He's beloved at the city's gyms and all its boxing gatherings. Larry Holmes hugs him. Gerry Cooney kisses him. Most of them have shared moments with him like the one Ron Ross will never forget, the night Ross grabbed the microphone at a surprise 40th wedding anniversary celebration that his daughters threw for him and began singing It Had to Be You to his wife--when he heard another voice, a tenor. He turned and saw Emile, who'd come to know the Ross family during the three years that Ron worked on Emile's biography, standing and singing along as tears streamed down his cheeks.
It's way too late now. Hate's missed the boat. Funny how that works, how it doesn't matter anymore to the boxing fraternity whether Emile is or isn't. They've gotten to know him. "All I see when I look at him," says trainer Randy Stevens, "is love."
Now, of course, if it's somebody else you're talking about, some other boxer who might be gay.... "Promoters wouldn't touch him," says former light heavyweight champ Jose Torres. "It wouldn't bother me, but most fighters would hate him. And then, if someone loses to him? You lost to this gay guy? Get out of town!"
"A gay boxer would be ostracized," says Showtime boxing analyst Steve Farhood. "It would take amazing courage."
"Better kick everybody's ass first, then tell 'em you're gay," says trainer Jimmy O'Pharrow.
Five times world champion. That's sufficient ass kicked. And still not enough, not nearly enough, for Emile to have been a Jackie Robinson, nor even to look back a quarter century after retiring and tell us what it was like for him, so the sports world can learn and begin to move forward. But it's not even fair to compare. Because Jackie and everyone else could see the barrier he was facing--it was right there on his skin--while Emile couldn't even go near his wall, the wall that hides the scariest thing. No, not homosexuality, not exactly, but something that's all tangled up with it. It's the thing, when two men fight, that's more frightening than the punishment meted out by the one who dominates: the weakness of the one who submits. That's every boxer's, every athlete's, deepest fear. That's what must be kept locked in the closet. That's why Pete Williams, who was "outed" by a magazine, could be the Pentagon's TV spokesman in the first gulf war, the face of America's war machine ... but a gay man can't be a boxer. That's why it's still 1962, when it comes to sports and male sexuality, while the rest of the country moves ahead.
Today is Thursday. Emile says, "I'm not gay! It's craziness. I go to gay bars to see my friends. What's the difference? I have my drink and talk to people, same as any bar. Then I finish and go outside. I don't do anything wrong."
Today is Friday. Emile says, "I will dance with anybody. I've chased men and women. I like men and women both. But I don't like that word: homosexual, gay or faggot. I don't know what I am. I love men and women the same, but if you ask me which is better ... I like women."
Tomorrow is Saturday. He may say something else. That's just how smoke is. Especially since the beating.
"The beating?" he says. His eyes flash. "What beating?"