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Boxer Benny (Kid) Paret died because of homophobia

Benny “Kid” Paret, wearing white trunks, met Emile Griffith, wearing black trunks, in a 1962 fight that would prove fatal to Paret. (Corbis)

Boxer Benny (Kid) Paret died because of homophobia.

Ten days after being savagely beaten to a pulp in a boxing match by Emile Griffith, Benny Paret died. The fight, televised back in March of 1962, was not the first or last tragedy of its kind, but the back story — the homophobia that unleashed Griffith’s fury — is now revealed in a documentary by Dan Klores and partner Ron Berger. Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story airs tonight on USA at 9PM.

This story is really about the machismo of sports and the closet, something that has changed little since this tragedy.

Before the fateful fight, the Cuban Paret called Griffith “maricon” (the Spanish equivalent of “faggot”) at their weigh-in, enraging Griffith. At the time there were rumors about Griffith’s homosexuality floating around in the boxing world (he had been spotted in gay bars), so to have it called out was not just a slur but a perceived call to the defense of his manhood. The beating resulted in Paret being carried out on a stretcher, later falling into a coma and dying. In this case words did kill.

Certainly back in the 1960s, I can’t imagine athlete being out of the closet, and for a black man at that time, well, the end result tells you how bad it was to be thought of as gay. [The situation hasn’t gotten much better — imagine what would happen if a hard-core rapper was exposed as a homo?]

The filmmakers interviewed Paret’s wife and son, and Griffith himself, now 67 and still tormented by what happened to Paret and his own lifetime of struggle with his sexuality. Bob Herbert spoke with the boxer for his recent column, “The Haunting of Emile Griffith“:

It still infuriates. At lunch, Mr. Griffith’s smile faded as he recalled the taunts he took from Paret. “I got tired,” he said, “of people calling me faggot.”

He said again, as he has many times, that he was sorry Paret had died. But he added: “He called me a name. … So I did what I had to do.”

…I asked Mr. Griffith if he was gay, and he told me no. But he looked as if he wanted to say more. He told me he had struggled his entire life with his sexuality, and agonized over what he could say about it. He said he knew it was impossible in the early 1960’s for an athlete in an ultramacho sport like boxing to say, “Oh, yeah, I’m gay.”

But after all these years, he wanted to tell the truth. He’d had relations, he said, with men and women. He no longer wanted to hide. He hoped to ride this year in New York’s Gay Pride Parade.

He said he hadn’t meant to kill Benny Paret, “but what he said touched something inside.”

Outsports published some seriously conflicted/confusing poll results about public attitudes about gays and sports gathered by NBC/USA Networks, conducted to coincide with the airing of the documentary.

The survey finds people either conflicted about their own views of gays in sports or certain their neighbor is more bigoted than they are.

* 68% thought it would hurt an athlete’s career to be openly gay.
* Half (49%) thought gay athletes could get the same endorsements as their straight counterparts
* But a few questions later, by a 64% to 11% margin, people said that “brands and products are unlikely to select athletes as endorsers if the athletes are gay or even have been accused of being gay.”
* 15% say it’s not appropriate for an umpire to be gay.
* 46% to 44% say it’s a sin to engage in homosexual behavior.
* But 61% said homosexuality is a way of life that should be accepted by society.
* 78% says it is OK for gay athletes to participate in sports, even if they are open about their sexuality.
* By a 42% to 22% margin, people thought “if ESPN created a television special on the accomplishments of gay athletes, viewers would be enraged.”
* 79% agreed that Americans are more accepting of gays in sports than they were 20 years ago.

“I now understand why gay athletes would choose to stay in the closet,” said Doug Schoen of Penn, Schoen & Berland. “The poll shows us that we still have a long way to go in this country before homosexuality is accepted in sports.”

The only conclusion that one can draw from these findings is that the American public is f*cked up — my scientific analysis. The allegedly powerful homo agenda is not making the huge inroads that the AmTaliban rails on about. The sheeple are being shaped and led by the Rovian Right, and the saddest aspect of this development is that there are way too many homophobic, intolerant black pastors willing and able to lead their parishioners even further down this path, driving gay men and women of color like Griffith even deeper into the down low closet.

Benny (Kid) Paret died because of homophobia and gay self-loathing that still exists today, make no mistake, in both Red and Blue states. It’s still cultivated in way too many homes, schools, workplaces — and especially in too many houses of worship.

It’s why kids that are effeminate still get the sh*t kicked out of them in school and “fag” and “dyke” are easy epithets tossed around the classroom; it’s why a Texas teacher can be fired from her job because people think she’s a lesbian. It’s why Martina Navratilova dominated the tennis scene in the 1980s, yet lost her endorsements when she came out. And for the guys, well, you all are sh*t out of luck if you’re in a team sport; the number of out gay male athletes in active team competition is…are there any?

Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story airs commercial-free tonight at 9PM on USA.

Also: check out OutSports Anti-Gay Slur roundup. Homophobic comments by athletes are rated on a scale of 1-5 John Rockers, for the Atlanta Braves pitcher notorious for his bigoted comments, including:

“Imagine having to take the 7 train to (Shea Stadium in New York) looking like you’re (in) Beirut next to some kid with purple hair, next to some queer with AIDS, right next to some dude who got out of jail for the fourth time, right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids. It’s depressing.”

(Cross-posted at Big Brass Blog)

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding