By Matt Tracy
"It’s O.K. with me, dude."
Those were the exact words from my longtime mentor, Francine Fecteau, when I came out for the first time in my life.
It was four years ago -- my freshman year of college, and although I had been a sports writer for years before stepping foot on the Ithaca College campus as a first-year Sport Media major, I had a lot to learn. And not just about sports writing. Like every other college student, I had to learn how to develop into an adult and become comfortable in my own skin. This wasn’t always easy, especially when I grew up running around sports fields or hanging around gym locker rooms where "fag" and "no homo" were some of the most commonly heard phrases.
As I grew older, I realized how people tend to act homophobic just to secure their masculinity and how we are socialized to do anything to display the highest form of masculinity. Heterosexism fuels confusion for those who do not fit that "straight" template, and it definitely played with my head for a while. I was gay but was unable to face it until I got to college.
Naturally, it took time to come out to each and every family member and friend, but it went relatively well. My family accepted me and so did my friends. As I look back, my decision to come out taught me one very important thing: Things would just keep getting better. And did they ever. As many times as we may have heard that phrase "it gets better," it remains a part of the biggest piece of advice I can provide for any other gay sportswriter who needs some motivation to get by. It may not be easy to come out -- and for many, impossible -- but it is worth keeping in mind that things will get better. Instead of smothering your feelings and insecurities by deliberately distracting yourself with other things, try to take the time to think about your life. Embrace yourself and things will get better.
Case in point: things in my life went from confusing to clear, and in a hurry. As I became more comfortable with myself as an openly gay person, my improved self-esteem helped me as a writer in a sports environment that I didn’t always feel welcomed in. As people in the sports world accepted me, I felt reassured and welcomed.
My approach to coming out as a sportswriter was always to come out to the people around me when necessary. I was never too shy to come out to anyone, but I just didn’t have to come out to everyone, especially teams I covered since my sexual orientation was irrelevant to them. Some other sportswriters knew as well as other sport management and media students since I interacted with them about issues in sport.
As an already experienced sportswriter by the time I came out in college -- with articles published in national baseball magazines, local newspapers, and the works -- I soon tied my writing with LGBT issues and social justice and found my niche. This was made possible by two very important people: my advisor, Kyle Woody, who heads the Sport Media program at my school, and professor Dr. Ellen Staurowsky, who is an internationally known expert on issues of social justice in sport. I credit both of these people in helping me to get the ball rolling. Kyle always encouraged me to write about the issues I felt strongly about, especially when it came to LGBT issues in sport. As I thought about these issues, they all became more understandable and clear after I took Dr. Staurowsky’s Gender Issues in Sport and Social Aspects of Sport classes. But it didn't stop there; this wave of influential people in my life just kept growing.
By the end of my sophomore year, Boston Herald columnist Steve Buckley came out and I contacted him as soon as I had a chance. He became someone to look up to at a time when popular, openly gay sportswriters were far and few between. We’ve been close buddies ever since, and I even helped work at his Oldtime Baseball Game last summer and wrote an article about the game. Even as he juggles his own duties as a writer, he always finds time to proofread my stuff and I’ll always be thankful for that.
As an openly gay sportswriter throughout college, I was able to look back on my portfolio on graduation day and smile at the way things turned out; it became obvious that I would have had all kinds of regrets if I decided not to come out. It gave me the self-confidence and self esteem to feel better about the life I was leading. When college was over, I had completed two internships -- one as a sportswriter with The Ithaca Journal and another one working for Rays Digest as a beat writer covering a Tampa Bay Rays’ affiliate in West Virginia. Among other publications I contributed to in college included the college paper, The Ithacan, as well as The LGBT Issues in Sport Blog and my own sports blog, MattTracy.com, which I've had since I was 14. I just simply wanted an outlet to write and my brother Tim saved the day by setting up a blog for me, which ended up being extremely helpful. Over 650 blog posts later, I clearly took that opportunity and ran with it, thanks to Tim. On the site you can find the interviews I did with David Wright, Pete Rose, Howard Johnson, Keith Hernandez, Moises Alou, and many more.
Writing for a variety of publications was part of my continuous quest to explore new things, but I took this a step further my junior year when I spent a semester living in South Africa on a study abroad program at the University of Cape Town, which was an experience I consider to be the best of my college career. I visited Nelson Mandela's prison cell on Robben Island, went on a safari at Kruger National Park, met so many people from all over the world, and learned all about what it was like to live in another country. I volunteered twice a week as a tutor for young children in a township near Cape Town and I took classes such as Gender, Sexuality, and Politics in an African Context. I capped off the semester by writing a feature piece on the existence of baseball in the townships surrounding Cape Town.
My experiences abroad and at Ithaca College have also opened my mind to the idea of looking beyond just being a journalist. I have considered teaching sociology or working in social justice and advocacy, especially since these have already become significant themes in the articles I’ve been writing. I want to continue to do my part in breaking down the powerful barriers of gender, race, and class.
But none of my aspirations or dreams would be possible without my family, because as any writer and journalist will tell you, a writer is shaped by his or her surroundings. My loving mother has always been there for me for everything and my dad was always the one who influenced me when it came to sports. As the youngest of four children, I owe my older siblings – Tim, Mike, and Jess – plenty of credit. When I came out to them, they were as supportive as anyone could ask for. I cannot stress how important it was for me to feel loved by everyone. Acceptance was much more about common sense than I imagined.
But as smooth as things have gone, there have, of course, been bumps in the road. While my coming out process was relatively smooth, I’d be lying if I said every single person accepted my sexual orientation with open arms like they should have. But thankfully, a lot has changed since 2010.
The most unfortunate bump in the road, however, happened last year when I returned from Cape Town. Francine Fecteau, the woman I mentioned in the opening line, was diagnosed with cancer. After nearly a yearlong battle, she passed away during my final semester of college. She was my teacher of the deaf and hard of hearing from preschool until I graduated high school, and it would be impossible to fully convey the impact she had on me over the years. She always filled in the gaps when my hearing loss prevented me from succeeding in the mainstream realm, so I would have been far behind in my development without her. I always said she was always the biggest influence in my life, so I confided in her. That was the reason why I felt comfortable enough to come out to her before anyone else. She assured me that it was a non-issue and that it would be ridiculous if anyone had a problem with my sexual orientation. She was right: When I came out to all of my friends, they loved me for who I was and they still love me for who I am. They wouldn’t want me to be any other way.
I found out she died while I was working for The Ithaca Journal this past February, and the news of her death came only two hours before I had to cover the Cornell men’s basketball game against Dartmouth. I remember taking a moment to think about whether to cover the game or not – if I could even handle it. My editor, Tom Fleischman, assured me that I could take the time off if I needed it.
After a few quick minutes, I gathered my bag and decided to cover the game. I knew Francine would have told me to get my butt over to Cornell and do my job. I did not want to let her down, and it ended up going as smooth as ever. I covered the game, conducted the postgame interviews, and submitted my article in a timely fashion.
Just three days before Francine died, I drove home so I could sit at her bedside and thank her for everything as I said goodbye for the last time. I brought with me one of my recent articles from The Ithaca Journal, and as she clung to her life, she struggled to hold the newspaper but was adamant about making sure she read my work. She held the newspaper, read the article, and said, with all of her energy and ability, "Someone is ready for a job."
Just like I will never forget her words after I came out to her, I will also never forget the words from our last conversation. If she says I’m ready, then I’m ready.
Matt Tracy graduated in May with a degree in Sport Media from Ithaca College. He currently lives in New York City and works as a journalist for an online publication. Feel free to check out his blog at MattTracy.com or follow him on twitter @matthewtracy