Several things tend to happen when an athlete becomes the first man in his sport to publicly acknowledge he’s gay. Progressives cheer, pearl-clutchers jeer and reaction to the announcement is rapidly conflated with its lasting impact.
So it was last week when Tadd Fujikawa came out in a deeply personal Instagram post, making him the first golfer with even a whiff of name recognition to do so.
Fujikawa was only 15 years old when he qualified for the 2006 U.S. Open. He was as cheerful as he was diminutive – he still is, since even Ian Woosnam clips him by a few inches – and won many fans that week at Winged Foot. He made the cut at the Sony Open on the PGA Tour four days after turning 16.
He was another can’t-miss kid who missed.
He’s 27 now. The intervening years were spent bouncing around the lower orders in search of his game. But how easy can the game be for a man whose first waking thought is about concealing his true self for another day, and not about exceling in his chosen sport?
A few months ago, Fujikawa admitted to skirmishes with anxiety and depression, and it was not a coincidence that he chose National Suicide Prevention Day on which to issue this trailblazing statement:
“I spent way too long pretending, hiding and hating who I was. I was always afraid of what others would think/say. I’ve struggled with my mental health for many years because of that and it put me in a really bad place. Now I’m standing up for myself and the rest of the LGBTQ community in hopes of being an inspiration and making a difference in someone’s life.”
Buttoned-up bodies like the U.S. Golf Association and the PGA of America rushed to congratulate him, and even the PGA Tour’s website managed a just-the-facts report on his news. Those compassionate responses from officialdom went a little way toward amending professional golf’s image as hostile terrain for those who don’t genuflect before the twin pillars of god and the GOP.
Predictably enough, there was the small basket of dullards who probably took a break from slobbering over news about Paulina Gretzky’s Instagram edits to angrily insist that stories on Fujikawa’s personal life had no business polluting their feed.
We heard similar sentiments from more intelligent quarters, intended not as a prejudiced dismissal but rather as a nonchalant embrace of diversity.
It isn’t important.
It doesn’t matter.
Except it is.
And it does.
Not least to Fujikawa. The effect on his life was immediate. We traded messages in the days following his revelation and he was overwhelmed by the support.
The reaction to Fujikawa’s announcement was public and quantifiable, but the impact of it was neither. At least not yet.
Fujikawa was unequivocal in who his statement was intended for, and it wasn’t for people like you (with no closet to emerge from) or people like me (who left it long ago).
“I thought that I didn’t need to come out because it doesn’t matter if anyone knows. But I remember how much other’s stories have helped me in my darkest times to have hope,” he wrote. “I just want to spread love and acceptance to others who are in a similar situation.”
Those “others” will surely number more gay golfers, whether veterans playing in this week’s Tour Championship or juniors with dreams of someday winning the Masters. Guys who perhaps can now live with a little less fear than before Fujikawa spoke up, who might now see professional golf as a place where they can be themselves, and who have the immeasurable comfort of knowing that they don’t have to be the first.
The first soldier to exit the trenches draws the most concentrated fire. That was always going to be a frightening responsibility for a gay golfer to shoulder. In shedding his own yoke, Tadd Fujikawa lifted a colossal burden from those who follow him.
And others will surely follow, drawing strength from his example. Only then will Fujikawa’s impact become clear. Only when we finally see and hear from the very men who dared not speak even during a stampede to embrace one of their own.
Golfweek, Sept. 16, 2018.