This former homecoming king at Andover High is a homosexual. Why is his story important? Because he refused to let it destroy him.
Burt Humburg turned himself from a self-described fat kid into an All-American college football player.
He worked through medical school and turned himself into a physician.
But as hard as he tried, he could not turn himself into a heterosexual.
Humburg grew up gay in the heart of the Bible Belt: Andover, America. It was not as difficult as you might think. That’s because he didn’t realize he was gay until adulthood. Until then everyone, including Humburg, figured he was too focused on other things to worry about the opposite sex. But Humburg wasn’t interested in the opposite sex.
He’s kissed two girls in his life. One was his childhood friend – a preacher’s daughter – when they were about 6. The other was when he was named Andover High School’s homecoming king in 1994. Back then the royal couple was expected to lock lips.
Humburg knows the Bible. At one time, his father encouraged him to be a minister.
“I remember having to speak in tongues once in order to earn my dinner,” Humburg said. “No kidding.”
Young men didn’t come much more wholesome than Burt Humburg in the early 1990s. He was nice to everyone and tried his best to please God. He was a young Republican with compassion. He respected women.
“I’m seeing my friends have sex back in high school, and I just don’t get it,” Humburg said. “I’m thinking, ‘Why can’t they wait until marriage? I have none of these desires – oh, that guy’s hot – why can’t they wait?’ It was so stupid in retrospect. But I had no framework from which to even recognize it. I’m thinking, gay is wrong and that guy’s hot. Those two thoughts never comingled. I just thought I was waiting for the right girl.”
* * *
Zack Siegrist broke a lot of passing records at Andover High, most of which still stand. Today he coaches youth football in Andover.
Every time he visits with a parent whose child struggles with football, he tells them the story of his old teammate, Burt Humburg.
As a kid, Humburg’s staggering intellect and likeable personality made him a lot of friends in the popular crowd. He wasn’t in a clique. Humburg hung out with everyone.
But an athlete he was not. He didn’t try football until the seventh grade. The coaches stuck him on the offensive line. Until then, he had never even seen a game. Not only did he not know how many downs there were, he didn’t know what a down was.
“His questions didn’t even have anything to do with the plays,” Siegrist said. “He was asking things like, ‘Why is that guy standing there?’ Just really basic stuff.”
This story has been told before, but it’s worth repeating: Andover’s coaches became so exasperated with Humburg’s questions, which were eating up a lot of practice time, they half-jokingly suggested he read a book about the basics of football.
So he did. Humburg is nothing if not analytical. His wheels are always turning.
“Of course, Burt doesn’t just read a book,” Siegrist said. “He completely breaks it down. He became a real technician on the offensive line. He was one of the best players on the team. If you needed a block, Burt was right there.”
And when his family needed him most, Humburg was right there, too.
Humburg’s house was destroyed in the 1991 Andover tornado. His father took it hard. Family members agree the burden he took on – financial strain, emotional stress, frustration with the insurance company, and so on – led to the heart attack that claimed his life a year later.
Humburg’s mother, Judy Dutra, was a sixth-grade teacher at Cottonwood Elementary at the time. She credits him with providing comfort, perspective and stability following the tragic events.
When he returned to football practice, Humburg matter-of-factly informed the team his father had passed away, and he was determined to move on.
And that’s just what he did.
* * *
Humburg fit in well at Southwestern College, a private institution in Winfield. Football coach Monty Lewis offered Humburg a good scholarship, and the Moundbuilders were consistent winners.
Just as in high school, Humburg was a straight-A, straight-laced student with a bit of a quirky side. He made friends easily.
Following football season his junior year, Humburg was invited to a party where he knew there would be drinking. Humburg decided to surprise everyone by partaking in the festivities.
The event that followed doesn’t need a lot of details. Suffice it to say Humburg found himself secretly sexually attracted to another male at the party.
He was drunk, distraught and disgusted with himself. Fighting tears, Humburg ran to the football field, threw himself down at the 50-yard line and began praying.
“All I could think was, ‘Oh my God, I’m such a sinner,” Humburg said. “"I was horrified. Absolutely horrified. And in my drunken haze, I recommitted myself to God.”
Humburg spent the next couple of months reading the Bible – and anything else he could get his hands on – looking for answers.
“(Suppressing the desires) worked for a while. … but I started to become quietly insane,” Humburg said. “My craziness was getting worse and worse and worse. I was a jerk."
He said he briefly considered suicide.
“Within 10 seconds I concluded that was not the answer,” Humburg said. “I just thought, ‘You’re a straight-A student headed (into) medicine at some point. What are you gonna do – throw that all away just because of some Bronze Age understandings of the Bible and human sexuality?’ Let’s just take this slow and see how it goes.
“So I stopped fighting it. And as soon as I allowed (homosexuality) to be a consideration – bam. I knew.”
* * *
Humburg spent the next year keeping his homosexuality a secret, but said friends soon began to notice a change. He was back to being the happy old Burt. Maybe happier.
Because he didn’t want to “tear the team apart,” Humburg waited until his senior season of football was complete to come out of the closet.
It didn’t take much. One thing was said to a friend or two, and word spread across the little campus like wildfire. Humburg tried to tell his teammates and coaches individually, but he couldn’t keep up.
“I’m not going to lie to you: I was shocked,” said Lewis, who is now football coach at Friends University. “I mean, Burt’s broken about every kind of stereotype there is. Like offensive linemen being dumb. Burt obviously blew that one out of the water. But still, I don’t think any of us had any clue.
“It really touched my heart that he came to me like that. Burt’s a great man. And I’m telling you, in those five seconds after he told me, I became a better man.”
Siegrist was quarterbacking Pittsburg State at the time. He had a handful of former high school teammates playing at Southwestern, so it didn’t take long for the news to reach southeast Kansas.
“I didn’t care then, and I don’t care now,” Siegrist said. “I don’t think any different of Burt. He’s an amazing, unique guy. There’s only one Burt. We love him, no matter what.”
Naturally, that included his mother. Which isn’t to say things were easy on her back in Andover. Dutra began to notice people in the community avoiding her in places like the grocery store.
Homosexuality went against everything she’d been taught in the church. So now what?
“I felt I had no one to turn to besides my faith,” Dutra said. “I truly questioned myself, ‘What did I do wrong?’ I blamed myself. I couldn't talk about it because I didn't know what to say to anyone. I questioned God about what I had done wrong to merit losing my house to a tornado, losing my husband with complications from the heart attack and surgery, and now have a child that was gay. This certainly wasn't my plan.
“I wish I could say that as a mom I was totally understanding when Burt told me, but I wasn't. I wish I could have said to Burt, ‘How can I help you?’ But I didn't. I truly felt I hit rock bottom, for a short time, and I needed time to get myself together.”
* * *
Joe Wright of Central Christian Church was the family’s pastor then. He presided over the funeral of Humburg’s father.
Wright is also the man who in 2005 helped lead a campaign that successfully amended the Kansas Constitution to ban same-sex marriage, civil unions and any other legal rights for gay couples.
“I believe homosexuality is a sin,” said Wright, who now lives in Florida but serves part of each week as associate pastor at Summit Church in Wichita. “I know (Humburg) would probably find this offensive … but I just simply don’t believe anyone is born a homosexual. I believe they make a choice, just like they make a choice about other sinful lifestyles. I don’t think a man is born an adulterer or fornicator, either.
“The Bible says (homosexuality) is a perversion, just like it says adultery or fornication is a perversion. I have always treated all sinners the same, not some any worse than others. People were born with different weaknesses. I’m a sinner myself.”
Humburg hasn’t seen Wright in nearly 20 years. He said he likes and respects Wright, who counseled the family after his father’s death.
But the homosexuality issue hits a nerve with him. Humburg is a heavy thinker, and has had plenty of time to draw his own conclusion through the years.
"The conventional wisdom is homosexuality is a sin,” Humburg said. “That’s what a lot of people here in the Midwest think. But if you look at what the Bible says, the same words that say 'Man shall not lie with another man; it is an abomination,' that same Greek word – abomination – is used to describe ‘Thou shall not eat shellfish, it is an abomination.'
"So you can imagine some minister – fire and brimstone talk – damning homosexuality and all these things, and oh, by the way, here’s the collection plate, and we’re going to have our brunch at Red Lobster. When you boil it down, the main reason so many Christians around here are against homosexuality – or at least were – is because (the preacher ) was against homosexuality.
“If we allow the actual text of the Bible to influence our thinking – well, if we’ve made our peace with eating lobster, then we should have made our peace with homosexuality. It’s the same word."
Wright agrees the verse about shellfish was an old Jewish law that “we aren’t held to today,” but points out the New Testament – particularly Romans Chapter One – condemns homosexuality.
Humburg isn’t moved by that, though.
"Homosexuality was such an important issue to Jesus that he mentioned it all of zero times,” Humburg said. “Not once."
Wright is convinced homosexuals can change – that with God’s help they can become happy spouses of the opposite sex and even have children. He said he would like to visit with Humburg about it in person someday.
Humburg replied he would embrace that opportunity - to challenge and be challenged by someone whose ideas are different than his own.
* * *
If there’s one lesson to be learned from Humburg’s story, his mother said, it’s for parents to treat their children with dignity, understanding and love. She’s glad television shows like “Glee” have helped promote awareness and compassion for the gay population.
“But Burt isn't from Hollywood,” Dutra said. “He's from Kansas, right in the middle of the Bible Belt. He's one young (gay) person and there are more out there. Those children have parents who will be dealing with their child's orientation. … I'm very proud that Burt has strong shoulders and is willing to be a spokesman, rather than a suicidal statistic.”
Humburg is 36 years old now. He is a hospitalist in Mason City, Iowa, boarded in internal medicine with additional training in general surgery and pulmonary and critical care medicine.
He is sure he didn’t choose to be homosexual. Quite the contrary – he fought it hard.
But he doesn’t know if he was born that way.
“Was there a key component to it in my environment? I don’t know the answer to that,” Humburg said.
“There’s lots of different hypothesis. Part of what I do is remain open-minded. I don’t want to speak beyond the data.”
But Humburg is sure of one thing.
“I am the world’s worst gay man,” he said. “I mean, look at me. I wear plaid. I have no idea what clothes go with what.”
That’s OK with him, though. Being gay isn’t something he wants to shout from the rooftops. He was asked to do this interview. And the reason he agreed is because he isn’t ashamed.
“Yes, I’m gay, but it’s still not a big part of my life,” Humburg said. “I don’t know if that makes any sense, but that’s how I feel. God’s cool with me, I’m cool with me, and the rest of the world can think what they want.”
Adam Knapp is Editor-in-Chief of the Andover American. He can be reached at email@example.com.