Tackling a Gridiron Taboo

For these frisky gay jocks, flag football is a full contact sport

In professional sports, particularly of the team variety where groups of guys huddle and shower together, coming out of the closet (or locker, as it were) is tantamount to career suicide. Dictated by a misdirected machismo that dominates the field, athletic prowess requires a “real” man.

And yet jocks, and their straps, are the stuff of which many a gay fantasy—and porn video—are made.

Leave it to the cultural arts to help bridge the gap. Recently, there was the Tony Award-winning “Take Me Out” on Broadway, with its eye-popping locker room frontal nudity, about a fearless Derek Jeter-like baseball star who blithely declares his homosexuality. A few years ago on the TV series “Dawson’s Creek,” which won several GLAAD awards, the sexy star receiver on the high school team was openly gay.

There’s also a new wave of books on the subject. Billy Bean wrote a tell-all about his silent struggle as a major league baseball player in the 1990s. And there’s the popular “Jocks” series that uncovers plenty of true life man-on-man action on and off the playing field.

Enter “Huddle,” a debut novel by Dan Boyle about a bunch of guys on a gay flag football team who revel in their weekend series of games. For those of us who haven’t touched a “pigskin” since ninth grade gym class (or who think “pigskin” is something to be touched in a backroom at The Eagle) the book is a revelation.

The athletes are members of The Quake, one of two gay teams in the otherwise straight West Los Angeles Flag Football Spring League, who compete on a field that is in the shadow of Mann’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard.

Often funny, surprisingly poignant, “Huddle” shows that gay guys can live, laugh, love, lust, and still hurl a Hail Mary bomb into the end zone. They cruise the queer watering holes in West Hollywood together, bitch together, and yeah, sometimes they get off together.

With all that drama, you gotta wonder—did these guys take over that condo complex on Melrose Place?

It takes a few chapters to get a handle on all the characters, but Boyle makes it worth the effort. He resists the urge to cram each guy into a pat category, subtly revealing extraordinary depths.

Jack, the team’s quarterback, has a mean throwing arm but is a “control queen.” Well into his 30s (gasp!), he masks the gray in his hair with blond highlights and deadens his forehead wrinkles with Botox.

Curt and Al are boyfriends having glitches navigating their open relationship. They enjoy the occasional three-way, and even seduce a young blond “straight” guy on an opposing team. At one point, Al is tricked into bed with a lesbian friend and ends up liking it way too much.

Bill, a derailed novelist in a lousy relationship, has a crush on Ed and vice versa, but they’re too emotionally stunted to act on it. Jerry is an insecure abs model for Men’s Exercise magazine who likes to party hard. He’s got a knack for cutting up his official team jersey into a slinky tank top to expose his killer bod. Mitch is a handsome name-dropping, ladder-climbing, bisexual film producer who is outed at his ex-girlfriend’s wedding.

Dave is one of the more engaging members of The Quake. A tangle of nerves on the field thanks to a demanding father who robbed him of all confidence, he drops almost every pass thrown his way.

The flattest character by far is the token black guy, Marcus, the running back who acts as the team’s internal drill sergeant/cheerleader. Way too often he squeals, “ooh child” and calls his teammates “Miss Thing.”

The boys slip effortlessly from the huddle on the football field to a drug-fueled huddle on the dance floor at the Palm Springs White Party. On their coffee tables, Sports Illustrated magazines mingle amicably with Architectural Digest and Edge, an L.A. gay rag. The teammates talk trash and curse and bicker as crassly as the straight dudes. And they win a shitload of games.

But Boyle makes evident that for these guys, football is more than a pastime—it’s a miracle glue that binds and propels their friendships. As one player puts it, “We cling to the game because it’s the last refuge of our youth.” Bill even claims that if it weren’t for football he would have done himself in years ago.

The football passages are as oddly titillating as they are authentic. “Start crossing the flankers short in the middle, man!” commands Marcus. On the field, the buds toss around phrases like “inside deep buttonhook” and “slanting up the middle” and “getting double-teamed.” Sounds good to me…

Sure, there are patches of painfully clunky dialogue typical of a first-time gay novel. “No movie-making deals… no preppin’ up for Saturday night parties til after the game. This is football!” says Marcus.

Refreshingly, Boyle loves to experiment with voices. Without warning, he shifts points of view, which serves to distinguish characters and invigorates the narrative.

Dave’s voice is a self-deprecating, stream-of-consciousness jumble of run-on sentences without punctuation. Sample snippet: “…maybe at this party all actor types and I’ll find someone who wants to take me up to a bedroom and if dad saw me with my legs up he’d just shake his head like he knew all along I turned out wrong…”

When Jerry speaks, he moves into Jay McInerney “Bright Lights, Big City” second person mode: “You walk into your bedroom and strip off your towel, looking at yourself one more time in the mirror…”

One chapter is written in the form of a Hollywood movie script, which the story ultimately becomes, with its climactic showdown for the championship title between The Quake and a straight juggernaut team. But, thankfully, “Huddle” has just enough freshness and quirks to rise above cliché.

It’s hard not to get caught up in the rough gridiron action, especially when The Quake is clashing with a straight team. After an interception, Curt taunts, “That’s the way us faggots play ball.” An opponent replies, “At least we don’t get fucked like cunts.”

“Huddle” asks us to ponder the difference between “faux gym butchness” and “real masculinity.” We re-learn what it means to be accepted, part of a team. In cheering for The Quake we cheer for ourselves; their victory, somehow, represents a tiny shred of redemption for us “fags” who were picked last for football in gym class.

If reading about the L.A. Quake makes you yearn to sweat in a real-life huddle with gay buds, there’s good news. This spring, New York is forming its own gay flag football league. Check out www.geocities.com/ nyflagfootball or contact nyflagfootball@hotmail.com.

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