Photography by David Bowman
Styling by Brent Austin Coover
"Your insults can't be the standard fuck, shit, bitch -- it has to be something that sticks in people's minds," says Chris Kluwe, the Minnesota Vikings punter, explaining how to craft a devastating letter to someone whose views you hold reprehensible. "Generally the way you do that is to take a swear word--usually a part of someone's anatomy -- and attach it to something else that it normally wouldn't go with. When you come up with a good one, you'll know you have it because you'll just start giggling to yourself."
For example, "lustful cockmonster."
On September 7, you could sense the howls of laughter reverberating across the Internet after Kluwe's excoriating letter to Maryland state delegate Emmett C. Burns Jr. was published on the sports fansite Deadspin and quickly went viral. A week earlier, in a letter brimming with self-importance, Burns had told the Baltimore Ravens to "order" linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo to cease advocating for same-sex marriage. Kluwe's response was a master class in how to take down a pompous and wrong-headed ass.
"I find it inconceivable that you are an elected official of Maryland's state government," Kluwe's letter started, reasonably enough. "Your vitriolic hatred and bigotry make me ashamed and disgusted to think that you are in any way responsible for shaping policy at any level." Kluwe then went on to dismantle Burns's position, point by point, culminating in a crescendo of wit and impishness -- and that now-fabled coinage. It's worth running the penultimate paragraph in full, if only because it does such a good job of clarifying the issues:
"I can assure you that gay people getting married will have zero effect on your life. They won't come into your house and steal your children. They won't magically turn you into a lustful cockmonster. They won't even overthrow the government in an orgy of hedonistic debauchery because all of a sudden they have the same legal rights as the other 90 percent of our population -- rights like Social Security benefits, child care tax credits, Family and Medical Leave to take care of loved ones, and COBRA healthcare for spouses and children. You know what having these rights will make gays? Full-fledged American citizens just like everyone else, with the freedom to pursue happiness and all that entails. Do the civil-rights struggles of the past 200 years mean absolutely nothing to you?"
Oh, he also called Burns a "narcissistic fromunda stain" -- which is just showing off.
With all the attention on Kluwe's letter, it's easy to forget that he was, in turn, inspired by another football player, the Ravens's Ayanbadejo, busy fighting his own corner in Baltimore. In November, voters in both Minnesota and Maryland will be faced with marriage-equality ballot initiatives, so the high-profile stance of Kluwe and Ayanbadejo could have real and profound consequences. The positions of both men not only reflect how quickly opinion is shifting, but also spotlight the need to check our own preconceptions of the sports world as inherently intolerant and homophobic.
"I've always relished breaking that stereotype of the dumb jock athlete because while I enjoyed athletics growing up, I also enjoyed reading and video games, and athletic sport is not what defines me as a person," says Kluwe. "I think as more and more generations start rising through the NFL, a lot of these kids see that it's OK to be something other than an athlete."
ESPN radio sportscaster, Jared Max, who came out in 2011, agrees, pointing out that the lifespan of an NFL player is much shorter than most other sports, generating faster turnover. "I strongly believe that goodness is contagious and that others will jump on board as the younger generation begins to populate the NFL," he says, with some justification given a recent poll by Outsports.com, which identified 28 current NFL players who've expressed support for gay rights. For Max, players like Kluwe and Ayanbadejo deserve comparison to earlier taboo-busters like Branch Rickey, who broke through Major League Baseball's color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers in 1945.
But for Kluwe, taking a stand on gay rights is as instinctual as planting his foot into a ball. "It's all about the Golden Rule," he says. "Treat other people as you want to be treated. It's that simple. It's something that needs to be spoken about, and it's something I can do while fulfilling my job as a football player."
Growing up in Los Alamitos, Calif., 20 miles south of Los Angeles, Kluwe's parents preached to their son a mantra of tolerance with a profanity-free lexicon. Neither stuck at the time. As a tween, gay slurs peppered his speech with the same heedlessness as his peers. "Unfortunately, as kids, sometimes you don't understand what your words can mean because you're not emotionally mature enough yet," he says. "As you grow up and start learning about the world, you realize, Hey, some of this stuff is hurtful; I would not want to be treated that way. That's part of maturing."
Kluwe's voracious appetite for reading was also instrumental. He displays an old-fashioned ability to quote Voltaire or Ralph Waldo Emerson and reads so much sci-fi and fantasy that he jokes that Barnes & Noble can't keep up. On his active Twitter account, he'll solicit suggestions for his book list. A recent post reads, "This Vonnegut guy, I like the cut of his jib." A few hours later, he'd already updated it: "Damn. Slaughterhouse 5 makes me want to simultaneously punch and hug the entire human race. The same stupid cycle over and over."
It's easy to trace Kluwe, the outspoken gay rights advocate, through his childhood obsessions with gaming and sci-fi. The thrust and parry of video-game discussion boards, he says, helped to hone his debating skills; his love of books expanded his vocabulary. At the same time, his immersion into the worlds of Terry Pratchett and Iain M. Banks -- two of his favorite writers -- has merely served to accentuate the flaws and injustices of the real world.
"It's definitely influenced the way I think," he admits. "You look at all the sci-fi utopias, and, pretty much in every single one, the basic underlying philosophy is that people treat each other the way they want to be treated and there's freedom to be who you are. What brings these utopias crashing down is the fact that one group tries to take control of another, and I think that's very applicable to any sort of human or civil rights campaign."
It's no surprise that Kluwe is an avid fan of the role-playing game World of Warcraft (his avatar is a troll called Loate), so much so that his Twitter handle is @ChrisWarcraft. Among the things he loves most about such games are the parallels they offer to our culture's battle over freedom. In World of Warcraft, he becomes a champion against evil oppressive forces. Losing isn't an option.
While World of Warcraft forums don't allow much space for dissecting Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Kluwe carved a space for himself by learning how to push the right buttons to get into other gamers' heads. "I've found one of the most devastating ways to get a point across was to mix factual information with clever insults," he says. "I've had a lot of training on how to get people riled up."