In 2015, I occasionally contributed to a blog called Shea Dugout (shout out to Will Musto and Jordan Gregory). The relevance here is that my time there lined up well with Daniel Murphy’s controversial “gay lifestyle” comments following a team meeting with MLB Inclusion Ambassador Billy Bean. The direct quotes, gathered by Kristie Ackert of the New York Daily News, were a strange mix of “I’d accept a gay teammate” and homophobia in the same breath, stating he “disagreed” with Billy Bean being gay. It was weird, and my article at the time took on a forgiving tone (if I’m remembering correctly) but also acknowledged how problematic it was.

Fast forward three years: Billy Bean and Daniel Murphy are now friends, and by all accounts, word is that Murphy has re-examined his point of view. I’m not really sure what that means—but maybe the but I have gay friends thing worked this time. Quick reminder: you shouldn’t need to personally know someone to acknowledge that they’re human beings and that their existence isn’t something with which you can just “disagree.”

As a queer baseball fan, I periodically have this itch in the back of my mind. It’s more a clawing sensation, actually. I can’t reach it, and all reassurances from fellow fans don’t provide much, if any, relief. After talking to several LGBT Mets fan recently, it became clear this was a shared concern. We all had the same itch, the same ailment that reared its head:

Which players hate us? Which ones disagree with our existence? Which ones would feel like they’re being forced to participate in Pride Nights? WHY is the only outspoken player Sean Doolittle?

You don’t choose your role models: you discover them, they reveal themselves within the things you already love. If you’re a cinema buff, you look to actors and actresses; if you immerse yourself in music, you look to musicians; the same goes for sports. The issue with sports culture is that it feels as though the players still adhere to this past.

Anytime I see some sign-the-cross after a home run, my brain is trained to worry. I was raised Catholic—I know all about being shamed-in-the-name-of-God. Regularly. I once had a friend tell me he was sorry that I was going to “burn in Hell” and that he “wished he’d known to save me.” And that’s not the only negative religious experience I’ve had. (Real quick: I also know a ton of religious folk who are beautiful people who support the LGBT community—the thing is, my brain—read: anxiety—insists they’re the anomalies because I see the opposite everywhere.)

Where’s this all going?

Recently, players like Josh Hader, Trea Turner, and Sean Newcomb have all had past tweets exposed, tweets brimming with homophobic and racial slurs. You’ve probably seen me tweeting about how these incidents shouldn’t be reduced to “they were only kids.” First of all: 17-18 is not a child, Jon Heyman. In fact, there are children who have more compassion and awareness than what Hader, Turner, and Newcomb combined expressed in their tweets. There’s a whole other jumble of excusing boys behavior as “boys being boys” and that’s just bullshit for another day—that style bullshit bred Barstool. It hath been said.

Anyway, I often excuse old tweets that say “that’s gay” because it was part of a garbage vernacular we grew up with. Even I said it—because “gay” was an insult and I thought that made sense because there was a whole lot of self-hate wrapped up in repeating it. If you’re still saying it now? It’s been time to grow up.  This is why you don’t see me including, say, Mike Trout in my barrage of tweets. I’m not going to discuss the very blatant racism that was in their tweets: that’s for another time, and hopefully by a writer of color. But—I can definitely speak to homophobia and sports.

The real issue is the use of slurs—the ones that usually preclude actual violence.

The types that when I hear them in passing, an unsettling fear courses through me. I peek over my shoulder, I try to figure out where the voice came from. Am I about to be attacked again for someone knowing I’m gay? Usually—it’s just someone talking to their friends and they’re unaware the pain a word can cause and how it’s often the last thing LGBT+ people hear before and during an attack.

All of that may sound over the top and maybe even a little dramatic, but that shit is an occasional real fear that I experience. It’s there every time I hear the word “fag.” Even reading it: it becomes clear that there’s a possible hate boiling in that person that, when they dig deep for the worst insult they can conjure, it’s a homophobic slur. That I am, inherently, somehow the worst thing they can imagine to call someone. And then I think of all of the homeless queer youth (there’s the melodramatic-style again, but that doesn’t make it less true or less of a reality). I think about how my mom first reacted (she’s super accepting now!) and how my former best friend attacked me despite knowing him for nearly ten years, all because he thought I just needed to “just try being with a guy.”

That’s what I see when I see someone calling people a fag. That’s the feelings a word can produce: a storm of fear and self-loathing; a desire to hide and reveal your location all at once.

If words didn’t have power, we wouldn’t use them. They’re the basis of communication: we hear it, we speak it, we write it. It spreads to people who then react and share their thoughts. Your thoughts don’t exist without words. So to say, “they’re just words” or suggest that I, or anyone, chooses to be hurt by them, is just garbage.

I’m glad that Hader, Turner, and Newcomb feel bad, but your apologies shouldn’t include I’m sorry if my words hurt people. That’s separating yourself from what you did. They’re your words. Own them. Start your apology with I said awful things and they represented a time in my life where I was an insensitive garbage can… That’s a decent start. Blaming it on being “young” is just trash. Don’t Jon Heyman these adult men who were nearly of voting age and applying for college. They were adults, not children.

Own it. Just own that you were awful and said and thought awful things. I can get behind people changing, but blaming music? On friends? Separating yourself from responsibility? Hell no. No. The first step is acknowledging you were part of the problem, the next is actively doing things to benefit the communities you’ve harmed. Being forced to go to sensitivity training and being given a baseball version of community service doesn’t make you a “good guy” suddenly.

Maybe it’ll make them realize the power of their words and insults. Maybe they will become better people. Who knows? What I can say is that this problem begins at an early age, cultivated by coding things as feminine and thus negative. Think quickly about women’s sports: while some people definitely recognize the talent found in USWNT, WNBA, and softball, there are just as many, if not more, who push the idea that only lesbians play organized sports. Even if it was the truth—which that’s absurd, by the way—why is that relevant to someone watching? Or playing? The idea that women’s sports are dominated by lesbians is what keeps women away from organized sports. It creates this worry that men can’t find them attractive because they’ll assume they’re gay. If you don’t believe that’s homophobia at work…well.. I’m not sure what else to tell you. I mean, worrying that sports can’t be feminine? That it’s only masculine? There’s a lot of toxicity all rolled up in sports, folks.

It’s definitely enough to push girls away from baseball and softball because homophobia starts early. It’s a whole fragile masculinity thing and a cheapening of women or anything perceived as female that I can’t fully get into because this piece is already too long. (I already have an issue with tangents). It could probably be shorter—but it’s a blog post and at the moment, all of these words feel important even if they aren’t.

I just want to end this on the note that you learn to dislike people for their differences. As children, we are fascinated by everything; we begin by seeing new and difference as exhilarating and beautiful. Don’t teach your children that people’s differences make them less than you. No differences make anyone better or worse than anyone. Thanks.