Baseball's New Gay Rights Ambassador Is A Total Game Changer

Photo: B Bennett/Getty Images.
On July 25, 2014, during the MLB All-Star Week, commissioner Bud Selig announced Billy Bean — the only living openly gay former baseball player — would be the organization's first-ever Ambassador for Inclusion. Since then, Bean's been working with MLB teams to spark important conversations about LGBTQ issues and to remind baseball fans that the organization welcomes all players, regardless of sexuality.

A title like "Ambassador for Inclusion" sounds like it could easily be a figurehead position, one that the MLB created to appease demands for a greater LGBTQ presence in the sport. But, Bean's not just some spokesperson. He's been interacting directly with clubs, working out in uniform with players during spring training, and making himself available as an educational resource.

Sports fans often point to Jason Collins, an NBA player who came out in 2013, as the first openly gay major league athlete. But, really he's the second. In 1982, Glenn Burke publicly came out in an article for Inside Sports while he was on the active roster for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He passed away from AIDS-related causes in 1995.

Bean became the second Major League Baseball player to come out. For Bean (the player, not to be confused with Billy Beane, the former A's General Manager who was portrayed by Brad Pitt in the 2011 movie Moneyball), that moment didn't come until 1999 — several years after he retired. He told Refinery29 he retired because of the fear of that initial conversation about his sexuality.

"When the commissioner announced me at the All-Star Game last year...to see the Commissioner talk about someone like me in that way was overwhelming because he's a patriarch-type personality, and you're seeing progress in motion," he said. Bean wasn't out when he played MLB in the '90s, but the fear of being found out was enough to make him abandon his career. In a 
special for the MLB Network, Bean explains how he kept his partner, Sam, a secret from everyone in his life. Hours after Sam died from HIV-related illness, Bean had to take the field, unable to openly grieve the death of his partner.

He didn't expect a job offer from the sport he'd been separated from for almost 20 years, but his appointment marks a significant change in sports. Bean said he didn't hesitate at all when the MLB offered him the position. But, he did have a stipulation of how he delivered this message of inclusivity.

"The only thing I wanted to make sure about was I could be myself — that they allowed me to communicate to the players the way I felt most confident, which is as a former player and not as a mandated lecturer or a classroom environment on how to be around certain kind of people."

And, he's done just that. As of today, he's been invited to spend time with 16 clubs — just over half of all total clubs. After he spoke with all 30 general managers following the 2014 World Series, some of them invited him to spring training.

"When I started the job, we didn't have a clear indication of how best to bring this message. We all knew it was going to take some time, that I'd have to be patient."

It seems like players in 2015 should already be familiar with the culture of LGBTQ. But, Bean reminds us that baseball is one of the most culturally diverse sports in the world, bringing in players from multiple countries. "It's not easy to walk into an MLB clubhouse and be the only out gay man in the room. It's a sensitive introduction. Some of those players have never had a conversation with someone like me. They're young. They come from varied cultures." Plus, so many ball players come into the majors as young as 19. (Bean was just 22 when he became a major league outfielder.) Not only is a lack of emotional maturity a problem in young players, but so is the culmination of different systems of belief — some of which forbid homosexuality.

So, what is Bean's message? It's an echoing of the MLB's 2013 policy banning players from harassing and/or discriminating against players based on their sexuality. But, for Bean, it's so much more than that. "It encompasses women, religion, national origin, gender, as well as sexual orientation. It's a broad picture." And, he's not here to shame those who are unfamiliar. "I want the players to lead. I don't wanna point fingers and say here's what you're not doing. That's not fair." He's there to prevent any man from feeling he cannot be both gay and a major league player.

Photo: Everett Collection/REX USA.
Though Bean's initiatives have been met with mostly positive support, he has experienced some hiccups of backlash. One instance that made headlines was a comment made by the Mets' Daniel Murphy, who told reporters he disagrees with Bean's homsexual "lifestyle". Still, Bean sees this as a simple difference, and not an act of anti-gay behavior. "I want people to know Daniel Murphy was very respectful of me. I think his comments were more based on how he wants to live his life, and someone who's not around the LGBT community." Though, Bean did take this opportunity to shed some light on why "lifestyle" isn’t the best choice of words. "It's a painful one for a lot of people like me, because many of us struggled for many years to understand and accept our sexual orientation. And, that [word] sort of negates that whole life journey, the pain with our families, getting through and triumphing over expectations," he explained.

Bean said he does see some criticism on social media, with commenters running rampant on Twitter and Instagram. Still, he doesn't take those negative comments too seriously, as they're borne of ignorance and a lack of familiarity with LGBTQ issues. "If there was Twitter in 1947 when Jackie Robinson ran onto the field, things would've been ugly. I know the two situations aren't exactly parallel or equal, but in this picture, I have to remain strong."

By the end of his first 12 months in his role, he wants to have at least established a conversation with all 30 clubs, "however brief or expanded." Some of those deeper relationships have already started. (Specifically, Bean mentioned the Yankees' GM Brian Cashman.) Bean said the managers he's already worked with "have made me feel welcome and important in the process in how they want to cultivate the character of their club house and players." Now that he and the MLB have clarified the message of inclusion, they can move forward with more actionable steps.

It's a delicate situation, because baseball is an institution. And, when there are changes to a storied organization like the MLB, conservative fans — and clubs — are reluctant to roll with the punches. Just last week, some Oakland A's fans responded poorly to the team's first ever Pride Night, promising to sell tickets out of disapproval. A's pitcher Sean Doolittle's girlfriend Eireann Dolan, who was raised by two moms, made headlines when she offered to buy all the tickets from close-minded fans.

"I want our ownership, groups, and players especially to have confidence that I am respectful of baseball and integrity of our sport and its history. Things don't change quickly in baseball, as you can tell. Our social commentary and responsibility is now different," Bean said.

And, Bean's role in the MLB is just the beginning of a slow revolution in the sport. The Dodgers hired the first-ever female athletic trainer in the MLB in 2012. "It's been a long time coming, but now you see women in executive positions in front offices of baseball where 20 years ago that might have been unheard of."

But, how far away are we from the next openly gay player? "I'm extremely optimistic that the day will come when it doesn't matter," said Bean. "My only reservation is I don't want to see it be a negative experience for a player. I want a player to always be judged by their playing ability and the type of person they are, their character. There's a lot of work to do first, but the truth is it's gonna happen when it happens. The most important thing is for people to have fulfilling lives, and part of that is being able to talk about who you care about." For now, Bean's spearheading the conversation so that, in the event another player comes out, he alone doesn't shoulder that burden. "I will carry the target on my back in hopes of making an inclusive conversation and a culture of acceptance so that when a player is ready to come forward, all of this will have come and gone."
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