When it comes to baseball and LGBTQ+ inclusivity, Billy Bean often flashes back to his playing days.
Ending his career without telling his parents about his life as a closeted gay ballplayer. Shielding his secret from teammates like Brad Ausmus and Torey Lovullo. The regret of not sharing his “full self,” he says.
It’s a message Bean has delivered in clubhouses, and it resonates with today’s ballplayers — hyper-focused on staying in the majors, and being a good teammate. It’s also the lens through which Bean views baseball’s ongoing LGBTQ+ issues.
“There’s some parts of my job where I feel like some days I just, you know, I’m floating,” said Bean, a senior vice president for diversity, equity and inclusion with Major League Baseball. “Then there’s other days when I see some pushback, I’m reminded that we have 8,000 human beings connected to the sport as an athlete in one way or another, and you’re not going to always have 100% of those people agree on the same thing.”
That friction has been on display in recent seasons as MLB teams court the LGBTQ+ community during Pride Month, simultaneously showing how much has changed and how much remains the same within the National Pastime — a sport with a strong connection to segments of the U.S. and Latin America where many view homosexuality as a sin.
Almost 80 years after Jackie Robinson broke the majors’ color barrier in a landmark moment for the American Civil Rights Movement, the dueling expressions of LGBTQ+ support and pop-up opposition recalled the question of when MLB might welcome its first active openly gay player — a barrier already cleared by the NBA and NFL.
“If somebody in here called a meeting and came out as gay, I think everybody would embrace that, have their back and literally just move on and focus on winning the games, which is really the important thing and what matters,” Milwaukee Brewers outfielder and 2018 NL MVP Christian Yelich said. “It doesn’t matter what somebody’s sexuality is.”
Seattle slugger Julio Rodríguez, Chicago Cubs pitcher Marcus Stroman and Toronto pitcher Kevin Gausman are among a group of players who have publicly celebrated Pride Month.
“Love wins,” Rodríguez told The Associated Press. “Definitely you can see that there’s not just me but there was definitely more people across the league that they support this. I feel like you can see the change in that, the support in that.”
Yet signs of dissension remain. The Los Angeles Dodgers have faced criticism for including the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in the team’s upcoming 10th annual Pride Night on Friday. Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw disagreed with the decision but said his objection was based on the Sisters’ satirical portrayal of religious figures and had nothing to do with LGBTQ+ support. Washington pitcher Trevor Williams said he was deeply troubled by the team’s move, decrying what he felt was the group’s mockery of his Catholic religion.
The objection to the Sisters, a group of mainly men who dress as nuns, comes a year after some Tampa Bay players cited their Christian faith in refusing to wear Pride-themed jerseys. Several hockey players also opted out of wearing rainbow-colored jerseys on Pride nights during the most recent NHL season.
Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said Thursday that MLB has advised teams against adding rainbow accents or patches on uniforms to avoid putting players “in a position of doing something that may make them uncomfortable because of their personal views.”
Last month, veteran reliever Anthony Bass expressed support on social media for anti-LGBTQ+ boycotts of Target and Bud Light, and then apologized for sharing the post on his Instagram stories.
Asked if MLB’s inclusivity efforts with the LGBTQ+ community had stalled, Bass referenced baseball’s “many different beliefs” and ”many different walks of life.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s causing a barrier,” Bass said before he was cut by the Blue Jays last week. “Everyone should be able to express their feelings and views, so I think that’s what we’re seeing and I don’t think it’s causing a barrier to the acceptance of the Pride community.”
Bass was booed loudly by Toronto fans after his social media post, and others seem wary of how far their favorite teams are willing to go in terms of LGBTQ+ support. Texas is the only big league team that isn’t holding a Pride Night this month.
For Mason Dunn, who grew up in a diehard Dodgers family in Southern California, it has been an emotional couple of weeks. Dunn wrote an anguished post on Facebook after the Dodgers rescinded their invitation to the Sisters, and then expressed relief when the team changed its mind.
“I really truly hope the Dodgers are using this experience to learn more about allyship,” said Dunn, who identifies as nonbinary and works for the Massachusetts LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce. “It isn’t just about rainbow logos. It’s about showing up when things are difficult and scary.”
Asked about not holding a Pride Night, the Rangers said they are committed to making everyone feel welcome and included.
“That means in our ballpark, at every game, and in all we do — for both our fans and our employees,” the team said in a statement.
For Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Ben Cherington, access to the best possible employees — on the field, in the front office, everywhere in the organization — is a major reason why LGBTQ+ inclusivity is important.
“It is our belief that to win at the level we want to win at, at the major league level, means that we simply can’t discriminate,” Cherington said. “If you’re around really good teams, World Series teams, teams in other sports that achieve at the highest possible level, you will see that the only way to build a team like that is to have zero bias as it relates to where people are coming from, what they look like, what their beliefs are, how they choose to spend their time away from the field.”
Dale Scott became the first out major league umpire in 2014, and there have been a handful of out players in the minor leagues. Anderson Comás, a minor league pitcher in the White Sox organization, announced that he was gay in an Instagram post in February. Phillies pitcher Taijuan Walker, Mets outfielder Mark Canha and Royals first baseman Vinnie Pasquantino responded with supportive messages on Twitter.
Speaking to reporters on June 2, the 23-year-old Comás cited the help he received from the organization as a key element of his decision to come out. He declined an interview request made this week by the AP.
Bean came out after his playing career. Glenn Burke’s sexual orientation was known within baseball, but the former big league outfielder did not come out publicly until 1982.
Burke, who died in 1995 at age 42, felt he was blackballed by the sport. “A gay man in baseball? Uh, uh. No way,″ he told the AP.
Bean, 59, said he doesn’t think the absence of an openly gay player is the right way to evaluate inclusivity in the major leagues, just like he doesn’t think the sport should be evaluated by a comment that might not be supportive.
When it comes to the timing for the majors’ first active openly gay competitor, Bean said he understands why a player would want to focus on his career instead of dealing with the challenges that go along with breaking that barrier.
“It’s really hard to play in the big leagues and you don’t get into the big leagues in 2023 unless you are front and center a baseball player first,” Bean told the AP. “And that is how an athlete would be defined.”
“Baseball is a really hard game,” he continued. “And I think that it’s more about a business decision than a cultural one at the moment. And I have respect for their personal choice there.”