As a little boy, I was gay. Really gay. Giggity-giggity-GEIGH-level G-A-Y. And it didn’t take even a strongly functioning pair of eyes to clock the ‘lightness’ of my loafers. No. In fact, a mere pair of ears at wax-filled quarter-capacity could register the bubbling queerness of my childhood persona: sibilant “S” sounds that fell like shimmering silken ribbons from my eager-to-gossip mouth; a predilection for clapping my hands while I giddily ran; and a tendency to gasp excitedly at information, be I shocked, pleased, or simply tantalized. Oh, and also my obsession—OBSESSION—with (talking about) gymnastics. That was perhaps the deadest of graveyard-dead giveaways.
As many of us who never really ‘passed’ for straight are aware, childhood is, largely, about the act of sneaking. Sneaking glances at cute classmates while they squirreled away at math problems. Sneaking into our moms’ closets to try on their pumps. (My, oh, my! the sensation of being suddenly 4” taller!) And sneaking moments of acting out our (well, my) theatricalized fantasies about grownup-hood.
A (Gymnastics) World All My Own
For me, these fantasies involved the projection of myself as a gymnast—an undiscovered boy-man with international appeal and talent, miraculously invited to compete alongside his favorite female gymnasts in their far superior, far more elegant, far more dramatic events: the (music-accompanied) floor exercise and the balance beam.
To that end, I’d repurpose railings and benches and parking stops (oh, the parking stops!) into makeshift balance beams. I’d pause and hyper-focus for death-defying tumbling passes I’d never actually attempt. I’d even threaten falls (along with pesky-to-tragic deductions!) with a waiver of my arms and a shift of my hips. Any expanse of carpet wide enough for a cartwheel and long enough for a back-bend became my spring-loaded floor. Along its perimeter I’d imagine a white band, reminding myself not to dare step out of bounds.
Enter: The Magnificent Seven
But the bright spotlights I imagined in my stolen, acrobatics-filled (and Soviet-dominated) spaces didn’t mean these corners were any less obscure or secret. However, this all changed when, in July 1996, Shannon Miller, Dominique Moceanu, Dominique Dawes, Amy Chow, Amanda Borden, Jaycie Phelps, and Kerri Strug set not only the Olympic stage—but the international gymnastic stage—ablaze. Splashed across magazine and newspaper covers the country over, this squad—anointed the “Magnificent Seven” by media outlets—established (American) gymnastics as something everybody was talking about.
Just days later, children all around me were reenacting the team’s routines (and the high pitch of Kerri’s voice). We all aspired to the incredible blend of grace, beauty, and athleticism the women represented. This generalized frenzy for the gymnasts, while not about me, somehow felt like it was for me. It was like a favor, a shame-reducing salve someone had applied to the stinging fear and internalized homophobia that had always been the cost of my own affinity for the sport.
A Prouder, Maybe Gayer Me
While the team’s glow gradually faded (and gravity won its battle against their physics-defying bangs), I am so very grateful. Those record-setting, gold-winning girls were my heroes. Not just incredible athletes, they reached out to me—and to many other fans, queer or otherwise—and gave us a little extra hope and excitement—an excitement we could unabashedly, shamelessly share with the world, at least for a while.
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