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The life and death of Glenn Burke, superbly told in "Out. The Glenn Burke Story," places a mirror before us all. It forces us to inspect ourselves -- or at least it should.

It is impossible to have a cursory awareness of American history, of who we are as a nation, without coming to the realization that beneath our supposed love is a foundation of hate.

Despite lofty talk about togetherness and unity, the enduring truth is we victimize and stigmatize certain segments of society, usually based on such personal factors as sex, ethnicity, race, religion or sexual orientation.

Sport, where common cause trumps individual agendas, sometimes transcends this and bonds us all, explaining why Jackie Robinson and Billie Jean King and Yao Ming are not mere athletes but cultural icons cheered by broad, diverse fan bases.

Stories like that of Glenn Burke, however, remind us that even in sports we're all teammates until hate and intolerance intervene, saying we can't be teammates because we're not all alike.

The life and death of Burke, superbly told in "Out. The Glenn Burke Story," which premieres at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco tonight at 7:30 and will be shown on CSNBA at 8, places a mirror before us all. It forces us to inspect ourselves -- or at least it should.

Burke's modest goal was to achieve a peaceful coexistence between a baseball career and his homosexuality. He was denied because, as often is the case throughout our history, the fundamental definition of freedom was corrupted, this time by the politics of baseball's hierarchy.


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A superbly talented two-sport star at Berkeley High 40 years ago, Burke eventually signed a baseball contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was an immensely popular outfielder with incredible speed, power and a spectacular throwing arm. He conceivably was the organization's top prospect in the mid-'70s.

As a gay man, though, he was not spared victimization and stigmatization, much less that obstinate foundation of hate.

Sport is a subculture and baseball a subculture within, with its own language and customs, many of which don't stand up to reason. It's a tight society, largely conservative, with biases as rampant as testosterone. It's a den of homophobia.

Burke's quest was undone for several reasons, the predominant two being cowardly management and, to a lesser degree, ignorant teammates uncomfortable in his presence.

Dodgers executives, concerned about image, offered Burke $75,000 to get married. To, you know, acquire a "beard.'' Their eyes opened to the truth, their response was not acceptance but the creation of a charade designed to conceal it. Burke basically laughed in their faces.

In a case of open discrimination, to the disapproval of many of his teammates, L.A. in 1978 traded Burke to the A's, who less than two years later hired Billy Martin to manage.

Martin's natural intensity, along with his seething homophobia, poisoned any chance of Burke making it in Oakland. Martin, whose heart was big enough to love some players like sons, inserted himself into our foundation of hate.

Hatred, along with its friend inequality, has given us centuries of slavery and lynchings and terrorism, along with false imprisonments and church bombings and denial of women's suffrage and assassinations of individuals seeking, of all things, peace.

Did you, by the way, miss those 20th-century photos posted in American shop windows saying "Help Wanted -- No Irish Need Apply" or "Jews Not Allowed"?

Isolated and anguished, Burke was in crisis when he reached the A's. Even in the late '70s, his lives could not be reconciled. The final shove from baseball, from his dreams, came when Martin arrived for spring training in 1980.

With extreme prejudice, Martin banished Burke, freeing the ballplayer from the intolerance and the mood swings that came with dwelling in his personal prison. He was out of the big leagues at 26, with 523 at-bats, before the first pitch of the '80 season.

Thus began the slow killing of his irrepressible spirit. He was 42 when he died of complications from AIDS in 1995.

Some folks, perhaps conditioned to deny truths and duck reality, get comfortable in a false life. They settle into the margins. Burke was not built for that. He yearned to be true to himself and others.

The day may come when we've evolved enough to bury our vilest subjective hatreds, when someone of uncommon courage, in a team sport, can acknowledge being gay without concern for retribution.

Welsh rugby legend Gareth Thomas came out of the closet last year conceding he otherwise might have carried out previous plans to commit suicide. The response in Europe has been mostly positive, putting a smile on Burke's spirit.

America's historical battlefield is strewn with the bodies of those cut tragically short by weapons loaded by intolerance. Glenn Burke is among them.

He was courageous, a hero. How long before society is mature enough to realize it?

Contact Monte Poole at mpoole@bayareanewsgroup.com.

On A1
Carl Steward: The documentary on Glenn Burke's life is a landmark work