The recent passage of marriage equality makes the story of James Nutter every more poignant. Young James was an all star jock at Kennebunk High School in Maine. That led to gaining a position on the University of Southern Maine baseball team. However the locker room jokes, slurs and blatant homophobia almost drove the young handsome baseball player to taking his own life.
Outsports.com, in a powerful story written by Cyd Zeigler, Jr., details the struggles and challenges facing the closeted athlete. No one should doubt that the power of words especially in the hyper-masculine atmosphere of sports.
Here is an excerpt from Zeigler's article:
"His secret was consuming him.
In high school, he’d known he was attracted to men. He figured it was either normal, or that it was “just a phase.” In college he realized he was gay, and he tried like hell to be straight. He forced himself to stop thinking about men. As in high school, he slept with women in hopes his friends would notice. They did. The masquerade worked perfectly.
“He was one of the guys,” USM head baseball coach Ed Flaherty remembered. “I’ve had kids on my team who I could see didn’t quite fit in. I’ve had a couple other kids I wondered about years ago. But I didn’t see that out of James at all.”
Keeping his sexual orientation a secret had a dire consequence.
Because his buddies had no idea he was gay, their actions followed suit. His teammates and friends would crack gay jokes and toss around the word “faggot” with reckless abandon. As they had learned at a young age, that’s what jocks do.
The jokes and slurs hit James hard. While he laughed with his buddies, inside he cringed. Each time they called someone a “faggot” or told a “fudge-packer” joke, James buried himself further in his depression. He built a “doomsday scenario” in his head that he was sure would play out if any of his friends ever found out his secret.
“I felt like all of my friendships were fraudulent,” James said. “I thought I’d be ignored, because of the homophobic jabs that I’d gotten used to my friends saying.”
He became deeply paranoid. Every word uttered around his friends was carefully scripted. Every action was planned.
“It just got to the point where the paranoia of getting outed, and the culmination of all the stress of everything, clouded my judgment big time. My thought process snowballed. I developed this intense anxiety from trying to hide my sexuality from a lot of people. It got out of control, and I felt I couldn’t handle it.”
Rob, who had played on a couple teams with his brother James in high school, wasn’t surprised when he eventually learned the toll this casual homophobia had taken on James’ psyche.
“I played college basketball and baseball,” Rob said. “People throw gay slurs around all the time. You don’t even realize it. James felt very self-conscious when he kept hearing that. It made him very worried about it.”
Rob visited James on campus his final year at USM. The two were incredibly close growing up. The brother Rob knew was a fun-loving James with a big smile and a great attitude. What he found that year was very different.
“I could tell when I visited him something was wrong,” Rob remembered, though at the time he didn’t know James was gay. “He didn’t want to go out and do things. He was trying so hard to convince himself he was straight, that it was in his head. Society said he should like girls, so he tried to until it boiled inside him so much that it was literally killing him.”
As early as his freshman year, James realized college life wouldn’t be the easiest place to hide his secret. In high school, he was able to bury his feelings for other men and escape from his teammates to his parents’ house when he needed to be alone.
Dorm life in college was a pressure-cooker. “You don’t go home after practice. You have to stay with your teammates the whole time, so it’s really more difficult to hide things. It was more of an uptight situation. I couldn’t leave and go to my own house. I had to be in the dorms with the guys. I had to put on a front 24 hours a day, instead of just play my games and go home.”
Nick Hahn, James’ teammate at USM and one of his best friends, understands the fear James lived with. He described the gay jokes and slurs on the team as “regular,” often hearing them several times in a week.
“In a college sports-team atmosphere, it’s all business during practice and games,” Hahn said. “But in different settings, like the locker room or in the gym working out on your own, or in the dorms, that’s when it occurs. And it does. Someone would call someone a fag, or someone would accuse someone else of checking them out. Or guys would whip somebody on the butt with a towel and razz them. Sometimes it got so frequent that you started questioning if guys were doing it to defend their own sexuality.”