In 2011 the moment was there for Scott Norton but he was very much alone with it. He had no one to approach for counsel. Michael Sam and Jason Collins were years away. No active professional male athlete in America had openly declared he was gay. Better put, no guy had yet dared to reveal himself. The reason was obvious. The spotlight would be unyielding hot.
“But I’ve always had a big personality,” said Norton, 33 a civil law attorney and a professional bowler who competed in a PBA Western Region event here this weekend at Double Decker Lanes. “If someone doesn’t like it, I will use colorful language. They can expletive off.”
So Norton came out on May 19, 2011, the first actively competing gay athlete to do so in an American professional sport. Now more than four years later Norton would like to report universal acceptance in the PBA’s locker room. Certainly there’s been significant movement in that direction. According to OutSports.com, 108 professional or amateur athletes came out in 2014 as gay, lesbian or bisexual.
“But there’s a big difference between acceptance and respect,” Norton said.
Of all places Norton hears that difference in his sport’s locker room.
“They call me ‘princess,’” Norton said. “I’ll hear the word ‘faggot.’”
What happens then? It’s what happens in male locker rooms everywhere. Trash is talked, powered by testosterone, designed to show aggression and superiority. Trash tests the spine of the recipient, to determine if he’s up for it, that he can handle the competition, inside or outside the locker room. Call it dumb and mindless but Norton has no choice. He gives it as well as he takes it.
“If the guy is bald,” Norton said, “I’ll say, ‘Yeah, OK, curly,’”
Norton’s skin is thick, his responses quick and his message clear. He’s a bowler. Norton was the 2010-2011 PBA Rookie of the Year. Norton’s won three PBA events. He’s one of only 40 bowlers drafted to PBA league teams, meaning he is guaranteed to be seen on national television in any PBA event he enters.
But The Kiss gets the headline.
“Who would have thought something so innocent, so benign, could turn into that?” Norton said.
Guys who win PBA tournaments kiss their wives on national television. It’s a simple ritual. A nice photo op to capture the emotion of the moment. But Norton kissed his husband after winning his second PBA event in November 2011.
“They didn’t know what to call it,” said Norton of the ESPN announcers as Craig Woodward and Norton embraced. The kiss was so quick; one needs to slow the tape to see it. A quite audible gasp was heard. The assumption was it came from the shocked audience.
“It was from me,” Norton said. “I hadn’t won a tournament in a while. I didn’t know if I was ever going to win again.”
What was most significant about The Kiss was that ESPN aired it. The tournament was tape-delayed, shown two months later.
“ESPN could have edited it out,” Norton said. Or stripped an announcement across the bottom of the television screen: Viewer Discretion Advised.
But the World Wide Leader didn’t and while it seems like a small thing, it’s a big thing because it’s another example that attitudes are changing. Norton didn’t lose sponsors. Norton didn’t lose friends. His profile expanded and so did his responsibility.
“I feel I should protect Anthony,” Norton said.
Anthony Pepe is a 26-year old PBA bowler who came out in April. A few weeks after Pepe’s announcement Pepe and Norton were in a bar late night with other PBA guys when the conversation turned dark and insulting, directed at Pepe. Norton stood.
“‘This is for all you expletives!’ ” Norton remembered saying. “‘You will not treat Anthony the way you treat me! He’s a nice man.’ I can handle it. But Anthony is a quiet guy. He doesn’t seek such attention.”
Norton then took Pepe aside and gave him advice that he would give anyone thinking of declaring himself.
“Don’t let them turn yourself into something you’re not,” Norton said.
That would be bitter, combative and angry. That would be someone modeled after what the late Branch Rickey asked Jackie Robinson to be. Someone rising about the ignorance. Someone using his intellect, not his impulse, to shape his responses.
“We (the PBA) have events in the Middle East that pay $50,000-60,000 for first place,” Norton said. “That’s good money. I would love to go there. But that’s not a good place for me.”
Norton is always aware of his environment. Always. He never takes his radar down.
“I always keep one eye open,” he said. “You are never unscared.”
It is of a practical necessity he does that, because of the places the PBA travels.
“It’s not like I’m on the Cubs and playing in Chicago,” Norton said. “Or on the 49ers in San Francisco. The PBA doesn’t hold tournaments in large and diverse cities. We play in small towns where homophobia is more easily seen.”
So his friendships? It’s a “small circle” he admits. Friendly he is. Articulate, cordial, personable, he’s all of that. With one eye open though. That he assumes this load, this complexity in his day-to-day life, it’s path Norton has chosen to live because life, any life, is meant to be lived free of concealment and embarrassment.
“Look, I was raised in the Church Of Being Nice To People,” Norton said. “We all are stuck on this rock (earth), a floating spaceship. Why not get along? Why not be nice to people?”
Why should Scott Norton even have to ask that question?