That's me on the left with my brother right after our first tennis lesson.
As I became a successful Florida junior player, but still a few years before my national finals match with Aaron Krickstein, I noticed that a different kind of attention was starting to come my way that had nothing to do with tennis. Or maybe I should say I just started noticing a different kind of attention coming my way. My sexuality and all its confusion was beginning to kick in full steam.
I was 14 with a dark Florida tan, full flowing hair, a toned tennis body, a warm infectious smile, and a positive personality. People were attracted to me. All kinds of people.
The girls my age started to chase me around a good bit. The boys my age wanted to be my friend and hang out all the time. From the outside, as adolescent socialization goes, all indications were I was developing quite normally. But in my heart, I knew early on something was amiss.
Direct interactions with others were reserved strictly for my age group. As young boys will be young boys, a female could not walk by without my whole new gang of friends chiming in about what she rated and what was working for them and what was not, and all the lurid things they wanted to do with the girls if they could just get them alone.
What I do remember well in those moments was not feeling all the excitement for the girls that my friends said they were feeling. It was not because they were not attractive, they were the cutest young Florida girls you could find. For some reason they just weren't doing it for me. Maybe I was behind my friends a bit developmentally, or maybe my tastes in the opposite sex were different than theirs.
I remember telling myself in all the emerging confusion to just be patient. The right girl would appear for me in time.
Also showing me a great deal of attention were adult males at my club. Married, single, older, younger, there were quite a few of them. I would see them looking my way. Most would acknowledge me and look away. Others would acknowledge me and not look away.
They would stare intently at me, not saying a thing. I would feel the glares upon me as I
walked by their fields of vision. It should have made me uncomfortable, them checking me out so. But that's not what happened.
I would hold their stares long enough to let them know I knew they were sizing me up. I liked that attention. No, I loved that attention, but I hated myself for loving it, for
encouraging it, for I didn't know much but I knew same sex attraction was wrong and not normal and I shouldn't be doing what I was doing.
I would fight the urges to strut by where I knew everybody was congregating. I would be strong and stay away, but I could not stay away forever. I began to love the attention, the energy, the excitement of being checked out, checked out for more than just my tennis.
It felt empowering, like I had a new weapon, being able to capture everyone's focus, regardless of the how and why of it and I remember liking it a lot.
As I progressed as a tennis player, I noticed that I was drawing a new kind of attention.
Before long, one of the guys my age in our group always seemed to be showing up with a different dirty magazine every day. Playboy and Penthouse were all the rage back then. My friends would whip open to the centerfolds and the oohing and aahing would commence.
Some friends would get visibly excited at the provocative layouts. Again, I was not among them. What was happening was that I began to get excited by seeing my guy friends getting excited, and boy did I learn quickly not to let anyone discover the source of my arousal.
I was all of 14, a virgin through and through who didn't know jack about sexuality at the time. But what I could tell right from the start was that I was having far different reactions to the normal stimuli than that of my peer group of pals.
As survival tactics go, I could have made it a point to avoid such potentially embarrassing scenes with my sexually coming of age friends. I chose the opposite tactic. To avoid humiliation or detection, I would attach myself closer and closer to my friends. If I wasn't feeling what they were feeling, I learned the mannerisms and verbiage of what a sexually aroused young boy acted and sounded like.
I was going to have to fake it until I started feeling it, so I stuck even closer, learned what to say and how to say it and when to laugh and when to ooh and when to aah just like they did. I learned fast and was able to avoid any detection from my peers.
Over time, what was beginning to become obvious to me was that I wasn't feeling what they were feeling and I began to feel like I was different. There were only two sexual orientations I was aware of, a normal healthy dominant straight one that everybody I knew, boy and girl seemed aligned with, and another odd, strange, not straight orientation.
The not straight orientation I had been hearing about from my earliest memories
was deviant, wrong, a mental illness according to some, a damnable sin in the eyes of God before many others. I didn't care what it took, that was not going to be me no matter what I had to do, and I was 14 years old and already steeped in a whole mess of sexual confusion.
So I went along with the boys and learned how to play nice to the girls and before long had my first girlfriend and my first sexual encounter and it was cool and fun and I liked her and I liked having sexual contact with her. Hell, I was 14 and I was getting some, how bad could it be?
I felt that I would no longer be accepted in my world if anyone learned my secret.
My feelings didn't seem to compute or measure up to my friends and peers but I kept that to myself. Right about this time one of my tennis friends at my club, an exceptionally cool older guy who I watched and looked up to so I could learn and imitate how he interacted with his girlfriends, invited me back to his house one afternoon to hang out.
I ended up spending the night and we talked and goofed around the house and joked and laughed and he was the coolest guy and he thought the same of me. And before long we were watching movies and without any plan or premeditation I had my first homosexual experience.
He obviously had some experience and I did not, but it was pretty intense and we stayed up all night and finally I was feeling all those feelings that all my friends had been talking about, except mine were for this young boy before me and in my heart I was loving it and in my head I knew I was screwed.
When we got up in the morning and rode our bikes to the club to play in the workout, I just could not have felt more dirty and wrong and flawed. My stomach turned at the thought of what I had just engaged in, yet it also turned in excitement over what had just happened. I had never felt like this with the girls I had been with before, so what did all this mean for me?
I tried to play my best tennis that day but I was obviously not myself and my coaches and peers could tell something was up and they asked what was wrong. For the first time in what would become a long pattern of mine, I lied to them about what I had done the night before and with whom I had done it.
I am near certain that at that time in my young life if I had told everybody I had spent the night with one of the hot Florida cuties who were throwing themselves at me I would have been given a hero's welcome and would have been deemed the coolest kid ever at the club. It was a time in my young life where recognition like that really mattered to me.
But that was not how it was going to be for me apparently. Nobody needed to tell me how to handle this situation, nobody needed to tell me to keep this to myself, to go in the proverbial closet. Nobody had to sit me down and explain to me what my life would be like if I was open about my evolving sexuality.
Would the new Bollettieri Academy be the right place for me?
I knew that if I told them the truth, that I had just had my first sexual encounter with a member of my same sex, it would have been the end of everything for me in Orlando. If word got out about this, I would be kicked out of the club and dumped by my coach and by the time my parents had found out, I would have already been half way across the country running away.
Because to stay would have meant being thrown out of the house for good, and all my dreams of becoming a great tennis player would have been shot dead right then and there, because I could hear it coming already. Nobody was going to let their kids play tennis with the faggot kid or want the faggot kid around their house at all. Even though we were already the best of friends and I spent the night all the time.
It was with this existential dread that I intuitively knew I was absolutely screwed if told anybody the truth about my activities and just as screwed if people were to find out. What I did have going for me was that the boy who I was just with faced the same consequences if we were to be discovered.
So I learned early how to lie about what I was doing and how I felt about what I was doing and the people I was doing it with. I hated myself for that, but hated myself even more for taking such a risk and engaging in such behavior at my club; risking everything.
How could something that felt so good and natural to me be deemed so wrong by everyone and God too, and why would a God make something so wrong that felt so right. It just seemed so below what a God would do.
My angst and confusion mounted by the hour and I swore I would never do it again. All the while a little voice in the back of my head said that what I felt that night felt right and real and raw, not contrived or faked or mimicked.
Very likely I was a gay male and the power of knowing I couldn't risk acting so again was only matched by the power of the feeling that I couldn’t wait to do it all again. I was 14 years old, already in a heap of confusion.
Eager to run away and be rid of all this angst when I heard that there was a coach named Nick Bollettieri opening a new full time tennis academy in Brandenton just a couple of hours up the road and that it might be a perfect fit for me.