By Cory Benton
You can also find a short interview with Benton's head coach, Willy Wood, on our Jock Talk blog.
On December 8, 2007, I lined up on the track amongst other elite athletes as we prepared ourselves to run an 800-meter race. My hands were trembling, and I could feel the sweat dripping down my forehead as I mentally composed myself for several firsts. It was my first race of the season at Columbia. It was my first time running an 800 in college. And it was my first time running as an openly gay athlete.
So many thoughts ran through my head. Did I have something new to prove? What if I did not run well? Would my teammates attribute a bad race to my homosexuality? All of these questions raced rapidly through my head as others walked toward the starting line. But I couldn’t move. I was petrified. I glanced over at my coach.
“Let’s go, Cory,” Coach Wood shouted. “Get out hard!” Somehow, as soon as he said those words, all of the negative feelings and thoughts disappeared. I was focused on the race at hand.
Coming out was hard for me because of my childhood. As a young child I was always very social and talkative. However, once I began to realize that I was little different, I started to suppress certain aspects of my personality. I consequently talked less and became a repressed, shy teenager lacking confidence.
In my affluent neighborhood on eastern Long Island, I was often made fun of for acting “white” because most of my friends were Caucasian. I was ostracized from the African-American community in my hometown because I never fit in.; I did have African-American friends, but most of my friends were white. As I got older, not using Ebonics seemed to have the effect of branding me as “white” and homosexual. I remember I was doing some homework in the library one evening and two people I knew, both African-American, were sitting at the same table a little further down. They were close enough that I could hear their conversation. One asked if they should sit closer to me and hang out; The other responded negatively saying that I was “too gay”. The other person’s jaw dropped and asked how he knew this. He said, “Just go talk to him. Listen to the way he talks and look at the way he dresses. He’s so white.”
It was mentally trying to hear things like this. I love who I am, the color of my skin, and the rich history and culture of my Jamaican ancestry. There is this stigma that comes with being gay, and an additional cultural stigma attached for being African American and gay, so coming out was not an option for me in high school, although many people already assumed I was gay. I knew no other African-American gay athlete to seek support from, so I made the conscious decision to continue hiding my sexuality and become something I wasn’t. It ate away at me every day, and I felt so uncomfortable with myself. How could I make these everlasting bonds with people while hiding something that is so important to me?
During the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college, I couldn’t take the lying and sleepless nights anymore.
One of the first steps I knew I had to take after coming out to my family was to come out to my coaches. During the beginning of my sophomore year of college, I was thinking about quitting the team, and I actually did stop running for a semester because I was so uncomfortable with myself. I always thought there was no possible way an openly gay athlete could be accepted by so many people with so many different backgrounds. One of my biggest fears was the reaction of my coaches. I was uncertain how they would react, and I worried that they might no longer want me on their team. Although email is not the best way to communicate a very important message, I decided to email all of my coaches at once to tell them about my sexuality.
My head coach, Willy Wood, quickly replied and asked if I would like to come into his office and talk about it. What started off as a silent, awkward conversation turned into daily long conversations about my life and how my family was handling me coming out. I would sit in his office for sometimes hours and discuss how I felt about being gay, and how I felt now that I was out.
My coach has become a second father to me. The amount of support that he has offered is unparalleled. He would often ask me how the other guys on the team were responding to me being gay, and if I thought there should be a team meeting to discuss any issues I might have with some of the things that teammates would say that may come off as offensive. Thankfully, there were no major issues. Moreover, when I decided to take a break from the team, Coach Wood still emailed me every week to check on me. My own father never did that.
My other coach, Jon Clemens, emailed me in response to me coming out.
“Cory, I can’t be more blunt than this...I don’t care that you’re gay,” his email read. “It has nothing to do with your integrity, work ethic or development as a man.”
This is kind of cliché, but one of the many things that I have learned at Columbia is that you cannot judge a book by its cover. I never thought my teammates and coaches would be so supportive. It often makes me emotional when I recall how I had almost left them for good without giving them a chance to get to know the part of me that I had been hiding from the world. I would not be the strong, confident gay athlete I am today without my coaches and teammates. I have heard of some coaches that destroy their athletes’ dreams and love of the sport when they come out, but this was not the case for me at Columbia University.
Despite the positive reinforcement from my coaches, I cannot say that being an openly gay athlete has been without problems. In a team atmosphere, a lot of jokes fly through the air. Sometimes disclaimers were put on jokes such as “Cover your ears Cory,” or “...No offense Cory.” Sometimes things were said that really hurt, things that would make me go home and cry to myself and wish that I had never come out.
During my first semester of my sophomore year, I became really good friends with one of my younger teammates. We would talk all the time, hang out, and do everything that normal teammates do. One of my less-accepting teammates questioned him, asking him if he was gay because he was hanging out with me so much. My close friend, who had never met another homosexual man before in his life, consequently began hanging out with me less because he was afraid of what others might think.
It was always hard for me to respond to situations like this. I have a very reticent personality, so I never said anything because I felt, as weird as this sounds, outnumbered. I eventually stopped going to a lot of the parties, never changed in the locker room and never discussed my feelings with any of them. I was scared. I knew a lot of athletes who discontinued doing their sport because this kind of environment enhanced their concerns about coming out to their teammates.
But as time went on, a funny thing happened. As I became more comfortable with myself and open about my life, my teammates learned more about me and homosexuality. The inconsiderate comments stopped. They realized that I was one of the guys, and that my sexual orientation had nothing to do with the type of person and athlete I was.
One of the most memorable moments of my life took place during spring break of 2008. Practice was low-key, so my teammates and I had time to enjoy the city for the week. It was late at night and we were walking around campus, and they all said, “Let’s go to Suite.” Suite is a gay karaoke bar right near our campus, hosted by Ms. Jacqueline Dupree, a drag queen. It’s maybe the last place I would have never invited them.
Still, there we were around midnight, a couple of us at Suite singing a few songs. Sooner or later, more and more teammates showed up. We crowded the place. My teammates were having a great time and were talking to other gays and lesbians. They surprised me, and the gay people there surprised them. My teammates were in awe of how comfortable they felt.
One of my teammates, who I thought was the most homophobic of them all, told me at the end of the night that he had the best time of his life, and that he would be nothing but supportive of me for life. This meant so much to me because I realized that I needed to give myself a chance to accept others just as much as I needed to give other people a chance to accept me. I was still their teammate and I was still capable of being loved by them. It was the first time in my life that I felt completely comfortable sharing a part of my life that I had hidden even as an openly gay athlete.
Two athletes outside my team have helped me a lot along the way. Jamal Brown was an openly gay runner for Dartmouth College who was there for me during my really low points at Columbia. Jamal has always been a great source of advice, since he had been through everything I was currently going through. To personally know another openly gay athlete has helped me so much as I adapt to being my true self in this environment. And while Scott Herman is not a fellow runner, he is one of the people I look up to most today. He has inspired me to give it my all for my last semester at Columbia. I appreciate them both immensely.
As I approach my last season at Columbia, I come with no regrets. I love who I have become and I love the people I have met throughout my journey as an openly gay athlete. The support I have received from my friends, family, teammates and the university has empowered me in more ways than I have yet to realize.
If I could leave a piece of advice for other LGBT collegiate athletes, I would say to never forget that a teammate is a teammate, regardless of their color, creed, or sexual orientation. There is a strong bond between teammates that cannot be destroyed. You kill yourself out on the track, or field, every day alongside them. You sweat, you bleed, and you cry for the same cause—to win for your school, for each other, and for yourselves. As a result, your teammates will be your best friends forever. Your sexual orientation will never change your goals and your dreams unless you allow it.
Oh and by the way, that 800-meter race I mentioned at the start? I ran my fastest time ever.
You can reach Cory via email.