There they are. In bright red shirts, dotting the perimeter of Petco Park like beacons of bad fashion. The shirts are brand new, of sturdy cotton, with big, clunky necks that usually expose tourists or parents attempting to 'be casual.' They read, 'Save Our Kids' in white lettering. The typeface is jagged, youth-oriented. If a typeface could be 'fun,' this typeface would be trying really hard to be fun.
'How do you feel about the gays at the Padres game today?' I ask an older gentleman in a red shirt.
'I think it's really sad,' he says. He hands me a glossy pamphlet with an American flag on the front fold. It's about Jesus and America and Jesus' role in patriotism.
I ask the same thing to a perky mom wearing the red shirt.
'Well, it would have been fine if they would have let us know ahead of time. They were really underhanded about it.'
I tell her that the Padres issued a press release weeks ago. 'Really? Well, if that's true, well, that's kind of far out. Six weeks? And then nothing? When we do events, we keep issuing press releases the week of the event.'
I tell her there was a story in the Union-Tribune this week. She smiles and hands me another pamphlet. She tells me to enjoy the game.
I spot a young protestor-17, 18 maybe. His moustache-made of young, soft, long hairs-gives him away. He's sitting on the curb surrounding flowery landscaping. He appears fatigued.
'How do you feel about the gays here today?' I ask.
'Well, they didn't tell anyone about it,' he says. Apparently he and the perky mom have been talking. I tell him about the press release, readily available on the Padres' website.
'Really? Oh, I didn't know that. Thanks for telling me.' He's nice but receives low marks as a protestor.
As I approach the main gate where the Gay Men's Chorus of San Diego has planned to meet, men with TV cameras jostle for position. The pretty anchorwomen with great makeup accompany them. They hold long, thin microphones, as if participating in a relay race.
A man wearing a Boston Red Sox hat is engaging a group of protestors. I assume this man not to be gay, or the straightest gay man in the area. His son stands nearby, visibly wanting absolutely no part of this exchange.
'You're doing more harm to your cause than good,' he tells a protestor. Older cameramen hang on his every word. There is a visible flush to their faces, like predators having located a wounded herd. I am a predator, too.
'Maybe if you showed a little compassion, a little understanding, we wouldn't have as much violence in the world.'
'You're just blinded,' a protestor retorts. It's not a great comeback. Definitely not a zinger. And he gets no help from the four other protestors at his side. They work in packs, these protestors: Identify someone willing to debate, and then groupthink for the win.
A Latino family passes, their two children-preschoolers, maybe-wear the red shirts about saving themselves.
Three teenage girls-dressed in thrift-store clothes-have their own picket signs. They're rainbow. About love and acceptance. Protestors protesting the protestors. Things have gotten meta.
All this because 60 men who love men have been asked to sing the national anthem before a Padres game. And because 1,400 or more gay San Diegans have come to watch baseball for 'Out at the Park.' It's sent San Diego into ratings-blockbuster-scandal mode. The Gay Men's Chorus coincides with the Padres' 'free floppy hats for children under 14' promotion, which explains the protestors' main contention: Gay people are allowed to exist, but not around our kids.
Nearby, three members of the Gay Men's Chorus of San Diego stand dressed in khaki slacks and white button-up shirts. They're well groomed, smell nice. We speak briefly about the protestors. Artistic director Gary Holt canceled travel plans due to the growing fracas surrounding the event. He says they've never had such a protest at their performances. He says the Padres have been extremely professional and courteous to the chorus, even hiring extra security.
A Padres representative appears, reiterates the team's stance: 'They're just a group ticket sale like anyone else. We chose them to sing the national anthem because their demo CD was amazing.'
'We had to record it three times,' Holt says. 'I wasn't happy with the first two takes. I had to tell the guys, ‘You sound like girls.' I wanted it to be like the great men's choruses-like the U.S. Navy Band, who have a fantastic men's chorus.'
He admits they won't be singing live. No one sings the national anthem live anymore. Blame Roseanne.
A member of the Padres' cheerleaders-cum-ambassadors, the Pad Squad, leads all 60-men down the right field tunnel, where they will emerge onto the field and walk out to the grass behind second base.
Holt organizes them into rows based on height as they wait for 20 minutes in the cramped tunnel. Self-effacing short jokes are made. Holt is their father figure, telling them to hush and maintaining order.
The U.S. Navy color guard marches past them, extremely formal. Holt loudly jokes to the group, 'Did I tell you that we hired some extra security for today?'
A large, stout Navy commander bellows, 'That's right. You are safer because of the U.S. Navy.' The tunnel erupts with cheers.
'Now, it's fine to acknowledge the crowd if you want to,' Holt says to his chorus. 'But keep it to a polite wave.' He then waves his hands above his head, snapping flamboyantly. 'None of that,' he says with a smile. He makes another stereotypically gay hand sign. 'None of that, either,' he says.
The men laugh. 'Nothing above the tiara, right Gary?' one chorus member says.
'There will be people who are expecting that from us,' he says, seriously. 'We're not going to pander to them.'
Finally, the chorus is led out onto the field. They're formal, dignified. The announcer introduces them over the stadium's sound system. A huge applause roars from the upper deck, where San Diego Pride has purchased three sections for its members and supporters. It more than overshadows a few scattered boos.
They then lip-synch their rendition. It's lovely, in four-part harmony. A minute and 19 seconds later, it's over. There is standard applause. They walk back out, through the tunnel, teeming with the giddy after-effects of nervous energy.
After dressing into street clothes, some members head to the upper deck to sit with the Pride contingent. There are a few rainbow flags. Since the game is televised nationally on ESPN, a man has made one of those 'get on TV' signs that reads, 'Everyone in San Diego has Pride N-The Padres.' It's an awkward acronym, but he holds it high, proudly.
There are men and women of all ages. A lesbian woman in front of me has brought her kids. Her 4-year-old daughter looks adorable in her free floppy hat, unaware of the controversy surrounding the headwear.
During the game, a sign for a Lutheran church is splashed on the Jumbotron, as are financial institutions, names of nonprofits, married couples, etc. I think back to the perky housewife. I wonder if she feels uncomfortable that a solid stream of press releases wasn't issued about the Lutherans' presence at the game.
I mean, Lutherans. With kids around.
Throughout the game, I do not see a single gay man blow another. I do see two men kiss, but they do not use tongue. It makes me vaguely uncomfortable, and I feel small for that. As far as I can tell, no gay person stuffs a floppy-hat-wearing child into a burlap sack. They do not abduct and take kids to Gay Land.
By far, the Pride sections are the liveliest. They cheer with abandon; they really get into 'the wave' as it rolls around Petco Park. During the performance of 'God Bless America' during the seventh-inning stretch, scattered members of the Gay Men's Chorus put down their concessions and ease into a sweet harmonic rendition. They're a good group sale for the Padres-they buy beer, popcorn, hot dogs, frozen lemonade, cotton candy. They help pay Brian Giles' inflated salary.
I leave in the eighth inning. The Padres are down by a few runs and show little hope of making a comeback. As I walk out, the protestors are gone. A few of their pamphlets are littered near the gate, discarded by their recipients.
I realize a few aspects of the Gay Men's Chorus' performance disturb me-namely, the fact that they, like all national anthem performers, were asked to lip-synch. There was also a Mets fan among the members. And a Cubs fan.
A few days later, the event makes national headlines when Bill O'Reilly condemns the Padres. Somewhere, I imagine, a box containing a poorly designed red T-shirt is making its way through the United States Postal Service to his place of business.
The Gay Men's Chorus of San Diego performs Diva by Diva at the Jewish Family Community Center in La Jolla on July 28-29. $35. www.gmcsd.com.