Being closeted is frightening enough if you're a private individual and you wish to stay that way. However, the terror is undoubtedly magnified if you're a public figure. Every appearance can bring out an ex-lover who'll talk to the media—and, if you're outed, there are many more people who have access to your ( not-so- ) private life.
In Alone in the Trenches: My Life as a Gay Man in the NFL ( $24; Sourcebooks ) , Esera Tuaolo ( with John Rosengren's assistance ) details his life, which was full of victories on the football field but rife with losses off of it. The book focuses on a man who was haunted ( by everything from constant paranoia to memories of molestation ) , but who ultimately emerged happy. The candid Tuaolo recently talked with Windy City Times about this emotional work.
Tuaolo will be in Chicago April 22-23 to be among 100 Champions being honored a Gay Games VII weekend of benefits. See www.gaygameschicago.org . Among others at the event will be co-host Greg Louganis, Saskia Webber, Dave Kopay, Leigh-Ann Naidoo, Roy Simmons, Patricia Nell Warren, and other sports and culture legends.
Windy City Times: So why did you write this book?
Esera Tuaolo: You know what? It took me a while, to tell you the truth. It's your life, exposed.
I remember how [ openly gay former NFL player ] Dave Kopay's book helped me and basically saved my life. So I wanted to write this for the younger generation or whoever is going through some type of struggle. Maybe this book will give them some inspiration. Also, I wanted my children to know who I really am. I think that the book can be an amazing tool in that way.
WCT: You really bare your soul in this book. You discuss being molested separately by your uncle and your brother's [ girlfriend ] .
ET: Yeah ... for the longest time in my life, I thought it was my fault. It took me a while to figure out that it wasn't but I did get robbed of my sexual experience at a young age. It was one of those times that I just wanted it all to go away. With my brother's girlfriend, it happened once but it was one of those things. Before you know it, she was on top of me—and I was just frozen. In the Polynesian family, the older person is always right; I couldn't do anything. I didn't know what to do.
The problem was that [ my uncle ] made it sound like a game. When you're a kid and starving for attention, you go with the flow. But when he forced himself on top of me ... that's when the pain came and that's when I realized it wasn't a game anymore. I realized then that what he was doing was wrong. He then hit me and said that he would kill my parents if I told anyone.
WCT: Then it turned out that your uncle was killed.
ET: I felt like God answered my prayers. I didn't feel any type of sympathy for him.
WCT: When you played football, what would you say when guys would talk about their sexual conquests?
ET: I wasn't disgusted by the whole thing but I was taken aback by some of the comments about women. I used to think, 'God, that's someone's daughter,' but you just laugh along with the jokes. It hurt, but I went with the flow.
WCT: However, you did date women—including Elizabeth Wolfgramm, the lead singer of '90s pop group The Jets. Are things OK with you two today?
ET: I've never heard from her. I'm not sure she's going to like what I put in there. She's a very respectable woman and she came from a very good Mormon family. We didn't do anything but cuddle because she was saving herself for marriage.
WCT: And that worked out for you.
ET: Yeah; it worked out for me. Of course, when it got close to marrying ... I almost married her. I'm glad I didn't, though; it would've been like Brokeback Mountain. [ Laughs ] It would've been a huge mistake.
WCT: Now there's a chapter about your older brother, Tua, who was a gay man who died of AIDS. He asked you to not tell your mother that you're gay.
ET: When he found out that I was gay ... I really love my brother, but it was one of those relationships where he wasn't there for me, even though he loved me. He asked me to not tell Mom, but I didn't really get that. I was in high school, you know? I need guidance.
WCT: What was Tua like?
ET: Incredible. He was an incredible man as far as the Polynesian community. His funeral was incredible; he was treated like a chief. It just showed how much he was loved.
WCT: You came out to your mother, but you never got a chance to come out to your father [ who passed away ] . What do you think your father would make of your life?
ET: [ Long pause. ] I don't know ... I'm sorry. I hope that he would be proud of me. [ Holding back tears. ] I would hope that he would react like my mother did. I think his unconditional love would've kicked in.
WCT: Let's switch gears. Thinking about your years in the NFL, would you do anything differently if you had to do it all over again?
ET: Yes! I think back and I see what an incredible athlete I could've been if I could've been myself. The more I was in the limelight, the more I went back into the closet. Knowing that I had the support of the gay community and knowing what kind of impact it would've had, I would've definitely come out. When you live in fear, all you see is fear.
WCT: You would come out even if you thought other players might come after you?
ET: Yeah. I could probably find true friends on my teams. It would've been great because I would've been free of the stress. I would've had a different fear, but it was one I could take on with the help of the community.
WCT: So what do you think of [ women's professional basketball player ] Sheryl Swoopes coming out?
ET: Amazing. I think that what she's done is great for the gay community, especially for the younger generation. She's an amazing athlete and is the cream of the crop. The magnitude of what she's done is incredible.
WCT: What do you think of comments that coming out wouldn't go over too well in the NBA?
ET: Nobody knows, really. Someone has to be the first. For the first guy who comes out in the NBA or the NFL, no one knows what will happen. For someone to assume that [ Swoopes' ] coming out is no more important than someone else's is totally ridiculous. However, there's always someone who wants to take away some sunshine. [ Laughs. ]
I mean, Martina Navratilova has done [ so much ] . We need more athletes to come out; it would mean so much to the younger generation. Our job as role models is to save lives. The suicide statistics for our younger generation are too high.
WCT: So your advice to closeted athletes would be to come out?
ET: Yes, within reason. I also totally understand why they don't. But I also don't think that it's the gay community's job is to out anyone; it's to show support.
A couple of things need to be taken into consideration. No. 1, you need to be in a safe environment. No. 2, you need to have a support group. It's so encouraging to see all of these gay-straight alliances. When I was going to school, all we had was the drama club—and I was never in drama. [ Laughs. ] Also, you have to be ready within yourself.
WCT: Do you anticipate hearing from anyone mentioned in your book?
ET: I've heard from former teammates, like Don Davey, who have shown support. However, I didn't come out to rekindle friendships.
WCT: Have you heard from [ Green Bay Packers quarterback ] Brett Favre?
ET: I haven't heard from him, but he's definitely defended me. Some people called me a bust, but Brett asked how that could be if I made the All-Rookie Team.
WCT: I have to praise Mitchell, your husband. I told someone that if anyone had treated me the way you treated him in that book, I would've dropped you like third-period French.
ET: [ Long laugh. ] You're so funny!
Well, there are some great times, too. [ Laughs. ] He's an amazing guy and for him to still be here is incredible. We have our problems like anyone else, but you have to be open and be willing to communicate. I've learned so much from him and he's such a great father.
WCT: There's a chapter in your book entitled 'Who is Esera Tuaolo?' So, who is Esera Tuaolo?
ET: Gosh. I'm a gay man, a gay father, a gay husband and a gay athlete.
WCT: And a good cook.
ET: No—I'm a fabulous cook. [ Laughs. ]