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

Eric did finally try to date for an extended period. When he was 20 he met a girl named Chrystina, a senior. The two dated for most of the year. Near graduation she asked Eric if she should plan to stay with him during the next two years, when she would be attending graduate school at Ohio State.

"Are we going to end up getting married?" Chrystina asked.

Eric told her he loved her, and they made plans to move in together.

photo: David Yellen


That summer, though, those plans changed at a party Eric attended at a friend's home. He began drinking early and then he met another young man who was still in high school. They decided to take a walk and entered a shed in the backyard. The boy grabbed Eric and began kissing him, and the two had sex. Despite his Catholic upbringing and conservative values, he felt no guilt.

Eric's relationship with Chrystina tapered off as she began a new life at Ohio State and he began tentatively searching the Internet for gay chat rooms. That gave him the nerve to go to a gay bar. During his junior year he got in his truck and drove two and a half hours to a bar he had heard about in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. After one drink, and without saying a word to anyone, Eric got back in his truck and returned to Cleveland.

Dropping his suave heterosexual persona, which made him a popular and effective fraternity member, proved to be just as difficult as dealing with his sexuality. Eric continued flirting with girls, and to this day can often inadvertently send mixed messages. More than once he has spent a few hours in a Manhattan bar talking to a woman only to explain at closing time that he's gay and has a boyfriend.

John Bockwoldt, left, and Eric Merfalen enjoy a post-game drink at Gym Bar.
photo: Miles Ladin
Eric moved to New York in the fall of 2004 and began working at a bar in the financial district. On off nights he went to the gay bars he had always heard about. On a warm spring night, he went to the Duplex, a cabaret-style club located on Christopher Street in the West Village. The Duplex sits next to the Stonewall Inn, the site of the 1969 riots that marked the beginning of the first major gay rights movement.

Eric walked into the club and immediately fell for it. A singer belted out various Broadway tunes on a first-floor stage, and upstairs, men chatted with each other in the game room. They were men of all ages and all types. Some were "queeny," dressed in flamboyant outfits and wearing makeup. Others wore tailored shirts and ties. Surely he'd be able to meet new friends.

It didn't take long for him to return the momentary glance of a stranger. They began talking and drinking. Up until this point in his life Eric had not been able to make many gay friends. He spent most of his time in Cleveland with his friends from college and high school, all of whom had either accepted his homosexuality with aplomb or had an inkling about it all along. Still, Eric didn't feel comfortable sharing parts of his experience with those friends. He couldn't talk to them about his sex life, and they weren't well versed in the latest men's fashion trends. He needed gay friends.

The Duplex was not the place to find friendship. Before Eric had ordered his third drink—it wasn't even 11:00 p.m.—the first man he met there suggested they go back to his apartment for sex. The same thing happened over and over again, not only that night but for the first seven months of his life in New York. Every man he met was interested only in sex, Eric thought.

Now that he was out and seeking a deep- er relationship, Eric leaned heavily on his conservative values. For the first time, he was truly looking for a partner, and to him that meant monogamy. Eric felt alone. He began returning to Cleveland on weekends to be with his old friends. He stopped dating and began drinking heavily. One night he took a bottle of sleeping pills and chased it with a fifth of Bombay Sapphire gin. Feeling depressed, he started punching signs along the road home, cutting his hands. When he got home he swallowed 20 Tylenol PM pills and passed out. Eric's roommate found him, saw the bloodied hands, and took him to the hospital. Doctors pumped Eric's stomach and called his parents.

Eric met with a psychiatrist shortly after the suicide attempt. She asked him what he felt was missing from his life and why it had never been missing from his life at home. He thought it over. He missed having a large network of friends and was hurt that he couldn't replicate that feeling in New York. His psychiatrist pressed him. Where had these friends come from? Why was he able to connect with them? When he finally realized the answer, he could not believe it had eluded him for so long. All of his friends came through sports or fraternity life, two groups that share historically masculine bonding rituals. His psychiatrist told him to find a way to bond with gay men in the same way.

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