Lessons Learned From Coming Out By Gay Sportswriter

The author's story got him much more attention than he ever imagined, but made him wonder if he is in a position to give advice to others.

By Tony Jovenitti

I’ve been out of the closet for two weeks. And yes, all the clichés you hear about “how liberating it feels,” “how you have a huge weight off your shoulders” and “how you feel like a free man” are absolutely true.

Everyone offered overwhelming support and positivity after Outsports ran my coming out story inspired by Jason Collins. My ex-girlfriend – the one whom I was most afraid of hurting – was very happy for me. “No need to apologize,” she said. “I understand this was probably one of the hardest things for you to do. I’m glad you can finally be happy.”

I could blab on about how nice everyone was, but I wouldn’t really be adding anything to the conversation. Instead, in my first piece of writing since coming out, I want to address three of the issues raised by my story.

First, the thing that surprised me most was the amount of e-mails I received from other closeted people in the sports world – including athletes and other journalists. Many of them said they wish they could find the courage to do what I did.

"It's tough, I'm still wrestling with myself about coming out at the workplace," one person e-mailed wrote. "I feel like it'll happen eventually, but for the most part I keep my head down and do my job."

I didn’t know how to respond to these e-mails. Obviously, I want these people to be happy and honest with themselves and those around them. But am I really in a position to encourage others to come out? Just because I’m out, does that suddenly make me an expert?

I decided against telling others what they should and shouldn’t do; it’s their business and their decision. But I made a point to take the time to explain how great I felt and how positive my friends and family were. Everyone from my father to my Catholic grandmother to my NRA-loving uncle expressed their support and love.

Perhaps I’m just lucky, but I think others would be surprised at how well their families may react. I don’t want to push others to come out, but if they hear my story, perhaps they’ll be encouraged.

Second, minutes after the story was posted, I received e-mails from media outlets wanting to interview me. My knee-jerk reaction was to say no. I wanted the story to speak for itself. I didn’t want to go on a media tour.

Then, I saw some of the e-mails. Complete strangers from all over the world read my words and were moved enough to tell me about it. I even heard from someone who mustered up the courage to tell a close friend she was gay after reading it.

I told my mom I declined a few interviews. And, since mothers are always right, she told me, “You have the opportunity to impact someone’s life…if you want to.” (Do you like how she phrased it as an option? She knew I knew she was right).

So I spoke to a few news outlets, including Pittsburgh’s NPR station (where I read my column) and a columnist for Sports Illustrated. Yes, some people may think I’m just doing this for the attention (and maybe, deep down, I am. I’ve been hiding from attention my whole life). But even if just one person is moved enough by my words to come out and change his or her life for the better, it will all be worth it.

Finally, in my story, I brought up the issue of changing people’s vocabulary. I’m happy to say that several people called me to apologize and promise to eliminate certain phrases from their vocabulary. I think this is where the conversation needs to happen.

We can’t really argue with the bigots and the homophobes. By now, they’ve heard all the arguments, and they still haven’t changed their minds. I think a solvable problem is the people who consider themselves allies but say phrases like “no homo” and think “gay” is a synonym for stupid. If my one paragraph in a coming out essay can change minds, imagine how powerful a well-organized fight could be.

I think the You Can Play project is doing a great job fighting this fight. When Tyler Seguin tweeted the phrase “no homo” a few weeks ago, many people ostracized him. Patrick Burke – always the voice of reason – didn’t criticize him, nor did he defend him. He explained why that’s not OK to say. I bet Seguin learned his lesson.

And we all could take a lesson from Burke on how to handle such situations. My friend (who was very supportive when I came out) used an unfortunate phrase at the bar the other night. I simply took him aside and explained why that’s not OK. He apologized and bought me a drink. So not only did I make progress, I also got a free drink!

It’s important that allies truly become allies. Saying “I have gay friends” doesn’t make you an ally. An ally actually fights for something. Cleaning up your language and pointing out that it’s not right when others use hateful language makes you an ally. This creates a better atmosphere where closeted people – especially those in the sports world – can feel comfortable being themselves.

But I’ve only been out of the closet for two weeks. What the heck do I know?

Tony Jovenitti, 24, writes for College Hockey News and interned with the Pittsburgh Penguins during the 2010-11 season. He now lives in Madison, Wisc. He can be reached via email at: jovenitti@gmail.com.

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