Field of Queens

The life and loves of Eric Merfalen, a gay athlete who forged his sexual identity while playing America's most macho, bone-crushing sport

"I'm not into your type," Eric says, and turns slightly so that he can look the opposite direction but keep Luke in his peripheral vision. He sees Luke rip up the business card and sprinkle it across the bar, and watches him stomp away to retrieve his coat. Luke tucks in his scarf, gives himself a look in the mirror, heads toward the exit, and hisses "fucker" at Eric as he passes him on his way out.

Eric pays no attention. He's already joined a conversation nearby, jumping in spontaneously and seamlessly and drawing a quick laugh before ordering another round of beers.

At that moment, it's impossible to picture Eric as anything but a confident young gay man, equally able to captivate and infuriate, secure in a strict set of moral beliefs while also relishing the ability to be out, dramatic, bitchy, and, well, himself.

photo: David Yellen


Only a year has passed, though, since Eric looked into the mirror and saw something different staring back, a person he didn't know and wanted dead, someone he had even tried to kill with pills and booze.

As Eric tried to climb out from under that burden and to combine the boy he had been with the gay man he had become, he found rugby. For homosexual men, rugby has become an increasingly common bridge between the seemingly straight orientation of contact sports and the gay men who yearn to be a part of that world. The failure of gay athletes to come out of the closet—to this day, not a single gay male athlete has ever admitted his sexuality while playing an American professional team sport—has fueled the disconnect between gays and sports.

But in the end, rugby didn't save Eric's life.

The people who played it with him did.

Childhood memories are by nature scattershot, but Eric remembers this clearly: He and another boy were wrestling on the lawn of a house in suburban Washington State. They were both seven. When Eric ended up on top, he stayed there. He sat up, straddling the other boy, and neither moved. They felt the heat of their bodies, and a thought invaded Eric's mind: I want to kiss him. Eric forgot about the incident for almost a decade. His family moved to Cleveland, where he became one of the most popular students in school. He played football and soccer and was even voted, through a general election, to the school board as a junior in high school. Making decisions on budgets and school policy forged Eric's conservative political ideology. He dated girls, but unlike his then teammates, never had much interest in even pretending to commit. He went from girlfriend to girlfriend, rarely spending much more than a week. In the adolescent world of the male locker room, Eric's teammates considered his promiscuity a sign of his masculinity. No girl was going to tie him down.

Late in his junior year, Eric had two friends over for the purpose of studying. Both were football players who needed Eric's help with schoolwork. Neither had much intention of being studious. As soon as one flipped on the Nintendo, the other began to wrestle Eric. Early in the impromptu match, his hand slipped over Eric's crotch. He kept it there.

"Do you like that?" the boy asked.

Eric put his own hand on the boy's crotch, in the same manner.

" Do you?" Eric asked.

It stopped there. The third boy, absorbed by the video game, never knew a thing.

Eric chose to attend Case Western Reserve University, a small school in Cleveland, after it offered him a generous scholarship. He was immediately drawn into fraternity life. He enjoyed drinking and partying and found the quick friendships joining a fraternity offered alluring. Playing for the football team means that the other players, no matter whether you get along with them or not, are your buddies. Fraternities take it one step further. You join a family. You're reborn into a brotherhood. Eric embraced it, and the members of Sigma Phi Epsilon saw in him a dynamic new force. Eric could talk to anyone. He not only convinced the girls of Alpha Phi to spend more time at the Sig Ep house, he also slept with seven of them and earned the title of A-Phi Ace. He continued to date many women and earned a reputation as a slut. You could mention his name to pretty much any girl and she would have some sort of comment.

Eric became the top recruiter in the house for the rest of his career. He did not recruit, though. He demanded. He simply told recruits where to go and that they would enjoy themselves. He often provided the entertainment, drinking more than anyone and helping large groups of strangers feel comfortable. At one particular party no one would get on the dancefloor, so Eric asked the disc jockey to play Tupac Shakur's "How Do U Want It." He stumbled out to the center of the room and began walking back and forth slowly. Then he began sinking lower and slowly standing back up. Others joined him. What was meant to be a whimsical icebreaker became known as "The Walk of Guam," where Eric was born, and he has been performing it ever since.

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