Creating deep cultural change is more important than finding a Gay Jackie Robinson-like figure for MLB’s Ambassador of Inclusion
Is being an Ambassador of Inclusion for Major League Baseball all about saying, “Don’t be homophobic” to the boys in the locker room?
“I don’t say “don’t,” ever,” says Billy Bean in his office at MLB’s Manhattan HQ. “I offer them a consideration to see an example of someone who was self-hating, even within my own family, and thought giving up a Major League career was a better option than sitting down with my mother and my father. That’s pretty deep-seated self-homophobia. I am not there to tell anyone what to say, it’s not a lesson in semantics.”
It wasn’t playing time or lack of opportunity that initially drove Bean to retire from baseball; at age 31, when calling it quits, he felt like he was in his physical prime. But soon before the 1995 season, his first boyfriend died from complications due to HIV, and managing a double life became too much to handle. He spent most of that year in the minors, and retired afterwards.
Bean finally came out in 1999, four years after stepping away from the game and into the business world. His 2004 memoir, Going the Other Way, detailed his hardscrabble childhood, his slow sexual awakening — he married a woman young, and his first experience with another man didn’t come til he was 28 — and life after retirement. But the latest chapter is still being written: Since 2013, Bean has served MLB’s Ambassador for Inclusion, with emphasis on LGBT issues. His job now, at 53, is to make change from the inside, working to create a more socially conscious environment in a game that has spent more time fetishizing its past than preparing for its future.
In January, Bean was promoted to vice president and special assistant to MLB commissioner Rob Manfred. His small office has window that looks out onto Park Avenue and it sits next to a cluster of cubicles, just beyond a large foyer adorned with tiles that list the names of every inductee to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Bean was a fourth round draft pick by the Tigers in 1984, and played in the Majors for parts of six seasons before retiring in 1995 with a .226 career average and just five home runs, falling short of a place on place on those Hall of Fame tiles. But now, the role he is playing during his second go-round in the sport is changing the game in ways no 500 home run hitter or 300 game-winning pitcher could ever approach. He spoke with Four Two Nine about that new role, what he’s learned so far, athletes from Michael Sam to Jackie Robinson, and how much more work he has left to do.
How have you found the reception from the players in the league, three years into your return to baseball?
For the first time, a former big league player was able to talk to our big league players, and there is a certain level of camaraderie or fraternity that you just can’t define. It allowed the players to look at somebody and say wow, he played six years in the Major Leagues and this guy went through everything that we have.
For three years I did not say “No” to anything. I’ve lapped this country so many times, because I did feel like the timing was unbelievably fortunate and we had to take advantage of that. And look at how we are now, from one day to the next, whether you have a presidential administration that encompasses inclusion or you have a shift that half the country is thrilled about and maybe the other half isn’t, thankfully that hasn’t slowed the things we’re doing in baseball.
I was very cautious and nervous about being the openly gay person in the room with a bunch of world class athletes, but I have to say that my message would not have succeeded if it was not for the reception around the league. It’s truly up to them, it’s a collaboration. You can’t just stand on a soapbox.
Early on you ran into a controversy with then-Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy, who is religious, and said he “disagreed” with the gay lifestyle.
Daniel has turned into someone who was extremely gracious, him and his wife, after that moment was in the news. That lack of follow up is a given with media and conflict. It’s not fair to judge him immediately by that; he didn’t initiate that conversation, he was asked a question at his locker, in front of his team. I did support his right to be honest and say for that day, we had baseball in common. It might have been the only thing.
But after that day, the Christian community that are staunch supporters of his viewpoint–I received probably more response from that segment of people appreciating my ability to look at it from his perspective. And that’s the formula that I hope we will have when it comes to breaking down barriers and trying to find a common ground with people, because progressive change does make people uncomfortable.
I am there to tell players what Baseball’s [non-discrimination] rule is about, and if you do pull that uniform on, here is the expectation and the responsibility that goes with that, and here are a few examples of athletes that have chosen otherwise, and what happens to them.
But we have to change the culture that was learned for hundreds and hundreds of years. It’s not just baseball or football or basketball. Young men are taught to speak a certain way, and now when you expand the conversation past just gay and lesbian to LGBT and understanding that we are learning about all our differences and being respectful of that, it’s a challenge. It’s challenge internally, within the LGBT community.
So it’s not just about shooting down gay slurs?
The assumption that everyone’s on the same page and understands what LGBT means– it would be disrespectful for me to assume that. We have literally boys signing professional contracts from all over the world. We have a responsibility to bring a message that is not only age-appropriate, but appropriate to their life exposure. I think a lot of people expect everyone to know what is interesting to me or you personally, and the world’s a big place.
My own family, for 18 years, had an LGBT member sitting down at the dinner table and did not know it. So I’m using my own experience as an example of, “Hey, you never know.” It’s so imperative that we change the culture, and not look for a player to be the one out guy to carry a message while he’s trying to play in the Major Leagues, and it’s a huge ask.
I’d rather us get better in a cumulative way, and then someday you wake up and four or five guys just so happen to be out, and say, “This is my family picture, this is what it looks like, I’m a big leaguer, that’s it.”
It’s been obvious to us over time that maybe it wasn’t the best decision for someone because the media industry is really, really anxious to find out who that person is going to be, that first one. And that in my opinion is why there is hesitation on behalf of athletes in whatever sport they choose.
The way Michael Sam was treated, and the fact that he didn’t stick with an NFL team, couldn’t have encouraged any players weighing the decision to come out.
Michael Sam’s experience could not have been a great example to those pondering the same question. It was a very unique situation because of the nature of his sport and the time he was not participating, he was getting a lot of media coverage. The assumption is that a great college football player would automatically become a great NFL player, but there are no guarantees in pro sports from one day to the next. I was hopeful at that time that it would have turned out better, because it would have been a wonderful learning experience for everyone around him. I don’t think Michael Sam changed who he was, but the world changed around him, and that’s a reality that any athlete is going to have to fully understand as part of his decision.
So for people who are around sports, it does give you a little insight to the stress inside and around the games. You don’t just show up five minutes before the game, zip up your shirt and start playing. It is a 24/7, lifetime engagement. It takes so much work to get to that level. And so any off-the-field invitation for private matters, most players are reticent to share. It’s very kind of buttoned up, quiet, go about your business. But this is a very interesting topic for people because it’s a clash of what stereotypes used to be.
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And there are dimensions to this job and this issue beyond just players coming out. It’s a culture.
I think we’re getting incredibly empowered in our in-game messaging. There’s been historically a lot of things, it’s no different from the way television has evolved. Inherent homophobia has always been a punchline for jokes when it comes to guys. Misogyny is the giftwrap of homophobia, because we feminize men to make them seem lesser, and that’s demeaning to women, and this is part of that comprehensive diversity conversation. Just the same as a person’s right to pursue the religion that makes them feel happiest or safest or most loved, it’s the same as their right to what they do away from the field.
For me, there’s not an LGBT conversation if we’re not having a conversation about women’s issues or empowering women, and there’s a lot of things that go with that. Like trying to create opportunities for women to become executives on the business side of baseball, perhaps in operations as we move forward as well. We have to be consistent that there are opportunities there, and get that message in front of young women or people of color early, before they have already made their decisions with college, or could have a mentor that has a huge impact upon them.
We have some amazing women, Kim Ng here, whoever she meets, people are like, “Oh my god, what an amazing story.” She’s a pioneer, she was an assistant GM 20 years ago. With the Yankees, Jean Afterman is the highest ranking female in operations. They are fascinating people and strong and smart, and continue to change the perception. And for me, as one of the few LGBT examples in and around the field, we have some people here now. There was no one out when I got here, now we have three or four people that have made that decision, and then around the league, a few people that have come forward. And some have said that because of what they saw, with my example or me speaking to a club, they felt the time was right for them.
That makes me feel like we are making a contribution that’s positive. It’s not perfect, but our effort, I can tell you, is 100,000% of the energy and time that we have. To try and make our sport, not only better, but I want us to be an example to school-level kids. That’s what I talk about with our in-game messaging. We have some big projects in the works where my message will, in a natural way, evolve into anti-bullying messaging, which I feel is of paramount importance. And that will make me extremely proud. We’re working on some partnerships that we’re hoping will launch soon.
Do you find younger players are more naturally inclined to not care about sexuality or gender?
I think if you’re going to make a general statement, I’d say sure, they’ve had more images that are less threatening because we are evolving in certain ways. But I think that’s a dangerous assumption. I think a lot of it has to do with how and where we were raised. I believe in my heart that all discrimination is a learned behavior, so if we can be an example that allows people to see that it’s not really going to take away from the quality of my life if everyone has an equal chance to be the best person they can be under the same rules, what a great day that would be.
There are a lot of people in the South who are wonderfully supportive and loving. You just have to be careful. The beauty of baseball is that we represent every part of this United States. There are a lot of places that don’t have a big league team, but those teams have a big impact, and we’re starting to see.
It’s like saying racism ended when Jackie Robinson ran on the field. It actually created a lot of anger with very narrow-sighted people at the time. And that’s why you can never underestimate how brave that man was. It can be lonely standing up to bat or on the mound. It’s a very slow pace, you can hear a lot of things. So it’s no different. It would be wrong for me to expect basebal to be perfect, and if someone gets a lot of pushback, it just means we have to work even harder to be an even better example.
Whenever it does happen, when you have the first active Major Leaguer to be out, do you have a plan in place for how you’ll support him, both privately and publicly?
Well I think privately and personally, I would make sure that that person knows that we are there for them in any capacity that we can. When you’re dealing with team sports, it’s a big decision, because it would, just by its nature, cause some disruption, at least for a moment. With each club I say, “Let’s be prepared if and when that happens”. To make sure a player, if he is suiting up for a one o’clock game right now, feelswelcome in his own clubhouse, even without having brought that part of his life to the forefront or making a public statement about it.
There’s no perfect formula. We’re human beings and everyone’s different. I’ve always said, everyone’s coming out journey is equally difficult and challenging and exhilarating and scary, because to presume it’d be easier for you because you’re in the media than it was for me, that’s unfair. I don’t know what your family structure is like, or your history.
We need to think for each and every person it’s going to be a very very big decision to make, but it is my responsibility to walk the talk and make sure that if a player decides to do that, and in the context that it’s about the team, we can do whatever we can to make a person feel welcome. Whether they work in the front office or next to me here or interning or getting a hot dog at a stadium today, that’s what I mean about from the top down, –commissioner to manager to players to people walking through the turnstiles– I want there to be a consistency that allows for anyone to feel welcome.