Like most in the poker community, I read with interest Jason Somerville’s Valentine’s Day blog post in which he revealed himself to be gay. While obviously a highly personal message, the post also shared some genuine insights about the poker community as a whole. Thus I greatly appreciated both the courage of Somerville’s coming out as well as what struck me as an especially constructive contribution to the conversation about making poker a more inviting game to all.
Among those insights about the poker community Somerville shares, he notes how the game is open to all comers and how “this universal acceptance/open invitation is sort of the centerpiece of poker.” Sure, we’re going to try to take your chips once you sit down, but as long as you are able to buy those chips no one is likely to object to sharing a table with you. As Somerville says, “It’s a cutthroat world, but the waters are open to anyone who wants to swim.”
There are exceptions. I imagine some or even most readers of Woman Poker Player have experienced instances at the poker table when they felt less than invited, or at least when the idea of “universal acceptance” wasn’t so readily apparent. In fact, Somerville does qualify the idea a touch when he says parenthetically that in truth some are “maybe... more indifferent than tolerant.” But I think we all understand and probably agree with the characterization of the poker community as an especially inviting one, perhaps more so than are to be found in other subcultures.
However, there’s one step the poker community has yet to take in its efforts to be inclusive. “For there to be zero high-profile openly not-straight men in poker seems... bad,” explains Somerville, calling such a circumstance “archaic” and perhaps “reflective of a community that isn’t open to all, when we actually are one of the most open communities in existence.”
By sharing his story, then, Somerville satisfies both a personal wish to begin “to be myself publicly” but also a desire to help the poker community as a whole. “I felt this was important to share,” writes Somerville, “to both allow me to openly/completely be myself in the poker world and maybe to make it easier for others to be themselves, too, if they want to be.”
Among the initial responses to Somerville’s post were some comparisons of poker to professional sports and the relative lack -- or total absence -- of openly gay athletes, particularly men, competing in them. Of course, while poker has much in common with sports, there are a few differences that are relevant in this context, too.
In my “Poker in American Film and Culture” class we look at the history of poker since its early 19th-century origins, and frequently have occasion to note and reflect on what I sometimes refer to as the “masculine culture” of poker as it existed for much of its history, and in many ways still exists today.
It’s a culture that helped connect the game early on with other ideas associated with male behavior, overlapping in many places with the Old West image of the cowboy as self-reliant, strong, and virile -- a man with guns at the ready in case of conflict, and a girl on his arm when the day’s work is done.
That such an image wasn’t necessarily found all that often in reality, but rather created and embellished later in films, songs, and paintings didn’t matter too much. And like cattle-rustling and taking shots of whiskey and ensuring the establishment of law and order, poker was an activity for men -- a “man’s game.” And that’s how many of us continue to be introduced to poker.
The “masculine culture” of the game thus stems from the culture’s expectation that men behave in certain ways, just as women are often expected and/or pressured to be “feminine.” We’re all aware of these so-called “gender roles” we’re expected to accept and follow, as well as how the culture often responds when we don’t.
Now this talk of gender and the “masculine culture” of poker might seem on the surface to have little to do with sexual orientation, but in fact I would suggest it partly explains why, as Somerville points out, the poker community has been relatively behind the times when it comes to being open about the idea that not everyone sitting around the table is straight.
Thanks largely to its history and legacy, simply playing poker has long been coded as a “masculine” activity, a fact that I imagine hardly comes as news to the women reading this article. For men, when we play poker we are thought of as conforming to societal expectations for male behavior. For us to play poker is considered a “masculine” thing to do. And while sexual orientation is different from gender, an assumption generally follows that by being masculine we are also heterosexual.
Somerville brought this very idea up in his Two Plus Two Pokercast interview that came a week after his post appeared. In the post, Somerville shares with us the story of how it wasn’t until relatively recently that he himself was finally sure of his sexual orientation. On the podcast he was asked to elaborate on that struggle.
Somerville explained how for much of his life he was “the fit-in type of guy.” “You would never have guessed I was anything but straight,” he explains. “I enjoyed UFC, and guns, and video games, and, you know, poker is obviously extremely competitive.... I had very normal -- in terms of like typical, heterosexual -- interests.”
Here Somerville lists poker among other “normal” interests for men, and I think we can readily see from his list that he’s talking about activities that might be coded as “masculine” and thus (for many) supposedly indicative of heterosexuality.
But here’s the thing -- you don’t have to be masculine or heterosexual to enjoy poker. Or guns. Or UFC. But our culture is such that if you’re a man and you do enjoy those things, assumptions are going to be made.
When I consider the legacy created by poker’s history -- as a “man’s game” that tends to reinforce traditional ideas of masculinity -- I think I understand why the poker community has been relatively “archaic” in its collective realization that a gay man might enjoy the game, too.
And like many I am grateful for Somerville’s willingness to engage us all in this conversation and consider how poker really is -- or can be -- a game in characterized by “universal acceptance.”
See also: She Said: If Women Still Struggle in Poker, Can Gay Players Find Acceptance?