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HUTTON: Teenage athletes need to know it’s OK to be gay

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Updated: March 19, 2014 6:34AM



Sam Provenzano plays tennis and basketball these days with an unbridled, competitive, insatiable ferociousness that might seem out of place for a grown man.

He is making up for a lost opportunity.

He was an excellent basketball player through grade and middle school. Lanky and tall, the son of an athlete, he had all right genes to be a star.

Except the gay gene.

Being gay is difficult for a teenager to deal with, particularly in the machismo world of sports.

Provenzano, with no guidance except the little voice in his head that said he wouldn’t feel comfortable in a team locker room because of his sexuality, chose not to play basketball at Andrean. It was his secret then.

It was a confusing time. He was mouthy and funny, gay and athletic. He knew he was gay but he hadn’t quite accepted his sexuality completely. His parents suspected, and they were surprised when he chose not to play, but they didn’t try to change his mind. The kids at school had an idea — and sometimes, they weren’t nice about it.

Provenzano remembers, with clarity and detail, a walk back from tennis practice one day when the football team was passing on its way to the locker room, the place that Provenzano feared the most.

One of the players called him a “f----- and then 10 or 11 people started screaming ‘f-----!’ That moment still sticks with me in my head today. I’m ashamed some of my friends didn’t have the (guts) to stick up for me. Those football players felt like they were better than me. How the hell can someone come out of the closet when something like that is going on?”

If that happened today or tomorrow, a fully formed Provenzano, comfortable with who he is, would shut that down instantly. But he didn’t know how to do that then.

The incident, which happened his senior year, affirmed what Provenzano had surmised all along.

He couldn’t possibly have played basketball as a closeted gay teen. He was too fragile, too insecure, too unsure of himself to deal with the storm that was certain to be a part of his gay life.

It was a terrible, awful choice for a 15-year old kid to have to make.

Give up the game you love, give up the sport you love, the sport that you excel at, because of your homosexuality.

Yet it happened then and it happens now. There is no way to quantify how many kids have derailed their athletic careers because they were afraid of what might happen after they got off the court or the field, because they were gay.

Provenzano stuck with tennis because it wasn’t a team sport. He didn’t have to retire to a locker room after the match. He was accountable only to himself, not to any teammates.

He can’t turn the clock back and redo his choice. Even if he could, he’s not sure he would choose differently.

Conditions weren’t right. Society wasn’t ready for it. It still might not be, in some respects.

It’s terrible that this discussion hasn’t advanced beyond this — a successful, 29-year-old, happily gay professional, still conflicted about a road not traveled 13 years ago. But it hasn’t. It’s necessary to talk about this now and until we get it right.

Playing sports and being gay aren’t mutually exclusive. Provenzano knows many gay players in all sports, most of whom are still in the closet. They just don’t want to deal with the potential distractions that could come from revealing their sexuality.

That’s why Provenzano is rooting like hell for Missouri defensive tackle Michael Sam — the college football prospect who openly declared his homosexuality — to become All-Pro in the NFL. He wants Sam to help change the stigma, to beat back the stereotype that you can’t be gay and good at sports.

And any good athlete instinctively knows this, beyond any other conditions: guys and girls respect players who can perform.

Provenzano understood all that. He just felt like he lived in a time and a place where he couldn’t comfortably live the way he wanted to. Even if he averaged 20 points per game, he dreaded the possibility of someone casually making a sick joke about him.

“If I would’ve been able to come out in high school, I would’ve been a better basketball player and tennis player,” he said. “When I was able to come out, it was like losing 20 pounds.”

Provenzano wants Sam’s example — that he is proud to be one of the world’s best football players, and as an aside, that he’s gay — to drift down to teenagers who are struggling about whether to reveal their sexuality and play sports.

He also wants to extend an invitation of inclusiveness to gay teenagers everywhere. That it’s Ok to be athletic, driven, highly competitive, successful, happy and gay.

He is an amateur body builder, who has a side business finding workout partners for gay and lesbian lifters. He is active in the gay and lesbian community in Chicago and he works for the Alzheimer Association as a communications director.

“I am not a victim here. I am stronger than I have ever been. Maybe I could be a role model for someone. This is who I am,” he said. “Be an athlete, be gay, be whoever you want to be.”

Provenzano still participates in sports with the zeal of a teenager.

He regularly plays basketball, softball and tennis and he admits relishing the chance to cut your heart out if he has chance to in any level of competition. The message is clear: Above all, it’s the game, and how you play it, that matters. Not your sexuality.



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