Cover Story: They Might Be Giants

Local athletes go for the gold at the Gay Games in Australia

 
Jymi Bolden


Readying for the Gay Games, Dennis Menke works on his consistency at the Camargo Racquet Club in Madeira.



Waiting for the ball to be served, Andy Zeisler seems diminutive standing next to the volleyball net. He certainly has the look of an athlete down pat.

Black, loose-fitting shorts give him the ease of movement on the court. His mostly white sleeveless T-shirt — the one with a red V-shaped design cutting just below a prominent black No. 10 — allows his arms to swing freely. A pair of prerequisite Nikes completes the jock image.

It's his 5-foot-8-inch frame that would seem to dispel Zeisler's athleticism. Height isn't a necessity in volleyball, but players can certainly benefit from a few extra inches.

But it's not just his lack of stature. There's barely anything on his bones. He appears scrawny, especially when compared to some of the more solidly built guys out on the court.

Zeisler might weigh little more than Kate Moss, but he's toned.

Dwarfed by both the net and most of his fellow players, Zeisler's build proves to be his strength. Jumping for spikes, he floats off the floor effortlessly, carried as if on a string. Back on the ground, he contorts his body to connect with balls just out of his reach. He delivers a one-handed bump to his team's setter and then swiftly moves into place for the spike.

Zeisler's agile, flexible body belongs in those old-fashioned circus sideshows. Next to the bearded lady and the wolf boy, he could be the human rubber band. Running into a blue, plastic curtain separating the two volleyball courts in the gym of McKie Recreation Center in Northside, he bounces right back into the game unfazed.

Seeing a hole on the court, Zeisler throws himself down, hits the ball and in doing so assists his team in securing the point. Most would refer to the quick action as "amazing." Maybe "incredible."

One of his fellow players refers to the dig as "fabulous," with the emphasis on the "fab." It's the type of vocal enunciation that only a gay man can properly deliver.

That word is an apropos description of Zeisler. He doesn't reach the God-like proportions of Karch Kiraly and Kent Steffes, but he remains fabulous on the volleyball court. And he knows it, showing a confidence bordering on cockiness when it comes to his athletic ability.

"There are several good gay athletes (in Cincinnati), and I think I can consider myself one of them," he says.

Athletes vs. stereotypes
Cincinnati's biggest chance at sports glory this year might just come from its gay community. It's a much-relished irony.

The last season at Riverfront Stadium — oh, sorry, Cinergy Field (whatever!) — failed to inspire the Reds to echo the team's glory days. Another losing season for the Bengals is at hand. And Bob Huggins' heart attack puts an obstacle in the way of last year's No. 1-seeded UC Bearcats.

So it comes down to a faction of the community that many in Cincinnati refuse to acknowledge exists. As reported ad nauseum, Article 12 of Cincinnati's City Charter prevents city council from passing any laws that protect the legal rights of gays and lesbians. It wasn't Cincinnati's finest hour when passed in 1993 and remains so today.

A city long overdue for some good PR might get it courtesy of Team Cincinnati, a group of 13 gays and lesbians who have ventured to Sydney, Australia, for the Gay Games VI Sport & Cultural Festival (www.sydney2002.org.au ) which began Nov. 2 and continues through Saturday. The event might not be of note for heterosexuals, but for the gay community this is their Olympics, a chance for people of varying athletic ability to sign up and do their chosen sport proud.

If any of the local athletes achieve medal standing, the news is certain to be reported — perhaps not in the mainstream media, but rather in places such as The Advocate, a news magazine for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered (GLBT) community. And invariably Cincinnati, so proud of promoting the old double standard, will roll out the welcome mat if these athletes do bring home the gold — if only for the perception of the city as a tolerant society.

But the athletes — headed by Ronnie Tuttle, who by organizing the volleyball team fell into the role of captain for all of Team Cincinnati — are for the most part proud of representing the Queen City. Still, pride doesn't always come easily.

"It's very hard to represent Cincinnati since it's a very conservative city," Tuttle says. "You can barely do anything in this city 'gay-oriented' without it being closeted."

So the land Down Under beckons, potentially pushing the proverbial closet door open on area gay athletes. Tuttle's teammates see only positive repercussions from their participation.

"I think representing Cincinnati and getting this out will help our image," says Gary Hesse, a volleyball player attending his first Gay Games. "It can't hurt."

The benefits stretch beyond the tough times that the GLBT community has faced in Cincinnati, according to Steve Shadoan, another first-time attendee who's taking to the volleyball court. It's a step toward breaking the stereotype that gay men can't jump.

"Yes, we are athletes," Shadoan says. "We can compete on the same level as everyone else. It's sort of a shame that we have to have our own (games), but in a way it's sort of nice."

It's not segregation but celebration that paved the road for the Gay Games. Conceived by Dr. Tom Waddell — who competed in the decathalon in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City — the first Gay Games were held 20 years ago in the gay mecca that is San Francisco. With more than 1,300 athletes representing 179 cities in 14 sports that first year, the Games had meager beginnings.

Now that it's grown to include 12,524 participants from 82 countries in 31 events, the Games have succeeded in their intent to be an all-inclusive sporting event. Almost 5,000 athletes are representing U.S. cities and states this year.

During the opening ceremonies when the games were held in Amsterdam in 1998, a lesbian woman rolled into the stadium in her wheelchair. Quickly overwhelmed, the woman went from a victorious pumping of her fist high in the air to breaking down in tears. There, her disability and her sexuality raised eyebrows only because of the emotional acceptance she experienced.

Acceptance is a foreign word, however, in the world of professional sports. Manly sports aren't a place for "sissy fags" — even though homosexuals are playing in the big leagues.

The October issue of OUT magazine featured an anonymous first-person essay from a closeted professional baseball player, ex-boyfriend of OUT Editor in Chief Brendan Lemon. Just last week, former football player Esera Tuaolo came out to Bryant Gumbel on HBO's Real Sports, discussing the necessity to keep his sexuality secret by going so far as to visit strip clubs and kiss women.

It's a classic hot button topic that came to the fore earlier this year when New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza became the Tom Cruise of the sports world. The gay community, salivating for any pro athlete to come out, pushed for Piazza to come clean about his sexuality.

Conservatives feared the worst but ultimately refused to buy into the notion, seeing Piazza as a man's man. He staked claim to his heterosexuality, but the hullabaloo proved greater than simply a man's sexuality.

"If I was a professional athlete, I don't know if I would be out," Shadoan admits. "It's tough to compare, since the public isn't paying our salaries."

A need to compete
Coming out isn't easy for an amateur athlete either — especially one who's shy upon first meeting. Dennis Menke, a tennis player for this year's Team Cincinnati, hasn't had the coming out discussion with all pertinent members of his family.

"I think my dad knows, but he plays kind of stupid," he says.

Menke speaks softly and politely, offering pauses that indicate unease at the questions posed before him. He wants to be helpful, but it's as if he's trained to hold back. The blame's not on him — he's grown up in one of the country's largest metropolitan closets.

"It's still tough to be gay and out," Menke says. "It's not something I parade around and say."

He's reminded that this interview is for publication. If he's not comfortable, it's understandable. Menke's nervous, but this is something he wants to do. It's something he needs to do.

"It took me a while to get used to, but I'm proud of who I am now," he says, exhibiting confidence for the first time.

Sitting down later at Northside Tavern, Menke is more at ease. He still shows a little nervous energy, but with good reason. It's less than a week before he leaves for Australia and his first-ever Gay Games.

"I'm getting excited about the trip," he says, speaking as if it's a secret he's sharing.

His bubbling anticipation reveals Menke, 31, to be a giant kid. Only his goatee detracts from his boyish qualities. His textured black T-shirt offers a casual youthfulness. His short blond hair is of the wake-up-and-go mentality typical of college students. And he has trouble sitting still, a trait he admits to.

"I get fidgety," he says. "I have to be up and moving around."

The tennis court, then, offers an appropriate outlet for his abundance of energy. Surprisingly, when Menke was 18 years old, he had to be goaded by a friend into going out on the court.

"All my life I thought that's a sissy game. I'll never play that," he explains. "I actually found it challenging. It just kept my attention. I've always been good at everything I do. I ain't gonna let this sport beat me."

He continued playing with friends, joined a club and picked up lessons from pros. He turned his weakness into strength. The United States Tennis Association (USTA) ranks Menke in the caliber of a 3.5-4.0 player.

"A 4.0 person is someone who can sustain a rally, knows all the shots but doesn't have a secret weapon," Menke explains, forced to break down the vocabulary for the uninitiated.

Going into the Gay Games, Menke is unseeded. With his Wilson Hyper Hammer 6.3 Oversize racquet, he initially faces the No. 11 seed. If he emerges from the pack of 128 playing in the singles tournament, Menke will play the No. 1 seed.

"I feel like I'm 90 percent of where I would like to be," he says. "I'm playing well. I just don't have the consistency I would like to have. I want to go out and play my style of game, and then if I win in doing so, then good."

But he's unprepared as to what to expect from the Gay Games.

"I want to bring back a kangaroo, but I don't think that's going to happen," he says, making himself laugh. "I don't know. It's new to me. I'm looking forward to the experience, but until I live the experience, it's a hard question to answer."

Questions about tennis come easier for Menke. His passion for the sport can get the best of him. The man who initially came across as shy now barely takes a breath when talking about tennis.

He's the quintessential jock, a total tennis geek with 50-60 professional matches on videotape that receive repeated viewings. If it weren't for that textured black T-shirt and peppered references to his partner, Menke wouldn't even register as a blip on the gaydar.

Hitting a homerun
Andy Zeisler and his partner Jim Creech have pulled out the videotapes from the Amsterdam Games, where Zeisler and Ronnie Tuttle played softball as opposed to their beloved volleyball. The home movies are part of the entertainment during a bon-voyage party for Team Cincinnati.

Tuttle watches from the back of the room. He receives much teasing from the gathering of gay men when he comes to the plate. There are no catcalls because of his tight-fitting uniform. The ribbing is for Tuttle's achievement in Amsterdam.

"I won Homerun King out of the softball tournament," Tuttle explains.

The success comes as no surprise. Even a dress shirt and slacks have the capability of showing off Tuttle's solidly athletic build. Blond-haired and fair-skinned, the 33-year-old oozes the All-American vibe. But sports, at least on a competitive level, didn't enter his life until six years ago.

"I played Little League and stuff like that, but as far as serious, no, it wasn't my dream," he says.

At 6-foot-3, Tuttle emanates a powerful presence next to the volleyball net. Going up for spikes, he doesn't need to jump all that high. He reserves his energy for the ball, pummeling it back over the net.

But mass force isn't an indication of Tuttle's emotional character on or off the court. Heading a team in a practice match, he serves as a cheerleader. Trying to boost morale for the losing team, he claps encouragingly.

"Defense in back row. OK, c'mon. Let's go," he says, maintaining a conversational tone as opposed to enrolling in the Bob Huggins' school of yelling.

"I think I try to pick the team spirit up," he says. "I try to pat people on the back when they do things well and try to be very positive."

As his team continues to lose, Tuttle calls time out. He shakes his head in dismay as he talks to his fellow players. He stays pleasant, but his face shows frustration when his side loses the game.

He intends for things to go better in Australia.

"I really think we have a possibility of bringing home the gold," he says.

Team Cincinnati is one of 52 teams in B division volleyball. With 13 pools of four, they must place first or second to enter the winner's tournament. To advance, they'll have to beat teams from New Zealand, Paris and Vancouver in the opening brackets.

"We're excited about our pool so we can see some different faces, different styles of play," Tuttle says.

Surrounding Tuttle on the courts will be his friends. He took great care in selecting a team to represent Cincinnati, but his decisions were based on more than just athletic prowess.

"It's the people I enjoy not only on the court but off the court," he says. "If you don't mesh off the court, that can hinder a team as well."

The thing about Tuttle, though, is that he seems to enjoy everyone. Constant interruptions don't phase him. He multitasks. He answers last-minute questions from his teammates, takes well-wishes from other players, playfully flirts with one of the guys and somehow stays focused on conducting an interview.

The hectic schedule will calm down soon. Tuttle's popularity won't.

He refers to the Gay Games as an opportunity to network — not in the business sense, but in expanding one's circle of friends. The Games are a chance for him to learn about culture, about people, about himself.

"It's not live or die," he explains. "You're not only there to compete — you're there to help grow."

Part of something huge
Andy Zeisler came to life when he discovered gay sports leagues.

"I found my out," he says. "I found my avenue. I found my way into the gay volleyball leagues. In a way, it sort of saved me."

For a while, Zeisler was, uh, a switch-hitter, playing volleyball with both the gay leagues and Miami University's club team. Word got back to his MU teammates that Zeisler had worn his Miami volleyball jacket to The Pipeline, a local gay bar. Proudly displaying his school colors brought shame to his fellow undergrads, who forbade Zeisler from wearing his jacket to known gay establishments.

"It was more fuel for me to play in the gay community," he says. "Still to this day, it pisses me off. I don't know if it's resentment I'm holding onto or my pride."

Even expressing lingering resentment and anger, Zeisler, 36, doesn't come across as someone who needs saving. If anything, he's well-adjusted, an adjective not used often to describe gay men.

Over brunch at Hamburger Mary's, he casually leans against his partner, using Creech's leg as an armrest. The simple gesture indicates that Zeisler is innately comfortable with both himself and his surroundings.

This ease came years in the making. It's the well-worn path of a gay man.

"What society does to us makes us entirely doubt ourselves," Zeisler says. "It's so embedded in us."

Those deeply entrenched feelings find a way to leak to the surface. Upon visiting the Amsterdam Gay Games to share in his partner's glory, Creech came to terms with his automatic expectations of rampant homophobia. Skinheads — or, as Creech describes them, "the last group I want to see Andy and me holding hands" — paid no mind as Creech and his partner strolled along a canal.

"I had to owe it to the fact that I carry that in me," Creech says, surprised at his experience. "This is not just propaganda. I sort of knew it abstractly, but when you actually experience it, it comes as a surprise. It's a commentary on me, not on them."

The medium of sports has a way to dissolve all the national and cultural ills, according to Creech.

"The thing about gay sports is that it's so healthy," he says. "It's community, camaraderie."

Zeisler picks up on the thread.

"It's affectionate," he says. "I'm lucky to have both. There are guys I've played with for 12 years. They're like brothers. We fight. We make up. And I really love them."

Zeisler hasn't known Creech quite as long as he has some of his teammates, but the love is just as deep. Creech explains that there was an emotional honesty between them since they began dating in 1994, after having met the previous fall during a function of GLEAM (Gay & Lesbian Employees of Miami). With a desire to get married, Zeisler was prodded to come out to his parents. The two wed in a civil union in Vermont in May 2001, pledging to be with each other "in all my wholeness and all my brokenness."

Sydney will be a time of brokenness for the couple. Responsibilities at Miami are forcing Creech to stay behind, so Zeisler is going solo.

"It's going to be hard," Zeisler says. "He's my rock. If I have a bad game or a good game, I end up telling him. You're there to do your personal best and you want to share that with your partner."

This sweet-natured side of Zeisler disappears on the volleyball court. In a match, he becomes aggressive, gruff, almost barking at his teammates. Perfectionism compounded by a competitive nature fuels him. Jekyll and Hyde, indeed.

"I try to be a good sport," he says. "I really try not to take it out on the others. You have to work together as a team. I just hope the distinction can be made."

It's the mark of an athlete, the role Zeisler believes he fills, confiding that Creech is the intellectual one in the relationship. Zeisler sells himself short, as he speaks with poise and thoughtfulness.

Sydney marks his third trip to the Gay Games, having also played volleyball in 1990 in Vancouver. In many ways, he's Team Cincinnati's veteran, the one with words of wisdom based on experience.

"It's ultimately a chance for gay athletes to do their personal best," Zeisler says. "We all have our professional lives. This is a chance to participate in something we love. This is about a life experience and knowing that you're living a memory. You realize you're part of something that's huge." ©

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