one, consider starting it.  If your school protests, know that you are in the legal right so long as there are other extracurricular activities at the school.  That’s the law.  Here is where you go if you need information to start a GSA.

12.  Keep informed about politics.  Gays don’t just have to worry about physical threats.  There is a whole American political party, as well as multiple religious hierarchies and organizations, devoted to keeping us from full equality and to rolling back the gains we have made.  Ignorance of this will not protect you.

13.  Read Dan Savage’s column, and listen to his podcast.  He’s one of the most prominent and important gay thinker/activists out there, even if he pretends he’s not.  Also you’ll learn how to deal with sex in a much more mature way.

14.  Don’t fall in love with the first gay person you meet; it will only lead to heartache.

15.  Drugs are bad, particularly drugs found in clubs and bars (stay the hell away from meth.)  And remember that alcohol is a drug.  I’m not telling you what to do, just begging you to act prudently.

16.  Finally, read this advice that was published in The Stranger some time in the early 2000’s I believe.  The original page seems to be gone (and the author no longer works for The Stranger), but it is the best advice out there, and for an entire year I had it posted on my apartment wall.

Good luck, kiddo.  I’m rooting for you.

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L’Shana Tovah

For all of my Jewish readers out there, I wish you a happy and sweet new year.

Today the new year began extremely sweetly for one non-Jew.  Lionel Messi scored his 194th goal for Barcelona (the second of two he scored in today’s Champion’s League match at BATE Borisov), thereby equaling the record of Barcelona legend Ladislao Kubala.  What Kubala took 12 years to do, Messi has done in seven.  Messi is only 42 goals or so away from breaking the record held by Cesar Rodriguez, which means that barring the horrendous (injury or transfer), that record should be Messi’s within the next two seasons at most.  Now certain caveats do apply: football is a team sport, goals are a relatively overrated statistic, and different eras cannot be compared and all that.  But for a club that also had Cruyff, Maradona, Romario, and Ronaldo, none of their tenures with the blaugrana compare to Messi’s.  He is probably the greatest talent that Barcelona ever harnessed, and the rewards have been plentiful.

Long may the reign of Lionel Messi continue.

Paying For Broken Plates

Last week Barcelona beat Osasuna 8-0.  That annihilation came on the heels of two consecutive disappointing 2-2 draws, first to Real Sociedad in La Liga and then to AC Milan a few days later in the Champions League.  In both cases, Barcelona held leads and arguably should have won (especially against Sociedad.)  The media talked of a “mini-crisis” at the Camp Nou, creating a story where none really existed.  But the talk clearly got to the Barcelona players who needed to show that they were in fact okay.  Hence the 8-0 destruction of Osasuna.  The Osasuna massacre was predicted over at ESPN by Eduardo Alvarez in his weekly Quiniela column, where he employed the Spanish phrase “pagar los platos rotos” (to pay for broken plays).  This expression was subsequently applied to the match in reports by Phil Ball and Sid Lowe, two of the great commentators of Spanish football.  I think even the Osasuna manager used it both before and after the match.

In the middle of the week, Barcelona again drew 2-2, this time to then league leader Valencia.  Therefore, today’s opponents Atletico Madrid had to pay for broken plates.  Unlike last year Atletico had actually started the season well.  Even though talisman Sergio Aguero went to Manchester City and the unhappy Diego Forlan went to Inter (where he can be unhappy all over again as club crisis has followed him to the San Siro), Atletico added the stellar Colombian Radamel Falcao (from Porto) who has brilliantly led Los Colchoneros and greatly impressed.

It probably hurt Atletico’s chances that their crosstown rivals over at the Bernabeu (who had their own broken plates that someone needed to pay for) beat Rayo Vallecano 6-2.  I imagine that the Barcelona players needed to prove that despite the draws, they were still the better side than Real Madrid.  And so, Barcelona beat Atletico 5-0 with a(nother) Lionel Messi hat trick.

Barcelona’s season thus far has been both interesting and troubling.  It has been interesting from a tactical point of view because, with both Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique out injured, there are effectively no center backs on this Barcelona side.  It was rumored that Pep Guardiola wanted to buy one this year, but the acquisitions of both Alexis Sanchez and (especially) Cesc Fabregas effectively halted that.

The biggest knock against this Barcelona side over the past couple years has been that it is a thin squad.  The doomsday scenario is that if a Messi or a Xavi or an Iniesta got injured then the season is in trouble.  This is especially true about Messi who is an irreplaceable player.  This scenario also applies to the back line, and it was tested last season (Eric Abidal’s illness and Puyol’s injury.)  There are other players who could fill in for the full backs, Adriano and Maxwell come to mind, but there is no real backup for either Puyol or Pique–save for Abidal the left back.  Andreu Fontàs is probably not ready yet, and so Guardiola has been using  one of his two central midfielders, Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano as makeshift center backs.  Sometimes he used both.  (It’s not a completely alien concept.  Last season both filled in for Puyol and in the Barcelona system, when the full backs move forward, the central midfielder moves back to become a third center back.)  To accommodate the absent Puyol and Pique, Guardiola switched his system from an ostensible 4-3-3 to a 3-4-3, and that has come under major scrutiny.  There have been times when the only true defender on the field was Abidal.  Given that even Barcelona’s three forwards can play as midfield players, in the 3-4-3, Barcelona has become one giant box-to-box midfield.  The draws against Sociedad and Milan were both results of not being strong enough at the back and not quite used to this system.  And also a dearth of true defensive players.

I do not question Guardiola.  He is a brilliant tactician and a true visionary, and he also can only work with what he has.  Fabregas and Sanchez were supposed to allow for squad rotation and decrease the burden on the team.  Yet this season already the following players have been out injured: Inieta, Puyol, Pique, Sanchez, Ibrahim Afellay, and Maxwell.  Dani Alves has also missed the odd game this season.

So that is the concern.  Obviously though when Barcelona beats Villareal 5-0, Osasuna 8-0, and Atletico 5-0, there is also cause for marvel.  The primary reason is the Messi/Fabregas partnership, which has already been stunningly brilliant at times.  I had wondered aloud on this blog why Barcelona would pursue Fabregas with such vigor, especially given the glut of talented midfielders.  I had also said that I thought this year would be devoted to making the Iniesta-Fabregas partnership ready for when Xavi inevitably retires.  In both cases I was wrong.  Fabregas has already proven that not only was he worth every penny, but Barcelona got him for a bargain.  (Arsenal must be livid right now.)  But what makes Fabregas so exciting is not his potential to replace Xavi, but rather the creative partnership that he has with Messi, forged years ago at La Masia but brought to a whole new level now.

Additionally, Thiago Alcântara is proving himself to be an incredible talent.  If he is still a lesser light on a marquee that showcases Messi, Fabregas, Iniesta, Xavi, and David Villa, that is going to change very soon.  Whatever the defensive frailties, one cannot fault the attack which is the best in the world.  (The defense, when everyone is fit, is also at the top or at least very close.)

The season is still young.  There are 38 games in a league, and that does not count the Copa del Rey or the real prize, the Champions League (or the Club World Cup.)  Because of injuries and transfers, and a limited preseason, Barcelona is not where it should be or can be.  This is not to say that it will ultimately win everything or even anything.  What it is saying is that a season is a long time, and at this juncture nothing has been decided yet. In a few months we will see what happens when the system is more familiar and/or the absent players recover.

I make only one prediction.  Real Betis, the current league leader, will not be in that position come May 2012.

 

On Monica Seles

I have no quantifiable data to prove this, but I suspect that if one were to poll tennis fans as to who their favorite player of all time was, across the world  the runaway answer would be Monica Seles.  Once a world-beating teenager, Seles, through no fault of her own, became her sport’s tragic heroine.  In doing so, she won over fans by the legion. and her name became a shorthand for dignity and class–a trait all too seemingly rare among famous athletes.

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Tennis matches are most enjoyable to watch when opponents’ styles contrast.  The classic example, the one that goes back to 19th century Wimbledon, is that between the baseline player and the serve-and-volleyer.  That contrast produced some of tennis’s most exciting rivalries: Navratilova/Evert, McEnroe/Borg, and to a lesser extent Sampras/Agassi.

There is another battle, less classic and far rarer, that has made the hearts of tennis fans beat all the faster, and that is the battle between athlete and artist.  The serve-and-volley game is nearly extinct, destroyed by modern equipment and training, but at least it had a good run.  The tennis “artist” on the other hand, a player of uncanny intelligence, near perfect shot making ability, and effortless mobility on the court (practically dancing), is as rare and as precious as a blue diamond.  For decades in the women’s game there was only the holy Trinity of Suzanne Lenglen, Maria Bueno, and Evonne Goolagong.  In recent years, only Martina Hingis and Justine Henin could lay claim to an artistic ideal.  Although neither had the fluidity of Lenglen, Bueno, or Goolagong, Henin’s backhand and Hingis’s intelligence are easily the equal of their predecessors.  (In the men’s game, Roger Federer stands alone among tennis artists although lesser mortals such as Gustavo Kuerten and Manolo Santana have approached Federer’s Alp.)

In contrast to the rarity of tennis artists, there has never been a lack of “athletes”, players whose superior physical ability augment their formidable (but not Platonic) tennis abilities.  In any era, there will always be such athletes at the top of the game; Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams are the quintessential contemporary examples.  This is not to say that the artists lack athleticism–although Hingis was harmed by her inability to cope with the physicality of her competitors–or that the athletes lack an aesthetic quality, but when the great artists meet the great athletes, then tennis fans are rewarded with great battles.

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It is these attributes that make for the great tennis players, yet Monica Seles was none, which makes her success all the more remarkable.  She preferred the baseline (perhaps out of necessity; her lateral movement was good, but ability to move forward left much to be desired), but she was no classic baseliner like Evert, Borg, or Connors.  She was not an athlete, certainly not like Steffi Graf or Martina Navratilova.  Fitness was never her strongest point, and it an Achilles heel after her return to the game in 1995.  From 1990-1993 her shotmaking ability was arguably the finest in the world, but if anything she completely subverted the artistic ideal.  Her ground strokes were just, and there is no other word for it, odd.

Seles had no forehand.  This is not a derisive remark about the weakness her shot; it is a factual assessment of the way she gripped her racket.  She held the racket with both hands, thereby creating a second two-handed backhand instead of a forehand.  It was a not a particularly attractive shot (especially to the tennis purist, who can barely tolerate a two-handed backhand), but it was an extremely effective one.  What she lost in reach, she more than made up for in power and control.  It also allowed her to hit angles that other players could not reach and with incredible pace and precision that opponents could not match.  This was such an effective tool for Seles, that one wonders why it was never copied.  Perhaps a lesser player could not get away with such unorthodoxy.  Nevertheless, Seles’s influence on today’s game cannot be overlooked.  She nearly single-handedly (no pun intended) initiated the power game in women’s tennis.

Seles was born in Tito’s Yugoslavia to an ethnic Hungarian family (her prime years coincided with the disintegration of her home country and the ensuing chaos and war.)  Her father Károly, a cartoonist, showed her how to play by drawing pictures for her–thus the development of unique style.  She joined the professional tour in 1988 at the age of 14, and beat Chris Evert in 1989 to win her first tour title.  Immediately afterwards, Seles reached the semifinals of the 1989 French Open where she met the reigning champion Steffi Graf and lost in a tight match.

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In 1989, Steffi Graf ruled tennis with an iron fist.  Graf conquered all in 1988, demolishing all opponents en route to a Grand Slam.  For good measure, she won the Olympic title too thereby achieving the Golden Slam, a feat unique in tennis history.  Although she lost her French Open title in 1989 due to the combination of another teenager (Aranxa Sanchez Vicario) and menstrual cramps, 1989 was actually a more dominant year than 1988.  Graf’s seemed completely unbeatable.

Then came 1990.  It started off well with another victory at the Australian Open.  Then the German tabloids discovered and revealed an extortion attempt against Graf’s domineering father Peter for allegedly fathering an illegitimate child with a model.  It was crushing for Graf personally, and the media was brutal.  Graf also suffered a host of physical injuries, including a sinus operation.  Seles was the first beneficiary, beating Graf at the 1990 French Open.  Graf’s year was not bad by mortal standards (a semifinal loss at Wimbledon to Zina Garrison was followed by a final round loss at the US Open to Gabriela Sabatini), but by Graf’s own exacting expectations, it was a horrific year.  However, the worst was yet to come.

1991 was the year Seles truly arrived.  She won the Australian Open, successfully defended her French title, skipped Wimbledon, and then won the US Open.  Her absence from Wimbledon caused a stir, particularly among the scandal-crazed British tabloid press (who sparked ridiculous “Seles is pregnant” claims), but the truth was far more mundane; Seles suffered from shin splints.  In hindsight, Seles probably regrets that she skipped Wimbledon, because it remained the one title she never won.  Graf benefited from Seles’s absence and won her first major title in a year and a half.

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There are two aspects of Seles’s early career that must be noted because–for better or for worse–she was the trailblazer in what are now ubiquitous to the women’s tour.  First, Seles a giggling teenager with an infectious smile, was a star as well as a champion.  She spoke openly of her admiration for Madonna and had a strange friendship with Donald Trump.  She was tailed by the paparazzi, and wore wings and sunglasses trying to escape them.  The tennis dress designer Ted Tinling claimed that Seles was the first legitimate star tennis produced since Suzanne Lenglen (a friend of his from his youth.)  To Tinling, all the other greats in the women’s game never transcended the sport the way that Lenglen did until Seles. Because of the stabbing, Seles never fulfilled Tinling’s vision, but she led the way for player/celebrities like Anna Kournikova and the Williams sisters.

The second important aspect of Seles’s early career was the grunting (for lack of a better word.)  Seles was not the first player to grunt, but she elevated it, she made it okay, and many of today’s players who grunt (including Venus and Serena Williams) cite Seles as a model.  Perhaps this is hypocritical, but while I detest the screaming of today, I tend to be less harsh on Seles.  Her grunting, a distinct “ungh-EEE!“, drove her competitors crazy, Martina Navratilova in particular, and not unjustifiably.  At the time, I always sided with Seles because (1) on television her grunts did not seem as loud as they actually were (to my ears, Sabatini was far worse), and (2) Seles took the #1 spot from Graf, a player whom I adore now, but did not care for at the time.

I also tend to be less harsh about Seles because, unlike today’s screamers, I truly believe that grunting was an important if inconvenient factor of Seles’s game rather than elaborate cheating.  Seles tried to stop after being mercilessly hounded by the British tabloids at Wimbledon 1992 (where the “Grunt-O-Meter” was introduced).  In the end she meekly fell to Graf in the final round.  Considering that Seles won all the other major tournaments in 1992, including a now-legendary three-set classic over Graf in the French Open final, it was pretty clear both to her and tennis fans that if Seles wanted to continue winning she had to continue grunting.

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Early on signs indicated that in 1993 Seles would continue her march to the title of greatest ever.  At the Australian Open she again beat Steffi Graf, in another three-set classic.  However, at a tournament in Hamburg, a madman literally stabbed Seles in the back (with a boning knife) and the phrase “deranged Steffi Graf fan” entered the popular tennis lexicon.  Günter Parche, a deeply disturbed man, distraught that his beloved Graf (whom he stalked at one point) was no longer the world’s top player, took advantage of the lax security at Hamburg and altered tennis history forever.  He destroyed Seles’s career; the physical wound healed, but she was sidelined for the next 28 months, plagued with nightmares, psychological trauma, and weight issues.  Graf, whom Parche also deeply traumatized by the attack, benefited the most.  With the absence of Seles and the decline and retirement of Navratilova, Graf had virtually no rivals left, and she swept all before her.  Graf’s only real rival over the next four years was her own body, which eventually broke down.

Seles returned for the 1995 US Open, but everything had changed.  She was no longer the same player.  Her giggling was replaced by a weary and wary reticence.  But Seles carried herself with quiet dignity that won her fans worldwide.  Whereas she had once been a divisive figure in the tennis world, she was now universally beloved.  Speaking ill of Seles was akin to blasphemy.  No matter what continent she played on, no matter who her opponent was, the crowd collectively supported her.  Even some of her opponents had very mixed feelings when playing her, probably none more so than Graf.  Sanchez Vicario beat Seles at the 1998 French Open final just after Seles’s beloved father died and publicly apologized to Seles for doing so.

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In Jon Wertheim’s book Venus Envy, there is a very poignant moment.  A random fan approached Seles and shared her own story of woe.  Seles, rather than trying to get away, listened to the fan’s story.  Wertheim indicated that this was not a unique occurrence.  Fans connected with Seles in a way that they could not before and on a very personal level, which was ironic because Seles was a far more private person than she had previously been.  In a way, Seles became larger than the sport; to tennis fans around the world she was the embodiment of a heroic ideal.  For all her seemingly supernatural talent, it was her humanity that attracted people to her.  It was made all the poignant by the understanding that there would be no fairy tale ending for Seles.  Nevertheless, she persevered, and she did so standing tall.

In his tribute to Seles after she announced her retirement, Wertheim wrote, “[S]he exited as perhaps the most adored figure in the sport’s history. As happy endings go, one could do worse. “

One wishes Seles happiness in life.  If any athlete deserves that, it’s Monica Seles.