With all the controversy over the Indiana Religious Freedom Bill and its “modification” to supposedly ensure that it doesn’t discriminate against the LGBT community, some people seem to forget that Indiana is still one of the states where you can still be fired for being gay. Here is an important Compete Classic for TBT from our January 2013 issue of Compete Magazine, written just before Jason Collins’ historic coming out announcement.
By Connie Wardman
If you don’t recognize the name Dave Pallone, you are either too young or you’ve never been fired from a job because of your sexual orientation. Dave has been an LGBT activist since 1989. That was the year he was fired from his professional career as a major league baseball (MLB) umpire because he was gay. Since that was a time when the public really believed that there were no gay people in professional sports, there was absolutely no tolerance for anyone who wanted to come out. Homophobia ruled professional sports!
Although Dave was fired over 20 years ago, don’t be fooled into thinking that his story is simply an historic event that has no relevance to professional sports today. Homophobia in sports is still a reality that keeps most, if not all gay professional sports figures in the closet during their playing days. Unfortunately, his story is still relevant. But thanks to Dave and legions of other athletes, both gay and straight allies, homophobia in sports is a fact that is finally starting to change.
Since that traumatic time in his life, Dave has owned and hosted his own sports radio show in Boston; been featured in an ESPN documentary, “Homophobia in Sports;” appeared on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines;” and was selected by GENRE Magazine as one of the 100 men of the twentieth century. And that doesn’t even count the number of interviews he’s given or the number of appearances he’s made at colleges, universities and major corporations. He is one of the leaders for change in passing non-discrimination laws that protect jobs for LGBT employees and their right to earn an honest living.
For those of you who don’t know Dave’s story, let’s go back to 1971 when he umpired his first game at age 19 in the New York-Penn League. He didn’t know then that his passion to umpire would turn into an 18-year professional career, 10 of them in MLB. He was good enough to advance through several other leagues, including the International League. And that’s where he was when a 1979 strike by MLB umpires propelled Dave into the major leagues. He was one of only eight umpires hired to replace the striking umps and so his entry into MLB wasn’t a particularly pleasant one. He was called a scab and a union buster by umps and fans alike, a situation that left him vulnerable to the on-going anger of the remaining umpires after the strike was over.
Once called the “most hated” person in the major leagues, Dave actually received death threats after an intense, emotionally-charged fight in 1988 with Pete Rose, then the manager of the Cincinnati Reds. Calling New York Met’s hitter Mookie Wilson safe at first, Rose rushed out of the dugout to argue the call. Tempers got out of hand and when Dave’s back was turned, Rose pushed him. At that point the fans got involved and, taking Rose’s side, they threw everything they could get their hands on at Dave – food, drinks, programs, bottles, even a boom box. Clearly, he was good at his job and unafraid to go head-to-head with a team manager, but he still was never secure enough in his own sexuality to make friends within the LGBT community or to let others around him know he was gay. Like so many gay athletes, Dave felt he had to live a lie to match the macho image people in professional sports are expected to exhibit.
Eventually, he started to feel more comfortable in his own skin and slowly began to make some friends in what he thought was the safety of the LGBT community. Unfortunately, one of those people who knew about Dave’s job and his sexual orientation decided he wanted to make some money. For $100 this person “leaked” a story to the New York Post that Dave was gay. And in an effort to make it more salacious, he added that Dave was also tied to a “teenage sex ring.” As Dave got off the plane at LaGuardia Airport, someone handed him the Post containing the story, letting him know that he had been publically “outed,” and not on his terms. This is how everyone, including his family, found out he was gay.
Stunned and upset by this, Dave said it felt like he had been “psychologically raped.” Yet at the same time he felt like a 2,000 pound weight had been lifted off him – paradoxically, he actually felt a sense of relief. Saying that we all live in a box and have a secret that the box protects, Dave asks people to imagine that they were the ones getting off a plane and seeing their deepest secret exposed on the pages of the Post – not a pretty picture!
Thoroughly investigated on the charge of participating in a sex ring for underage boys, he was found to be totally innocent. Nevertheless, MLB officials came to the conclusion that his conduct was “unprofessional” and that he was now unable to “fulfill his duties” – they fired him outright. Dave contends that his only offense was being controversial – and gay. At that time the state of New York didn’t have non-discrimination laws in place to protect him and his job. Trying to figure out what had just happened to him and needing to put it all in perspective, Dave began writing his autobiography with Alan Steinberg, “Behind the Mask: My Double Life in Baseball.” Although this gave him a way to get his feelings out, he also needed to make some money. He says that he received a large amount of money from the MLB so he would leave quietly and not sue the league. But he still needed to find a new line of work. Beginning his book with a Bette Davis quote – “You’ve got to have the guts to be hated,” Dave was later quoted as saying, “I guess I had the guts to be hated. But I didn’t have the guts to be true to myself.”
In an ironic sense of justice, the book became not only a New York Time’s best-selling autobiography but also an international best seller that the NY Times Book Review dubbed “an emotional memoir.” It tells the story of Dave’s life from a young age to the point where he was fired from baseball – how he felt and what he went through. In it he discusses how he loved what he did and how every day he struggled to reveal who he really was on the inside while still trying to come out on top. As a result, it is now recognized as a “cross-over” book to which both gay and straight people can relate. Based on its continuing relativity, the book was re-released on its 20th anniversary. It is available as an eBook on all formats to address the changing way people are reading and for as little as $5.00 so it’s accessible to everyone who could benefit from Dave’s story.
1989 is the year Dave Pallone began his new life. Once the book came out at the end of that year, he began to receive lots of handwritten letters (over 70 thousand) from people who were supportive of him. Although he wrote back to everyone in the beginning, he soon realized that this would be an overwhelming task. So he replied only to those people whose letters spoke to him the most but he still continued to read every letter. As he started to receive requests for speaking engagements, he began his new career as an LGBT activist, particularly around the issue of states passing non-discrimination legislation to protect the jobs of LGBT employees.
Going on his first speaking engagement at a Massachusetts school in 1990, Dave remembers wearing a suit and tie so he looked professional. But he was uncomfortable in that outfit and decided that he needed to wear something that not only made him feel comfortable but also sent the message to the college-age students in his audience that he wasn’t better or more important than they were. This telling story is part of what makes Dave Pallone so real and approachable. He doesn’t try to impress people with his past importance of being at the pinnacle of his chosen sport nor does he talk down to them. Instead, he thinks about the people in his audiences and the best way to get his message of equality across. As a speaker and diversity trainer who lives his life in integrity by being true to who he is and accepting of others, he inspires others to do the same.
It wasn’t until 1994, though, that he finally realized the impact his appearances were making. Speaking to a group of students at Central Missouri State University, one of them came up to him after waiting over an hour to talk with him. He told Dave that “because of you, I did not kill myself when I doubted myself. You saved my life.” Dave recalls that this was his “Aha” moment, the time when he knew that he had chosen the right path for his life’s work –that his life had an important purpose. When he went back to his hotel room, he broke into tears. This experience truly motivated him to keep going because he believes that for every five people who email you, there are 50 others too scared to reach out. He says that “no one should take their own life, even one is one too many.”
After all Dave has gone through, there is a happy ending to his personal trials. He and Keith, his partner of 16 years, now live in Colorado Springs where Keith is director of finance at a local hospital. Dave continues his life’s work advocating for job protection for LGBT employees. Saying that we don’t live in a world of absolutes, he is frustrated that while everyone rallies around the idea of equal rights, the most current cause being same-sex marriage, there are still 28 states in the U.S. where you can still be fired for being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender without any job protection. Even harder to believe is the fact that some of the states that have passed the Employee Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) are still excluding transgender employees from that protection even though the “T” in LGBT stands for transgender.
It was the 1993 Congress under President Bill Clinton that first brought up legislation to protect jobs for LGBT employees and Dave still finds it hard to believe that this important bill hasn’t been passed now by every state in the U.S. He believes that it’s important to have the right to love and live with the person you choose but what good does that do if you can’t work to provide for you and your loved ones. He wants to be sure that the current drive for equality includes passing non-discrimination legislation so people’s jobs are safe.
After years of calling “balls and strikes, safes and outs, fairs and fouls,” Dave is continuing to call on the 28 states that have not yet done so, to pass ENDA, the act that offers job protection for LGBT employees. He is also calling on the remaining 16 states where employees can still be fired for being transgender to honor in full the protection legislation they already passed. He also calls on companies of all sizes to offer the same internal job protection to all their employees, saying that “there is no difference that is too little.” It is heartwarming to know that Dave says at this point in his life “I have come to realize I could not be more at peace with my life.” May we all be so fortunate!