Coming Out In A Natural Way

Alan Gendreau - (William Waybourn photo)

If Alan Gendreau makes the NFL, his story could be a template for other gay athletes on coming out.

Outsports first became aware of Alan Gendreau in 2009 when we published an article about him by Eric Anderson that identified him only as "Tim," a college kicker in the Bible Belt. As a condition of us running the article, we needed to know his real identity while agreeing to keep it private. From that point, we followed his college career, rooting him on. While it would have been great for him to have come out publicly while playing, he wasn't ready. He was comfortably out on his team and that's all that mattered.

Over time, Gendreau became close with Cyd, who acted as a confidant. He went through his collegiate career at Middle Tennessee State still not out publicly and I figured his story would never be told. But as you can read in Cyd's excellent profile, Gendreau has come out to the world and had rekindled his love with kicking a football. He's beginning the process that he hopes will one day soon find him in an NFL training camp and eventually on a roster. If this happens – and assuming no one has beat him to it – he would become the first openly gay NFL player.

In many ways, this kind of progression has seemed to people studying sexual orientation in sports as the "easiest" way for an athlete to come out. If an athlete is openly gay in either high school or college and eventually makes the pros, it is a more natural transition and would eliminate the need to stage a public coming out sometime during a pro career. By the time the player reaches the pros, the thinking goes, it will be old news.

Coming out is not natural. It's a clumsy process, fraught with anxiety, fears and uncertainty and many gay people come out in stages – to a family member or friend first to test the waters, then to an ever-widening circle. Some eventually are out to everyone, while others are more selective and take a don't-ask-don't-tell approach. For me, it took about 10 years until I was open with everyone. I didn't hide it, but if people didn't ask, I didn't tell.

Even today, when it is much easier to be out in the U.S., gay people still struggle with how to do it. It's awkward to have to declare one's sexual orientation. Straight people never have to go through it. It's subconsciously assumed by society that whenever a guy starts dating a girl, or a new male employee puts up a picture of his wife on his desk, he's announcing he is straight. It's never viewed in this context as "coming out;" it's just who one is.

Coming out as gay is hard enough, and it's even harder for anyone in the public eye. Athletes fall into this category. Especially in the major American team sports, athletes are closely followed by fans and the media. No athlete can come out quietly. Robbie Rogers was no longer playing soccer when he posted his coming out story on his personal blog in the middle of the night. Within hours, it was a huge story, covered by every major sports media outlet. Rogers avoided any interviews for weeks, yet when he finally talked to the Guardian and the New York Times, it became news once again.

If a retired player in a sport not covered widely by the American media gets that much attention, imagine what will happen if an active athlete comes out in the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball or the NHL, even if he tries to do it on his own terms as quietly as possible. It will be a media sensation and the athlete would be under pressure to do interview after interview, as will his teammates, coaches and management. Anyone coming out while active will have to manage it with a skillful P.R. campaign.

While I am convinced a player coming out will be accepted and embraced and the media will fairly quickly move on, I can see how this will add to the hesitancy for any athlete. Coming out to those close to you is hard enough, let alone being the lead story on SportsCenter, on Page 1 of the New York Times and the cover of Sports Illustrated, to say nothing of how social media would react. (A player can also be outed against his will, but that's a different subject entirely.)

Enter Gendreau. He is now publicly out, and any NFL team signing him will know it has a gay player in camp. If he winds up on an NFL roster, it will be as a kicker who happens to be gay, his coming out story already well-established. It will certainly still be a major media story when he suits up for his first game, but a lot of steam will have been taken out of the issue. Teammates won't be reacting to a secret being revealed, but rather to predictable questions about playing with a gay teammate. The story will fade fast since all the angles will be quickly exhausted. All anyone will care about is whether he can perform or not, and that should be the story in the first place.

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