It’s 1982, and I am a reserved, sensitive, gay 17-year-old boy starting college. My roommate, Jonathan Gewirtz, is a masculine ultimate Frisbee player.
Jon is manly but not macho; sporty but not a jock. He definitely enjoys checking out the girls. “Straight” me goes along.
In the dorm cafeteria, he’s checking out girls’ butts. He points out one girl with a wide, feminine butt. “What kind of butt do you like?” he asks.
I point out my preference: a girl with, well, what turns out to be a dude’s type of bubble butt. He’s surprised at my choice; I wince. Did he catch on? Not a chance. So straight, he doesn’t imagine his roomie could be gay.
He’s a great roommate; I’m an adequate pretender.
No one torments me. I do a perfectly fine job of tormenting myself. I wallow in my loneliness, self-repression and envy, writing depressing poetry while my straight peers celebrate their sexual liberation.
But in between the melancholy, I manage to enjoy some of the best years of my life.
Thirty years later I am suddenly thrust back to that time in my life by a headline. It’s a news item about a hate crime: Tyler Clementi, a quiet, gay college student committed suicide in September 2010 after his intimate moments with a man were broadcast online by his Rutgers roommate, Dharun Ravi. Ravi was convicted of bias intimidation, invasion of privacy and several counts of obstructing justice on March 16.
Clementi, like me, was shy and gay.
Ravi, like Jon, plays ultimate Frisbee. It’s a tenuous connection, but sometimes all it takes is one little strand to revive a difficult period hiding in the corner of one’s memory bank.
My college roommate and I reconnected via Facebook several years ago. I told him I live in Vancouver now with my husband.
“I had no idea you were gay!” he replied. “Glad you’ve come out and that you’re happy. Did you know you were gay at the time we were roommates? If so, you did a good job hiding it, or maybe I was just clueless.”
“You weren’t clueless about me,” I wrote back. “I just did a pretty good job of being closeted at school.”
“I didn’t make any dumb-ass gay jokes did I?” he asked.
The question touches me; he’s concerned about his actions from three decades ago.
“No, you never made any dumb-ass gay jokes,” I replied.
Fast forward to March 16. I write Jon again, with a link to the story about Ravi’s conviction.
“Look at this . . . A shy gay guy rooming with an ultimate Frisbee player, but luckily you were a cool roommate.”
His reply is frank.
“I am still so curious about how I would have reacted if I had known,” he writes. “I would like to think that I would have reacted the same as I would now (not given a shit), but I will never know.”
I’m uplifted by an anecdote. He tells me how he was the captain of the Seattle Sockeye Ultimate Club in 1996 when a player gathered others after the game and came out. A few players asked Jon if he thought it was okay.
“I told them I wouldn’t dignify the question with an answer because to do so would imply that any ‘ruling’ was required,” he says. “Then I added, ‘All I care about is whether he is going to help us win games.’”
“It was a total non-issue,” he says. “I am proud of that.”
The same acceptance would be present at Furious George, a Vancouver ultimate Frisbee team, if the team had gay players, says co-captain Marc Seraglia. If a player minded gay players, he’d be the problem, Seraglia says. But the guy in Seattle is the only one he knows who came out.
Eventually there probably will be a gay player on Furious George, he predicts. Women’s ultimate Frisbee has many lesbians, including some on his wife’s team, he notes. “It’s more open.”
Yet Seraglia is disappointed at some changes he’s seen in the sport. While ultimate Frisbee has long had a counter-culture mentality and a sense of acceptance, the game has gone more mainstream, attracting more jocks. He’s saddened by the incident committed by an ultimate Frisbee player and wistful of the days when the sport was more accepting of diversity.
“It worries me about the sport a bit,” he says. “One of the things I truly did love about the sport was how diverse it was and how kind of open people were to whatever your lifestyle. People were open and willing to accommodate it, and it didn’t bother them. They didn’t judge. The fact that that’s changing and you hear a story about this [tragedy in New Jersey] kind of makes me sad.”
I’m grateful that my masculine, sporty, ultimate Frisbee-playing college roommate from three decades ago was a laid-back, accepting guy. But it saddens me to hear about Ravi, who also enjoys the countercultural game, being far, far worse than just a bad sport.