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It took time, but sports have become more accepting of gays

Olympic Gold Medal winner Greg Louganis waves crowd 30th annual Gay Lesbian Pride Parade Sunday June 27 1999 Chicago. Louganis

Olympic Gold Medal winner Greg Louganis waves to the crowd at the 30th annual Gay and Lesbian Pride Parade Sunday, June 27, 1999 in Chicago. Louganis and his dog Nipper were special parade guests in the parade that drew over 250,000 spectators.(AP Photo/Michael S. Green)

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Updated: August 3, 2014 10:17PM

My gay friends, Ray Vanagas and Brian Wynn, sit with me on the deck at my house, talking about all kinds of things.

I’ve played basketball with Ray, 56, for years, and he is (or was) a very good athlete. Now he’s way over the hill (like me), but he played college ball at Lake Forest, taught skiing and competed for a while on the pro-am ski circuit in Colorado.

He even played football in high school. When I ask him what position, Brian, 46, interrupts and blurts, ‘‘Tight end!’’

It’s a joke. You had better have a sense of humor as a gay person in America, or life can be pretty hard.

For Ray and Brian, partners for almost 23 years, the transition from being closeted to living ‘‘out’’ has been very different.

I honestly don’t remember when Ray, who grew up the only child of Lithuanian immigrants in Marquette Park before moving to Deerfield, told me he was gay. I’m not saying I’m the most tolerant person in the world, but I must have been too busy, distracted or ‘‘so what?’’ to care. I don’t know if I previously had thought about whether Ray was gay. I knew he had a deadly jumper. Let’s just say it didn’t matter much to me.

It’s possible the same attitude is permeating our sports fields, arenas, front offices and crowds. I visited the St. Louis Rams’ training camp last month — rookie Michael Sam’s first official day of practice as the only openly gay player in NFL history — and nobody seemed to care.

Just play ball.

That’s what my pal Ray, an effusive, bright and cheerful person, did, and that helped him fit in. But he also attempted to be — or, at least, seem — straight.

‘‘I wanted to be straight,’’ he admits. ‘‘For a while, I was pseudo-dating this Cuban girl. Realizing I was gay was really difficult, having conservative and very Catholic parents. I learned to lead a double life until I came out to them in my mid-20s.’’

After the shock of the news, his parents accepted him. But Ray knows many other parents were horrified by their gay children coming out.

For Brian, who knew he was attracted to males from age 7, nothing was easy. He knew he was different, but he didn’t know how to express it or deal with it, especially in his rural hometown of Oswego.

‘‘I was young and agitated, and I didn’t realize why I was doing what I did,’’ Brian says. ‘‘Now I know. It was the fear of the unknown.’’

His life changed when he went to his first Chicago Pride Parade as a teenager in 1986. He saw all the gay people united — from thong-clad, dancing showboats to serious power-brokers.

‘‘I felt like I had at last found a new home,’’ Brian says.

Which is almost exactly the way Richard Pfeiffer felt when he went to his first Pride Parade in the 1970s. Now Pfeiffer is the volunteer director of the Chicago institution, an event attended by more than a million people in June.

‘‘It’s still helping people,’’ Pfeiffer says of the event and its empowerment. ‘‘This year, a 68-year-old grandmother from Wyoming came out. She finally felt free.’’

Pfeiffer loves to have a gay sports figure as the grand marshal. He thinks — correctly — that sports ‘‘was the last bastion of Americana to come along, after the military a couple of years ago.’’

He starts to list the athlete grand marshals he can remember: ‘‘Dave Kopay, Billy Bean, Wade Davis, John Amaechi, Esera Tuaolo, Will Sheridan this year, mmm, Greg Louganis . . . ’’

Ah, yes, Greg Louganis, the greatest male diver this country has known. With 13 world championships and two gold medals and a silver in three Olympics, Louganis was the embodiment of the ancient Greek ideals of form, beauty and skill.

But he was never fully fledged because of his homosexuality, and his life off the diving board has been an up-and-down teeter-totter largely because of it. Recently, at age 54, he has started taking it back, documenting his return to dignity in a just-released documentary called ‘‘Back on Board.’’

‘‘When I came out publicly in 1994 and told about my HIV status [he has been HIV-positive since 1988], I pretty much unbarred my soul,’’ he says in our interview. ‘‘People were afraid for me. But I had nothing to lose.’’

That’s what so many gay people say when they finally come out: Living a lie was killing me. I couldn’t go on.

Society is beginning to get it. Bean, a former big-league ballplayer, last month was appointed Major League Baseball’s first ‘‘ambassador of inclusion.’’

Bean came out in 1999 — only the second former baseball player to do so — and rode the main float in the parade in 2003. I talked with him that day, and the former California high school quarterback said this: ‘‘I never would have chosen to be gay.’’

Life’s hard enough without being different. So when WNBA star Brittney Griner, pro soccer player Robbie Rogers, pro boxer Orlando Cruz and swimmer Ian Thorpe come out, it’s not because they think it’s cool; it’s because it’s who they are.

Things are so much better now than they were, say, in 1981, when tennis star Martina Navratilova announced she was gay and lost all of her endorsements. Gay NBA player Jason Collins suddenly is loaded with endorsement deals.

As the parade wound toward its close this year, the usual protesters were there with their bulging, blaring faces and quasi-Biblical signs that read: ‘‘WARNING! GOD DRAWS A LINE ON GAY MARRIAGE’’ and ‘‘DIRTY HOMO — STOP SINNING.’’ They might be nuts, but they also represent some quiet haters.

‘‘Those are the same people who protest outside veterans’ funerals,’’ Gov. Pat Quinn says with a tinge of disgust as he completes his march with the parade.

He picks up the sports motif right away.

‘‘It’s how you play the game, not who or what you are,’’ says Quinn, who endorsed gay marriage in our state.

Like Vanagas, Wynn and Louganis, Quinn is a devoutly religious — or spiritual — man. But sometimes rules and attitudes must change. For all of us.

‘‘Democracy is progress,’’ Quinn says. ‘‘Love never fails.’’

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