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The OutField - Going to the mat for a great cause
The OutField - Going to the mat for a great cause
by Dan Woog - SGN Contributing Writer

Mission High School stands just three blocks from Castro Street, the heart of San Francisco's Gayest neighborhood. Forty percent Hispanic, 30 percent Asian, and 22 percent black, it suffers the financial and educational woes of many urban schools. So no one was surprised when the wrestling team lost its practice room, and was forced into the hallway.

But what happened next was definitely surprising. The Golden Gate Wrestling Club extended a hand. The 26-year-old, Castro-based group offered Mission its mats - and coaches. They adopted the team, and quickly brought its wrestlers' athletic skills to unimagined heights.

In the process, whatever eyebrows might have been raised at the thought of Gay male wrestlers working with young boys (and girls) from "the hood" soon turned to satisfied smiles.

For years, Golden Gate - a no-nonsense club with fistfuls of Gay Games medals - had turned away anyone under 18. "Some of them even came with parents," says president Gene Dermody, a Gay Games winner who competed for New York University in the 1960s and coached at New Jersey high schools for 11 years.

"But we wanted to protect ourselves from 'bad publicity.' I instituted that rule in 1982. It was just me being anal. But as the years passed, we realized we were discriminating against kids. They wanted a good, healthy activity, and we were keeping them out for a stupid reason."

Things changed when a Mission student asked about renting Golden Gate's facility. "We invited them up, and things just snowballed," Dermody recalls. "It all fell into place."

The first day of practice drew a small, wary crowd of 15 wrestlers, seven parents, and three administrators. But as soon as the Golden Gate coaches - all fingerprinted and vetted by city officials, aided by a white board listing foreign-language translations of common wrestling terms for the non-English-speaking athletes - started the session, the youngsters and adults realized what lay ahead: superb instruction, hard work, and the opportunity to reap great rewards.

The next day, Dermody says, "It was standing room only. Being at a Gay wrestling club was no longer a problem."

The Mission Bears, as the high school team is called, thrived, as did a second team from John A. O'Connell High School, a bit further away in the Mission district. They won matches. They earned praise for their technical prowess. Their self-esteem soared - and so did their grades. Mission's wrestlers boasted a team GPA of 3.0, and captain Terrence Li won a $40,000 scholarship based on scholarship and community service. Ivy League colleges vied to recruit him.

Dermody also points with pride to a 4-foot-9 14-year-old. "He's ripping the competition apart. He can't speak a word of English, but he's doing great. And he'll take what we're giving him as far as he can."

Dermody is under no illusions that training five days a week at a Gay club is easy for teenagers. After practice, many take a roundabout route to the bus stop, purposely avoiding Castro Street. "It seems kind of silly, but I'm not a kid anymore," Dermody says. "I don't know what kinds of pressures they get. It's bad enough wrestling has a reputation in schools as a 'Gay sport' - even though any wrestler could knock your teeth out."

But, he adds, some wrestlers walk straight through the Castro, clowning unself-consciously with each other as teenagers often do.

"Most kids today don't make snap judgments about homosexuality," Dermody notes. "They deal with whatever pressures they get. They've made their own decision that our club is the best thing and place for them. They like us, and they appreciate what we do for them. At the same time, they're not going to go out and become Gay advocates. We have our T-shirts, and they have theirs. That's fine."

Adult attitudes can be tougher to change. But they, too, see the positive changes in their children, and they're talking publicly about the good things coming out of the Golden Gate Wrestling Club. Dermody even convinced one "old-fashioned" Chinese father to get on the mat himself. "He was damn good!" Dermody exclaims.

"I think the parents have been startled at how nice, clean, and well-run our place is," Dermody says. "And we've been astounded at how nice, polite, and receptive the kids are. They stay after practice, they clean up, and they shake our hands before they leave. I'd love to drag some of them back to the suburbs where I used to coach.

"Our club has been energized and excited," Dermody continues. "We open up our wallets and hearts to these kids. They're like sons and daughters we can pass something along to."

And, like all good works, Golden Gate's outreach has inspired others. A few hours south, the largely Gay San Diego Wrestling Club was recently asked to help coach a nearby Christian school.

Dan Woog is a journalist, educator, soccer coach, gay activist, and author of the Jocks series of books on Gay male athletes. Visit his website at www.danwoog.com. He can be reached care of this publication or at OutField@qsyndicate.com.

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