Opinion: Gay High Fives and Pussy Riot

Reposted from Surrey PEN’s website on 25/8/12

On the 8th October 1977, the LA Dodgers played the Philadelphia Phillies in a baseball game that would change the world. Towards the end of the match, a Dodgers player named Dusty Baker steps up to the plate with the bases loaded and the pressure of 60,000 pairs of eyes staring at him. But. He hits the grand slam and the crowd go wild.

As he’s reaching the final base, rookie centre-fielder, Glenn Burke sprints out of the Dodgers dugout and heads straight for Baker. Burke was a man who had already made a big impact in LA, not only was he tipped to become one of the ‘greats’, but due to his legendary charisma and humour, he had also become the goodwill ambassador for the team. He made personal appearances, met children in the community, worked with charities… basically; he was just a great guy.

Glenn Burke's first high five

So he’s running at Dusty Baker, and Baker notices something; Burke’s running with his hand stretched high up in the air. Not knowing what to do, Baker copies him. Their hands meet and slap together. Yeah… you got it… Glenn Burke just invented the high five. Soon after, the Dodgers start doing it on a regular basis, other teams copy them, and it just spreads and spreads.

I know what you’re thinking. This is the Surrey Student PEN website. What has this got to do with… well… anything? Good question, but stick with me. Firstly, I just like the story. I like the fact that such a happy and brilliant gesture was started by an all round ‘top bloke’. But there’s also another thing, see, Glenn Burke was gay.

In those days, there weren’t gay baseball players. You were either straight, or you pretended to be straight. Although Burke hadn’t openly admitted his sexuality, rumours grew until one day he was invited into the Dodgers’ offices and was offered $75,000 to get married. His response was simply; “I suppose you mean to a woman?”. Shortly after, he was traded to an inferior team, for an inferior player, for no apparent reason. At his new club he rarely was given playing time and often when he was on the field he was heckled from the stands. His coach even used to give him the introduction of “This is Glenn Burke, the faggot”. Soon, this became too much and he retired, only one year after his rookie season.

Later, three teenage girls in their mother’s car hit him, crushing his leg. He becomes reliant on painkillers. Develops a crack addiction. Becomes penniless. Homeless. Until in 1995, aged 42, Glenn Burke dies. He once said “Think of that feeling when you give someone a high five. I had that feeling before anyone else did”. I think that’s rather beautiful.

Now here’s the point to this story. When I first heard about Glenn Burke, I felt sad and angry that such a brilliant person could have their career, and indeed their life, ruined by prejudices. And I was glad that we no longer live in a world that’s like that. But that’s the point. We do live in a world that is often like that, more so then most people know, or care about. Today in Russia, a law was upheld banning Gay Pride for 100 years, coming only five months after they passed the ‘homosexual propaganda’ law, which effectively gave the government the apparatus to silence any homosexual writer.

Pussy Riot

And it’s not just sexuality. Today also saw the end of the much publicised trial of anti-Putin punk band Pussy Riot, resulting in their members each receiving two years in prison for their protest. And it’s not even just in Russia. All across the world there are countless cases of writers, journalists, musicians or just ordinary people being silenced, imprisoned, beaten or even murdered, due to the views they express. Even in our own country, laws exist that can result in the repression of people’s opinions.  And it needs to end.

And that is exactly what PEN is about. For over 90 years English PEN have been fighting for the protection of the oppressed and to help affect positive change throughout the world. And now Surrey Student PEN exists so that hopefully a new generation of students at the university will support their work too.

So the next time someone gives you a high five, think of Glenn Burke. Think of the injustice of his life, and think of the injustices that still happen every day throughout the world.

17th August 2012

Shaun Millis, Surrey PENsoc