Super Bowl Sunday

Esera Tuaolo on why we must stop fetishizing gay players and change the NFL culture

Esera Tuaolo spent a decade in the trenches of the National Football League as a nose tackle for five teams. Shortly after he retired in 2002, he came out, joining Dave Kopay and Roy Simmons as the only out retired players. To this day, there are still zero active openly gay player in any of the pro team sports leagues. (Michael Sam became the first to be drafted but was cut by the St. Louis Rams in pre-season.)

To change the sports culture that makes coming out difficult, Tuaolo has founded Hate is Wrong, a non-profit group. Thought a lot of wrangling, sweet talking and arm-twisting, he managed to pull together the first Super Bowl Inclusion Party the week before the Super Bowl.

While he faces a tough road ahead in achieving this goal, never underestimate Tuaolo. Born in Hawaii to a low income banana-farming family, his father died when he was ten. Yet he went on to be a standout football player, eventually drafted in the second round. He now spends his days traveling the country lobbing for inclusion, working out and following his passion for singing. In 2017, he auditioned for season 13 of The Voice singing “Rise Up” from Andra Day. And he has sung the the national anthem at multiple events, including the recent Olympic trials in San Jose, CA.

Queerty chatted with Tuaolo about the Super Bowl, the gay scene in his home town of Minneapolis and what it will really take to change the NFL culture.

How did the first NFL-supported Inclusion Party come about?

The Inclusion Party served as essentially as launch of Hate is Wrong, which promotes diversity in sports and anti-bullying among youth. I wanted to throw a big party in line with that purpose and to expose people to the great things Hate is Wrong will do in the upcoming years, including repeating this party every year in the cities hosting the Super Bowl.

The idea for Hate is Wrong actually started back while I played closeted in the NFL. I used the saying “hate in any form is wrong” when I encountered instances of discrimination. And when I came out in 2002 and started speaking publicly about inclusion, especially LGBT inclusion, at colleges, corporations, talk shows, big publications, and the like, I informally called what I was doing the “Hate in Any Form is Wrong” campaign. Given the divisiveness during the last few years in our society, I decided to take the plunge and actually turn the Hate in Any Form is Wrong campaign into a non-profit now called Hate is Wrong. The Inclusion Party is just one method the non-profit uses to promote inclusion in sports and in society.

The inaugural party this year went really well! We had amazing organizations and companies on board, including the NFL, Adidas, iHeart Radio, Outsports, GLAAD, Metropolis Foundation and so many more. We had over 10 artists from season 13 of The Voice perform, including myself, awesome DJs, some great signed memorabilia to auction off, great guests (including professional athletes), a speech from the Mayor of Minneapolis, Jacob Frey, and even a special No Hate Hula drink sponsored by Revel. The event raised money for Hate is Wrong, the PACER anti-bullying organization, and the Avenues organization that addresses LGBT homelessness. This is the first event of its kind, and it brought the football community and people of all backgrounds, especially the LGBT community, closer together. I’m excited to have this party yearly.

Esera at the Inclusion Party

Who are you rooting for today? The Patriots owner, coach and quarterback have all supported Trump, who has rebuked athletes for taking the knee in support of equality at the same time his administration is trying to roll back LGBTQ rights.

I’m indifferent on the outcome to start with because my Minnesota Vikings aren’t playing. And of course it sends a message of exclusion when anyone says they support policies that exclude people based on race, sex, sexuality or other immutable characteristics. But I don’t think the issue is as simple as finding and blaming Trump supporters. I’ve actually had a few Trump supporters support the party and come out to show their support for inclusion and diversity.

What? Trump supporters?

I know, right!? That was surprising to me too in a good way. On the other hand, I’ve also had self-identified liberals tell me they’ll come through with support but then back out, as if showing up to a party that’s inclusive of LGBT people will hurt their image. I got the feeling that they stereotyped it as a “gay party” and they didn’t want to be seen as “gay” for coming.  So I’ve learned to look beyond the optics of the situation.

What sort of activism do you engage in today in addition to Hate is Wrong?

I still speak about inclusion in colleges and corporations. For example, I recently spoke at St. Cloud University in Minnesota, and will speak at Adidas. And I still go on TV with the advocacy, including national and local programs. The type of advocacy depends on the forum. If I have just 5 minutes on TV, for example, you can’t really have a full blown conversation about LGBT issues so the point is to just continue the discussion generally. If I’m speaking at a university or a corporation, then there is a chance to have a more engaging discussion about the causes of discrimination and ways to address it appropriately.

You played in the NFL for a decade. You bravely came out in 2002. Yet there are still no active openly gay NFL players. Have things improved? Why can’t guys come out even today in the NFL?

There have been some improvements. The NFL now has LGBT-protective policies, it’s showing support of the LGBT community through various projects, including the Inclusion Party, and is generally trying to make steps in the right direction.

Players still can’t come out because the way we (and not just the NFL) have been approaching LGBT issues has been too limited. There seems to be this weird fetish to have players come out and alone fix the discrimination by being “the good gay player,” while the rest of the world watches them take flack from the sidelines and cheers them on. There’s also a fetish over explicit homophobia, as if using gay slurs or considering a player’s sexuality in decision-making is the start and end of the conversation. So when a player is considering coming out, they fear that the result will just be a push out of the league couched in unaddressed implicit homophobia–like when a team says it won’t sign a gay or bisexual player because it “doesn’t want the media attention as a distraction” even though it signed players in the headlines for beating women–without a solid infrastructure for support in and out of the NFL.

That’s a great insight

With respect to expanding our understanding of discrimination beyond just explicit forms, there was a study that always stands out to me that tried to better understand why there are significantly less women in the computer science field. So they set up different rooms meant for computer science students. One room had items stereotypically associated with computer science (and “masculinity”), like soda cans and comics I think. And the other room had neutral items. They had female participants walk into the rooms, stay there for a bit, and then report how likely they were to engage computer science. Female participants who were in the stereotypical room showed less interest in computer science than either men or women in the neutral room. So the set up of the rooms, including the stereotypes and biases woven into the rooms just through physical items, had an implicit impact on the participants. This is just one of many of these types of studies. It made me realize the true nature of discrimination. It’s not just someone explicitly rejecting you because you’re gay, and it’s not even just a good-intentioned but uneducated person making homophobic assumptions. It’s beyond just people. It’s in the environment itself; it’s everywhere.

How does this apply to football?

Football is a perfect example. The expectation that players have to have brute force and strength is deeply woven into that environment. So when someone enters that environment (everyone from players and staff entering the profession to fans entering the stadium or turning on a football game) who is stereotypically assumed to not share in that force and strength (like LGBT people and women, for example, who are stereotypically assumed to be fragile and weak), you get a perfect storm of both explicit and implicit discrimination from people and the environment itself actually pushing back.

That’s why I’m so excited about Hate is Wrong and the Inclusion Party. Hate is Wrong focuses on everyone, including the players, coaches, staff, fans, and anyone that touches football in any way. Regardless if another player comes out, we’re still going to be here changing the policies, individuals’ views, and the environment itself. We’re actually hoping to help build a strong network of allies who publicly self-identify as allies so that the world sees how many of us there really are and to let the players know where they can turn if they need support. The Inclusion Party is especially exciting because it goes beyond people altogether and attacks the biases generally present in football by, we hope, showing the world that football and the LGBT community are not opposites but can instead fit each other like a glove, that LGBT people not only belong but they can actually thrive in the industry.

Related: Gay NFL Veteran Esera Tuaolo: I Did Not Feel Safe At All In The Locker Room

That’s all good, but, come on, can’t this multi-billion dollar industry do better than this? Why does this have to be left to people outside of it?

I agree that the NFL could do more to improve LGBT diversity. But I try to keep in mind the unique challenges the NFL faces in adopting changes. As I mentioned, there are certain biases engrained in football generally and you can’t change that over night. And even when policies and changes are possible in a short time, being divided into so many separate teams, with each having its own management and leadership, slows things down. What do you do, for example, when the owner, coach, and star players on a team publicly support President Trump, who has taken anti-LGBT actions? A team like that will be less receptive of change even when the NFL generally is willing to move forward. Second, I’ve never made progress by cornering someone and focusing on just their flaws. The NFL has made steps in the right direction, and it’s better to build on those steps than to burn bridges.

What advice do you have for other pro athletes who may be afraid to come out?

Unfortunately, I can’t tell you to come out because that’s a decision you’ll have to make on your own. And I can’t tell you that if you come out everything will be ok for sure–I can tell you that you’re not alone. There’s a lot of us, gay and straight, who accept you as you are. We’ve just been too timid so far in the face of bigotry. But time’s up. It’s now time for us to stand up and show the world how many of us allies there truly are, and that we’re here for you, whether you want to come out or remain private. Hate is Wrong in particular is working to set up a list of self-reported allies you could identify and approach. And you can always reach out to me personally in confidence for support.

Who were the pro athletes that were allies to you after coming out? Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, for instance, has been very supportive, right there in Minneapolis. 

When I came out, there weren’t any players who immediately reached out with support, although some came around about a year or more after. Generally, though, I respect Chris Kluwe and Brandon Ayanbadejo for the work they’ve done.

Related: Chris Kluwe Returns To Destroy NFL Owner For Making Huge Donation To Antigay Campaign

Are you looking forward to for “Inclusion Party: Atlanta” next year? 

The assistant general manager of the Atlanta Falcons, Scott Pioli, attended the Inclusion Party this year. I think he’s the only member of management of any NFL team to do that, and his presence meant a lot. He let me know that he’s all in to support the party in Atlanta next year, and he will involve the Atlanta Falcons. So I’m looking forward to teaming up with the Atlanta Falcons and hopefully getting more team owners, coaches, management, and staff on board.

Why don’t you run for office? You’d be awesome!

I’ve thought about it. But I’ve realized I probably wouldn’t be good at it. Being an official requires you to pander to people, which seems like I’d have to put telling people what they want to hear above telling people the truth and what they should hear. I have a filter like everyone else, but I don’t think I could sacrifice the change I want to see in the world just for position. I guess it’s kind of ironic that to gain the position you have to not do what the position is meant for.

So back to Esera a bit. Which out athletes are you rooting for in the upcoming Olympics in Pyeongchang? 

I sang the National Anthem for the U.S. skating championships in San Jose and while there saw Adam Rippon live in action. He’s very talented and I hope he does well.

Where will you watch the Super Bowl? Who will you be with?

I’ve been swamped lately with the non-profit work and some appearances so I told myself I’d go to the Super Bowl if my Vikings made it, but unfortunately they lost. So I’ll probably watch it with friends and family at home or a local place, although I’m still tempted to go and watch it in person.

What’s the gay scene like in Minneapolis?

I don’t go out a lot because I travel for work. When I’m at home I like to be at home. When I do go out, I go to all kinds of places, Sneaky Pete’s, Saloon, EagleBolt Bar, Timberwolves and Vikings games.

Where do you eat?

These questions are so specific. It’s like filling out a dating profile. 🙂 I like Lotus. It has some good Vietnamese food. And I can’t forget Fogo de Chao. But I rarely go out to eat–I’m a chef so I try to cook for myself.

You were known for your strength as a player. Do you still work out?

Yes. I still bench 450, which I’m proud of, and I try to keep up with my usual routine. I usually go to LA Fitness and 24 Hours.

What’s up next for Esera?

As for me, I’ll continue to do what I’ve been doing. I’ll still be a chef, I’ll record music, speak on inclusion across the country, and run Hate is Wrong. I’m also looking into writing another book, this time going further in depth about inclusion and sports.