Friday, May 27, 2011

Courage in the Face of Adversity: The Story of America's First Openly Gay High School Track Coach

Eric Anderson knows the meaning of the word courage. In 1993, at the age of 25, he came out to his high school track team and the community of Huntington Beach High School in Orange County, California. In doing so, he became the first openly gay high school coach in America. His book, "Trailblazing," chronicles the often painful and devastating ordeals he faced in coming out. It's a remarkable story about courage in the face of adversity.

Coming out is a affirmative act of self-proclamation. It's a conscious step towards living life on one's own terms. When someone come's out of the closet, they are saying to a heteronormative and homophobic society, "I am here and I am not ashamed of who I am." Gay and lesbian men and women need to come out if they hope to achieve a higher level of personal and spiritual fulfillment. This is important to remember when reading Anderson's story.

Before he came out, he was plagued with headaches. The stress of keeping his secret hidden caused him severe migraines and ulcers. He worried constantly that friends and family members might perceive him as gay. Some straight people might not understand this. Social norms allow them to express their sexuality freely without fear of backlash. Gay people don't always have this luxury.

Sometimes coming out can mean being socially ostracized, getting fired from your job, being teased and made fun of, and in some cases, even killed. Imagine for a moment the pain and anguish of having to conceal something so innate and fundamental as your own sexuality - having to be constantly aware of who you look at, how you look at them, what you say, and the way you say it.

Anderson knew he would face backlash. But, he came out for a couple of reasons: first, he couldn't continue to live a lie, and second, he wanted to help closeted students not feel so alone.

It is touching that those who supported and stood by him most were his track team members. They accepted the news of his homosexuality as a non-issue, and thus, they had the most mature reaction out of anyone in the community. Even the parents of his students stood by him.

But, in the homophobic world of high school athletics, Anderson's happiness was short-lived. People keyed his car. Students tagged the word "faggot" on his team's bus. They harassed and bullied his straight team members for being on the "gay team." On one occasion they even assaulted and broke the jaw of a team member. All the while, the school administrators turned a blind eye to these injustices. It's telling that before allowing a new member to join his team, Anderson had to make sure to warn the prospective runner and his parents that daily harassment was almost inevitable.

"Trailblazing" is a thrilling and inspiring book and one of the best running books ever written, not least because it's more about courage than it is about running. Eric Anderson led his team to victory on the track, but their real victory was off the track. They proved that courage, friendship, intelligence, and humor can overcome hatred.

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