By Ross Forman
Late in his freshman season at Loyola University in 2001, volleyball player Robbie Martin told one of his close friends, a player on the school's Division I soccer team, that he was gay. The friend was not accepting or comfortable with the news.
And promptly, Martin's friend took it upon himself to out Martin to other Rambler athletes on the school's campus on the north side of Chicago, located less than a 15-minute drive from the Lakeview neighborhood commonly called Boystown.
|Robbie Martin is a star on the champion Hermosa Beaches.|
"Over that summer, I had a pretty hard time because I didn't know how anyone was going to respond," said Martin, who played three varsity seasons at Providence Catholic High School in New Lenox, Ill., earning All-State accolades.
"At the end of that summer, I thought about quitting volleyball, transferring schools, taking a semester off or just doing something else. When I got back to school for my sophomore year, as suspected, everyone knew.
"But, I was actually completely overwhelmed by the outpouring of support. The first time I saw most of my friends, most of them said, ‘Robbie, we found out; we love you; it doesn't matter.' I think it was a blessing in disguise because I had so much support from then on, including from everyone on my team."
Martin, 27 and living in Chicago and working as director of finance for CouponCabin.com - played his freshman season for the Ramblers in the closet, despite having a boyfriend when his college career started.
"When I arrived at Loyola, I just didn't think it would be cool to be the new guy and the gay guy on the team, so I kind of kept it under wraps, away from my team. So I kind of had separate groups of friends, which made it kind of difficult," he said.
His first relationship during college ended early in the fall semester, by his decision, "because it was too hard to split time between dating and playing volleyball."
Martin saw more playing time as a sophomore and personally "felt so much more a part of the team," he said. "I don't know if [being out] was the specific reason, or the only reason. But [being out to the team] took that wall down that I had put up and thus was able to be myself with my team. There was never an uncomfortable moment with my team."
He even started dating someone before his sophomore season, though his boyfriend didn't go to any matches. "I had a great sophomore season," he said.
His relationship was going well, too. And Martin was more interested in developing his relationship than furthering his volleyball career, while serving as a reserve on the team.
Before his junior year, Martin told his parents, Rob and Laura, that he was not going to play volleyball anymore, "and that there had been a lot going on the last two years that you are not aware of,"
So, one night at their suburban Chicago home, Martin told his parents that he was gay, but that was not the reason he was quitting the team. "They never suspected that I was gay," he said. "Their reaction was amazing, though there was a little bit of shellshock.
"Looking back, [coming out to my parents] was one of the best moments. If anything, I think they were disappointed that I had been going through [tough times] for two or three years without their support. Once I told them, I felt like I didn't have to tell another person."
Martin returned to Loyola, ultimately graduating in 2004, and he never looked back on his decision to leave the team.
"Volleyball has always been a passion of mine, something that I've always loved. But the college volleyball commitment is intense," Martin said.
Martin returned to the court about three years ago, playing for, arguably, the best all-gay team in the world: the Hermosa Beaches in Los Angeles, who have won the top-tiered AA Division at the North American Gay Volleyball Association championships for six consecutive season. The Beaches feature three other former Division I players, and players range in age from 23 to 34.
Martin recorded the match-deciding block for the 2009 title in late-May, held in Chicago, with his parents cheering at every match of the four-day tournament. "The tournament is so much fun," Martin said. "It's been an amazing time playing again, other than my knee injuries which have been chronic.
"When I first heard about gay volleyball, I never would have guessed the level of competition would be as high as it is. The level of competition is great; there are some really amazing players in all divisions."
Martin has twice played for the Beaches at the EuroGames, a gay sporting event. "Six years ago, I was burned out on the commitment [needed] for Division I volleyball, but I now really want to play," he said. "NAGVA is stepping stone of sorts for people who might be [thinking about], or are, coming out. I think it's a very comfortable environment."
So what about the soccer player who outed Martin?
They still have mutual friends in Chicago and they spoke in May for the first time in eight years.
"It was fine," Martin said of their five-minute conversation. "I think people recognized that they love me as a person before and after [coming out] because of the person I am."
Martin can be reached via e-mail.