By Dirk Smith, M.Sc, SDL (He/Him)
Recently, our sports editor, Dirk Smith, caught up with Derrick Gordon, the only openly gay professional basketball player currently on an active roster. Gordon is currently playing in Trier, Germany for the Gladiators and is only a short train ride away from Dirk who is living in Cologne. Thus, we had a lot to chat about.
Dirk Smith: You’re currently the only openly gay, active, professional basketball player, but you’re playing for a team in Trier, Germany. How did how did you get to Trier? Let’s start from the beginning.
Derrick Gordon: Well, last season I was playing in Lima, Cyprus and had a great season there. We didn’t win the championship, but we got to the final four. So, in the offseason I came back to the states around the end of March and had an offer from the Gladiators in Trier, Germany that was too good to pass up. I waited until the summertime to accept but I always wanted to go to Germany. My friends were always talking about me when I was in the closet about how I love Germany. Now that Germany was on the table and the basketball situation was what I wanted, so it was a no brainer.
Dirk Smith: Oh awesome! That’s like me in that I always loved and wanted to go to Germany and spend time here. It always appealed to me and that’s why I ended up here as well.
Derrick Gordon: Yeah, I love the language, especially hearing people speak it. Even if I have no
idea what they’re saying but I enjoy just listening to them.
Dirk Smith: How’s your German coming along?
Derrick Gordon: Well, it’s limited to single words like “danke”, “bitte” and “wasser”, stuff like that. I can’t really like speak sentences yet, but I have the Duolingo app on my phone. I haven’t opened it in a while because I’ve been busy with basketball, but I am learning it.
Dirk Smith: Oh, awesome. Yeah, my German lessons before moving was Duolingo and some Rosetta Stone type lessons. So, my German friends always joke that the more you drink (beer), the better your German becomes. It’s got some truth to it because I feel more confident in speaking German after I’ve had a few beers, even if I don’t know what I am saying. Have you played up against the Rhein Stars? They’re the local team here in Cologne.
Derrick Gordon: I’m guessing they’re in our league, right? I should know every team in our league, but there are so many.
Dirk Smith: I’m not a basketball player myself. But I just finished my master’s degree at the German Sports University and one of my colleagues was a coach for the Rhein Stars, I think they’re a professional team and the biggest basketball team in the Cologne area.
Derrick Gordon: It’s funny because I was talking to one of the guys who works in the media department. I asked him about that and said, I’m surprised Cologne doesn’t have a team and he said they do but they’re in the lower league than ours.
Dirk Smith: Oh, yeah. I love Cologne but the Cologne sports teams are not known for being in the higher leagues.
Derrick Gordon: They used to have a saying like “money got in the way of stuff.” But I would love to be playing in Cologne since it is like, San Francisco or West Hollywood.
Dirk Smith: Yeah, Cologne has been described essentially as the San Francisco of Europe and it kind of is. The gay scene here is great. There’s so many different bars and clubs, places you can go and lots of different communities you can connect with. It’s nice.
Derrick Gordon: When I went there for Media Day, I got a chance to see Cologne for at least a few hours and it was nice. I like it and I felt right at home.
Dirk Smith: That’s what’s nice about Cologne, they wear diversity as a badge of honor and just make it fabulous like that.
Derrick Gordon: Because we’re still fighting the fight and you’ve got to be expressive
Dirk Smith: Exactly. So, tell me a bit about your story on coming out and how has it been with your basketball career?
Derrick Gordon: So, I was the first gay college basketball player to come out in 2014. I was nervous and excited at the same time because you don’t know how people are going to respond, especially me being from New Jersey. But it was probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made to come out and be my true self. I lost some so called friends, but I heard from a lot of people, including celebrities such as Anderson Cooper and such, people were supportive of me being who I am. I always tell people, if I can come out every day, I would. I think we all know how it feels to be in the closet, and it’s not fun at all. But, when you come out, it’s this weight lifted off your shoulders. I love that feeling and being the only openly gay professional basketball player is very interesting. Because we all know there are a lot of gay people in sports who are in the closet. The fact is, that I’m not the only one. But I don’t mind that spotlight in a way because that’s one of the reasons why I’m doing what I’m doing. So, people can look at my story and say “if he can do it, so can I.”
Dirk Smith: Yeah, visibility is important. People are going to say, “oh, look, now here’s somebody I can relate to!” You’ve gone through these struggles too, but you have also shown that you can overcome these challenges and you can still be successful. I think that plays a big role for the next generation of athletes and people that are looking for somebody exactly like you to lead the way.
Derrick Gordon: Yes. And for me, the suicide rate is important, because I want it to go down. When I came out, I heard from a lot of people and even little things like students doing school projects on me and stuff. Sometimes I must take a step back and just look at everything that has happened. Sometimes I don’t really realize that there are a lot of people who really admire what I’m doing right now. The impact that I can just have on people’s lives by me just being myself.
Dirk Smith: Exactly, sometimes you have to take a step back and recognize that.
Derrick Gordon: Which, you know, makes me excited to be in a position that I’m in. For me, the long term goal is to get into the league. I’m on the right path for that and I’m doing it for my community. If I could, I would wear the pride flag on my chest and all over my body.
Dirk Smith: Are you allowed to wear a pride flag on your uniform when you play?
Derrick Gordon: Oh, my gosh, if I could do that I would. What if I could do that, I never even thought of that. But I think that is something that would have to be on every jersey. But on my shoes, I have. So, you know, Nike has their own slogan and brand for pride. So, I have, #BeTrue, all over my basketball shoes and different things that are very close to me in the LGBTQIA+ community. if it’s not on my jersey, it’s going to be on my sneakers, it’s going to be somewhere where it’s visible.
Dirk Smith: The people that you want to inspire the people you’re trying to connect with, they’re going to be the ones to notice that and recognize its meaning. That little thing can have a big impact.
Derrick Gordon: Indeed. I’m always going to defend my community and I’m always going to stand side by side with them. The community is my family and I feel like I’m at home with places that display the pride flag, because we have our own culture.
Dirk Smith: When I first came here, the first community that I connected with here was the cohort of mine at the university, and I’m the only gay person within this cohort. So, trying to explain and share about certain gay things like gay lingo, gay jokes, RuPaul’s Drag Race, and stuff like that. They were a bit shocked at how much they didn’t know, I was like, “I know, you’re living in the gayest city in Europe. I can explain a couple extra things so you can better understand what’s going on.”
Derrick Gordon: That’s interesting, I love that. It’s not like we’re trying to be different because we’re really just being ourselves at the end of the day. I love that we have that thing that just makes us different. In a way it’s how we communicate with each other. Even for the small things, like back in the States, pre COVID of course, how I would greet my best friends is always a kiss and a hug.
Dirk Smith: So, when you were playing basketball before you came out versus after you came out, did you notice a change in your performance after coming out?
Derrick Gordon: Oh, big time. Because when I was in the closet, there was things on my mind. Things like, “oh my gosh, did somebody see me out at that bar last night” or something like that. A lot of things that were going through my mind. When I came out, I didn’t have anything to worry about anymore. I can go to a bar and be seen holding a guy’s hand and not have to worry about anything. That’s what I felt that will really separate anybody who is struggling, for me it just changed my whole life and helped me be happy. Not because I feel like an outsider, like basketball is basketball and I’m only going play basketball for a few tears. But also, my happiness is the most important thing so, if I had to choose between basketball and happiness, happiness any day of the week. Me being my true self means more than anything in the world to me right now.
Dirk Smith: When you’re happy, you tend to play better because you’re not stressing out about other stuff, and you can focus on the game itself. You can apply your energy in that direction into the task at hand.
Derrick Gordon: That’s one thing I will always say, if somebody does see me there, I could ask them what they are doing there. I remember when I went to New York City pride, and I was so nervous, but I was like, if I do see somebody there, I could just ask them to. So that helped me a little bit.
Dirk Smith: Being yourself unapologetically is important. It’s not necessarily that we’re trying to separate ourselves, but we have our own culture that we developed and being part of that culture means we don’t necessarily have to subscribe to the basic expectations of straight people in society. But at the same time, we can enjoy these other things. We don’t have to be a certain person, we don’t have to act a certain way we can do the things that we want to do and enjoy the things that we enjoy without having to explain ourselves, apologize or live in fear. I think that’s very powerful to say what you did, like “I did go to pride, I did go to the gay bar, I did get some pictures with some drag queens because I had fun and that’s all I care about.”
Derrick Gordon: I love it. That’s how it should be and that’s where I where I want our society to get to. It shouldn’t matter who you love and who you want to be at the end of the day. As the years go by, are we still going to be talking about this in 2030? This is still going to be an issue and I can see things progressing slowly. But there’s still some work to do for sure.
Dirk Smith: Exactly! Especially for you, not only being openly gay, but as a black athlete as well. You’ve had to deal a lot more in terms of systematic racism, especially with protests, police brutality and things like that, that have added to the conversation. Your perspective is a lot more nuanced in a way that you can really enlighten a lot of people on how things are going not just for gay people but for people of color, and people that are part of these different communities that are affected by a lot of these issues.
Derrick Gordon: Yeah, back in the states with the whole Black Lives Matter movement, it was very crazy dealing with that, and being gay on top of that to. You never want to have to go through something like that, or deal with stuff like that. I don’t know anybody, personally, who dealt with stuff like that, but there have been plenty of times where I’ve gotten pulled over and my heart is just pumping because you don’t know what’s going to happen. The fact that we must even, or me personally, have to even think about stuff like that. It’s just crazy.
Dirk Smith: Last summer, I had a conversation with Michael Gunning. He’s Jamaican and British and who is a competitive swimmer. He’s a gay black swimmer and for him he’s faced similar situations to what you had to deal with. That was a big aspect for him, as well and compared to me, as someone with white skin, I don’t have this experience or perspective. So, it’s important to have your voices come out and say, “hey, this is how things are, but we can change it.”
Derrick Gordon: I love that. I think even when we get to a point where it shouldn’t be a story, we should still be having stuff like that. Because they’re actually they’re fun to be around.
Dirk Smith: So, you’ve only recently arrived in Germany relatively recently and during a pandemic, nonetheless. You haven’t gotten the chance yet to experience a German Pride Parade, especially in Cologne. Hopefully next year because you would have a blast.
Derrick Gordon: Yeah, I would love to, because I do plan on being back in Germany next season as well. I would love to be a part of it for sure.
Dirk Smith: Have had the chance to experience the gay community in either Trier, Frankfurt, or Cologne?
Derrick Gordon: They have a gay bar here, but I haven’t yet visited, I walked past it, but I haven’t been. With COVID. I’m like, let me just wait for that. Maybe I’m here long enough that at some point, I’m going to go when it is the right time, but I haven’t fully experienced the whole just being out at a bar seeing how different it is from the US. I live in LA, so seeing how different it is would be interesting. Hopefully, before I do head back in the offseason, I’ll be able to experience it for sure.
Dirk Smith: Yeah, that’d be fantastic. It’s worth it, while you’re here, you got to enjoy it as much as you can. Are you having fun in Germany?
Derrick Gordon: So, people ask me all the time, how’s it so far? It’s great. But you know, off the shelf, because I wanted to always come to Germany. I’m coming to a country that is very gay, so for me, I’m right at home. Whether I’m just going down the street or passing a bank and seeing a pride flag outside of the bank or something like that. Even something so small like that, just makes me much more comfortable and at ease. I think anywhere you go, whether it’s the States or in Europe, you’re always going to have few people who don’t like it. But for me, I don’t care about them. I’m at a point where I’ve been out for so long now that either you’ll like me for who I am, or you won’t. But I’m not going to change who I am. If you don’t like it, that’s your problem. You can go soak on that and whatever. I’m going to go live my life. To me, that’s really freeing.
Dirk Smith: Yeah, that’s the best way to do it, be unapologetically yourself.
Derrick Gordon: Right. So that’s how I’ve been here, and people have been very nice to me. The people that I’ve met to this point are great, but I am still Feeling like there’s so much more to experience but haven’t had the time to really do that yet. So hopefully I get some time here soon.
Dirk Smith: Indeed! Germany as well as greater Europe has so much to offer.
Derrick Gordon: Yeah, not even just Cologne. I want to get to Berlin at some point and experience it like a true like gay because the I’ve only experienced it via YouTube. I imagine how it is like I insert myself in there to experience it because I’m sure the real thing is just as fun.
Dirk Smith: Germans know how to have fun. My first week here my friends brought up the whole joke about being drunk and speaking German and he first week that I was here they took me to like a traditional German party. It was eight hours of nonstop drinking and just a bit overwhelming, but it was a blast.
Derrick Gordon: Now I am looking forward to experiencing more of that culture here as well!
Dirk Smith: Wonderful! Well, thank you for joining me today and I enjoyed our chat! I look forward to hopefully seeing you soon here in Cologne or in Trier!
Photo Credit: Derrick Gordon and Media Day BARMER 2. Basketball Bundesliga | Alexander Mihm