Esera Tuaolo, a former 300-pound defensive lineman in the National Football League, came to Queens to recount the trials and tribulations about being gay in an ultra-macho world. As a reminder of the prejudices that continue to follow him, some greeted his arrival by defacing posters promoting his appearance with homophobic and derogatory slurs.
“These slurs tear at the fabric of any community, but are particularly repugnant on a college campus dedicated to higher learning,” Dean of Students John Downey said of the defaced posters in Wireman Residence Hall.
In his Oct. 20 speech at Queens, Tuaolo recounted his fear of rejection and ridicule during his nine years in the NFL before finally deciding to disclose that he was gay on “HBO Real Sports” in 2002 after his retirement from football. He played for five teams, including for the Atlanta Falcons in the 1999 Super Bowl, and a stint with the Carolina Panthers. A Samoan who grew up in Hawaii, Tuaolo also was known as the first player to sing the national anthem and then start an NFL game, when he played for the Green Bay Packers.
Tuaolo said he hid his true sexuality from the world to the point it began to eat away at his happiness, beginning in his childhood. Every time he thought it was safe to come out, he would hear negative comments, causing him to crawl deeper into his shell of secrecy. Tuaolo was constantly paranoid about having the world learn he was gay, fearing that piece of information would cause him to lose everything he held dear.
Having growing up in a Pentecostal church, music became his life starting at the age of 5. He said music also helped to save his life, crediting the song “In the Arms of An Angel” for preventing him from committing suicide.
He said his decision to come out in 2002 was for the sake of his two children, a boy and a girl. This confession brought its own obstacles as well.
Tuaolo felt as though he had been “set free from prison” when he came out. “If I didn’t take that step forward, I would be a statistic. I would be 6 feet under.”
Tuaolo said a change can be seen in the way people act toward homosexuality, particularly when they are held accountable for the things they say. Still, he added, slurs can lead to deadly consequences and must be taken seriously. “Words don’t hurt,” he said. “Words kill.”
As for the defaced poster, Jade Kulick, RA on Wireman’s third floor, agrees with Dean Downey. “I think it’s a good idea that people are taking [the vandalism] seriously. It’s good for Queens to build up a gay-friendly community.”
Campus Union Board members Chelsea Sanderson and Gabrielle Keleher brought Tuaolo to campus as one of their required events.
Sanderson says, “We recognize that this year our community is extremely diverse and we wanted to make sure we represented [the LGBT] community as well as other styles of life. We brought in Esera because he isn’t just a LGBT activist he is also a Pacific Islander and an athlete, someone applicable to many different facets of the Queens community.”
Campus police knocked on every door in the residence hall to gather more information about who could have been responsible.
Anyone with information about the defaced poster are encouraged to call Campus Police at 704 337-2306
For more on Tuaolo’s story, see his autobiography, “Alone in the Trenches: My Life as a Gay Man in the NFL” anywhere books are sold.