Last night at Hi Tops, a gay sports bar in the Castro, nobody was paying attention to the Giants-Mets game. Instead, focus was on the athlete in the room with us. The newly signed Raiders punter Chris Kluwe had come without a team minder or a press agent to meet fans grateful for his gay rights advocacy, spanning from his blog to CNN to Ellen Degeneres.
In the notoriously conservative world of professional athletics, Kluwe told me he’s working to create an atmosphere for gay athletes and fans to come out and receive equal rights and treatment. ‘To me it’s a subset of a broader issue, which is human rights… treating people with equality,” Kluwe told me, “If I’m free to live my life, other people have to be free to live their lives, otherwise it doesn’t work.”
Kluwe came to Hi Tops— not to speak, or even watch the game, but to mingle— after reading from his new book of essays Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies at nearby Books Inc. Last year on Deadspin, the punter came to national attention for his hilarious, articulate, and profane letter to Maryland state assembly delegate Emmet Burns defending Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo’s right to advocate for marriage equality. “Your vitriolic hatred and bigotry make me ashamed” wrote Kluwe, memorably asking, “Why do you hate freedom?” and punctuating his remarks with phrases like “Holy fucking shitballs.”
Inside, Kluwe was as comfortable as anyone at the bar: blending into the crowd, posing for photos, and sharing hugs and handshakes. Basically, it was a bunch of bros, broing out, except that one of them was a professional athlete, the bar was in the Castro, and there was no scandal about it. “The thing is, I’m just hanging out with people,” he told me, biting into a cheeseburger and garlic fries. “I think people have this mistaken assumption that if they walk into a gay bar they’re immediately going to get jumped by everyone because they’re so irresistibly attractive that they’ll be like ‘ermegod!’” he said, laughing. “C’mon, you’re not all that!”
“It’s awesome to see [Kluwe] not just taking a verbal stand about LGBT issues but actually showing up at a gay bar in San Francisco, just hanging out,” said bar-goer Christopher Vasquez. Gay sports fans had something to cheer about in the as yet unsigned gay basketball player Jason Collins, but as of yet, no professional football player has come out as gay. As Hi Tops co-owner Jesse Woodward said, “Coming out as someone who plays sports, it’s great to have someone help to give that a voice.” Like most people I spoke to, Woodward had noticed Kluwe for his letter, which “articulated the way a lot of people feel. He actually did something about it.” Paul Hogarth, ID tk another fan, posed for a photo Kluwe. “So cute when a straight guys say ‘if it’s good enough for me, it’s good enough for you guys,” Hogarth told me.
Among his many new fans in the Bay Area, Kluwe acknowledged that his role goes beyond professional athlete and even public figure. “Athletes are regarded as role models,” said Kluwe, “I’m a role model, so I want to be a good one.” As I snapped photos of Kluwe and admirers, a man tapped me on the shoulder. “You couldn’t do that ten years ago,” he said. “What, come out in favor of gay rights in sports?” “No,” he said, “take pictures in a gay bar. You’d ruin people’s lives.”