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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Gay Kids Play Sports, Too. It’s a Story That Needs to Be Shared

By Phil Bildner — May 22, 2019 4 min read
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Today’s guest post is written by children’s book author Phil Bildner, a former New York City public school teacher, recovering attorney, and the founder of The Author Village, an author-booking business.

All kids need to see themselves represented in books—their lives and experiences—and it needs to be a positive representation. When kids see themselves represented in the texts they read in a positive way, not only do they build an emotional connection to the story, but it helps them realize they are valued. But when their own stories are missing from the narrative, which is so often the case for LGBTQ kids, they know it and feel it.

It’s one of the many reasons why I wrote my forthcoming book called A HIGH FIVE FOR GLENN BURKE (Farrar Straus Giroux, February, 2020).

A HIGH FIVE FOR GLENN BURKE is the story of Silas, a middle school kid who loves baseball (he’s the starting center fielder on his select team), a kid whose baseball hero is former major leaguer Glenn Burke and a kid who’s beginning to take his first steps (and missteps) toward coming out as gay. The story includes some wonderful supporting characters—Silas, Zoey, Grace, Malik, Ben-Ben, and Webb. And in the story, readers will learn about Glenn Burke, the gifted baseball player who invented the high-five. Yes, someone actually invented the celebratory and universal gesture, though that someone was never justly celebrated during his own time.

Why Is Glenn Burke’s Story Important?
Glenn Burke played for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1970s. The highly touted prospect, considered by some scouts to be the next Willie Mays, was the Dodgers starting center fielder in game one of the 1977 World Series against the New York Yankees. Just weeks before that, during a spontaneous moment of jubilation after a historic home run, he invented the high-five.

But shortly thereafter, Glenn Burke was run out of baseball because he was gay. Of course, times were different back then, but sadly, not all that different, because as of this writing, there are still no openly gay players at present in Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National Football League, and the National Hockey League. Nor has there ever been an openly gay active player in any of the major sports leagues, except for Jason Collins at the end of his NBA career. Even though gay players may not have been open about their sexual orientation with the public, their teammates and coaces were sometimes aware that they were gay. And a number of players have come out after retiring from their atheltic careers.

It’s a Story Of Acceptance
Coming out is not a moment. It’s a process, a journey. Often it’s beautiful, often it’s brutal. One moment, it’s exhilarating, the next debilitating.

It’s always real.

I wrote A HIGH FIVE FOR GLENN BURKE for many reasons. One is to provide a glimmer of light and hope for those LGBTQ kids who play sports but are struggling to feel genuinely welcome in the world of athletics, an environment where homophobia is often rampant. Queer kids need to know they can and should have the same opportunities and experiences as all kids. They need to know they can and should be allowed to play openly and safely. They shouldn’t have to feel like less of an athlete because of being gay. Nor should they have to hide who they are in order to play. Being gay should never be a reason for not feeling like part of the team.

I also wrote this book to help kids grasp the importance of acceptance, to help kids open their hearts and minds to the realities and struggles some of their own teammates may be living. Others should use it as an opportunity to be more accepting for those who are not like them. Many of us remember what it was like to be a part of a close-knit team even decades after we may have played the sport. It meant something to us to play the sport and feel the camaraderie of playing with the other people on our team. Sometimes it creates lifelong friendships. Shouldn’t all kids, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender expression, feel that camaraderie?

Lastly, I wrote this book to celebrate the real-world hero Glenn Burke—a man who embodied all the great attributes of a true athlete—ability, joy, humor, energy, respect—and a man who gave to the world the gesture that symbolizes connection and enthusiasm, but a man who was treated unfairly simply because he was gay in a world where such an existence was considered an unspeakable offense. We need to learn through his experiences so we all do not follow the same pattern.

The reality is that gay kids play sports, too. The world of sports at all levels needs to be a safe and welcoming environment for everyone. I hope and believe A HIGH FIVE FOR GLENN BURKE will help us take another step in that direction.

Phil Bildner is the author of many books, including the Rip and Red Series (FS&G). Connect with Phil through his website www.philbildner.com, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

A HIGH FIVE FOR GLENN BURKE cover designed by Cassie Gonzales.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.