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Runner goes from the closet to activist for gay athletes

Eastern Michigan athlete Austin Hendrix wrestled with his sexuality through high school. Now that he is out in college, he has helped start a campus group to fight homophobia in sports.

Austin Hendrix
For Outsports.com

Few things in life have the ups and downs one experiences as a collegiate athlete. Whether it is winning the conference championship one minute or getting a season-ending injury the next, the physical, emotional and mental highs and lows are unparalleled.

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austinhendrixrunning

Being a gay youth also has its share of extremes. As a gay athlete -- now out -- I have experienced extremes from both worlds. In a short time I have gone from a scared, closeted runner dealing with my sexuality to now being an advocate for fellow gay and lesbian athletes.

I grew up in a household with three sisters and no brothers (I am the second oldest). All of us were extremely competitive and active kids who loved to play sports. My dad lettered in six sports in high school and went on to play basketball in college. If that wasn’t enough, my mom was quite the runner herself once upon a time. Needless to say, I had a fascination for athletics from a very young age.

I developed a knack for running and found that on the soccer field I could outlast the guys who were marking me throughout the game. In the spring of my freshman year in high school I decided to go out for the track team.

The first week of practice I was running with the varsity guys without much trouble and developed the nickname, “Awesome Austin.” Talent aside, one of the main reasons I stuck with running instead of soccer was the relationships I had begun to develop. Both my coach and teammates had proven to be great people and quickly gained my respect.

The internal struggle

Around this time I started to question my sexuality and became more conscious of my attraction toward guys. I made the decision to keep these feelings and uncertainties to myself. During high school the last thing anybody wants is to stand out for being different, especially in sports. Beyond that, I knew the stigmas that are attached to being gay and wanted no part of it.

I decided to try to harness these thoughts and feelings the best I could. I went on with my life as a typical teenager would and even had a few girlfriends. The rationale behind dating girls was more than a cover-up. It was a way to try to convince myself I wasn’t gay and give myself a chance to change that.

Over the next two years, I had established myself as one of the top runners in the area. But I still wasn’t happy. My personal life was a mess and my internal struggle grew worse. The emotions and feelings I was experiencing had become overwhelming and unbearable. Although I was still not accepting of myself being gay, I had acknowledged that I was.

Coming out slowly

I now decided to tell someone I was gay and reached out to a girl that I worked with. She was a very close friend that I felt completely comfortable around. The fear of telling her in person led me to come out to her online.

It took a few minutes of questioning for her to figure out that I wasn’t kidding around with her, that I really was gay. Her reaction was great. She told me that she still accepted me and that nothing would change. I then came out to a handful of other close friends over the next few weeks and it was relatively well received.

Eventually word got back to my mom that I was gay. She confronted me about it and when I told her I was in fact gay, tears filled her eyes. I know I should have been the one to tell her and felt bad about it.

Over and over again she expressed to me how difficult life was going to be and how mean and cruel the world was. This was a reaction I could handle and I loved her more for caring. It showed that her love for me went unchanged, and for that I am forever grateful.

Back in the closet

While I had all relatively positive reactions to coming out, I came to the decision to not tell anyone else for a while. There were no out individuals at school and the maturity level on high school sports teams is not high. However, going back in the closet was not easy. I wasn’t able to be myself completely and that made it even more difficult for me to accept myself.

My senior year, I was able to focus almost all of my time and energy into becoming a good runner. I gained the respect of my teammates and coaches and was named team captain. I left the school having broken a 26-year-old 1,600-meter record, being a part of multiple state-qualifying cross country teams, being named All-Ohio, and a member of the school record-setting relay team.

A new start – more decisions

That fall I went off to school at Eastern Michigan University, which I picked because of its tradition of excellence in running. I wanted to make a good impression on the team and decided to keep my sexuality hidden. I feared being rejected by my teammates and being isolated on my new team. The main reason I stayed hidden was that I didn’t want to be known simply for being the “gay kid.” I just wanted to fit in and be one of the guys.

I spent my first two years closeted and contrary to what I had thought, my running did not improve; if anything, it had gotten worse. I was having a hard time staying healthy and kept getting injured. Any athlete knows the extreme sadness and near depression that comes with being injured and not being able to do what you love. I was also facing my internal struggles of still partially hating myself and not doing anything about it.

Coming out for good

Finally I decided to tell someone I was gay. One night I went over to one of my best friends apartment and we started talking about accepting people for who they are. One thing led to another and I told him I was gay. While there was some slight shock on his part, as my best friend, he was understanding and immediately accepting. I still smile when I look back on the feelings and relief I experienced that evening.
With my friend’s help, we talked about which members of the team would react in which ways. I started to tell more teammates over the next few weeks and the reactions were great.

One teammate asked if I would still want to go to Tigers baseball games with him. Another simply said, “I don’t fucking care, that’s fine.” All of them said that if they had previously said anything that offended me, they were extremely sorry.

It’s a good feeling to know that people care about your feelings. It’s also great to know that one person can change the way others think and feel about something. Many of my teammates had never known another gay person. However, once they realized that nothing about me had changed, nothing about the relationships I had with any of them changed either. If anything, there was more of a bond present between the team. A new level of trust was present, and it is an amazing feeling.

The worst thing I have experienced were comments such as, “you’re fast for one of those queer boys.” I always make an off-hand remark back about how I’m just fast, regardless of being gay or not. If that’s the worst I experience then I am an extremely lucky guy.

New opportunities

Shortly after accepting myself, I realized how little I had done to help others and attempt at making a change in hopes that others can feel safe to be out in athletics.

A year after coming out to my friends and teammates on campus, a new opportunity presented itself to me. I heard of a new student organization that had just started up to fight homophobia, SAGA (Student Alliance for Gay Athletes and allies).

I walked into the group’s first meeting this spring and heard the two organizers share personal stories of the homophobia present on their teams. It was then I decided to be a part of the organization. To go on worrying solely about myself and my surroundings would have been the easy and selfish way out. There is, unfortunately, a huge need for groups like this on campus.

I have since been named co-president with Maggie Manville and we have been reaching out to student athletes on campus. She is definitely the workhorse of the organization, and we’re working really hard on getting the group rolling.

Our biggest dilemma is reaching out to sports teams where we don’t have a lot of influence, such as football and men’s basketball. However, steps are being taken to help reach all sports and educate and bring awareness to the issue. Things we are looking to do include: diversity training for coaches and athletes; bringing in NCAA accredited speakers to talk about sexuality and sport and creating a safe space for athletes who identify themselves as a part of the LGBT community.

While there have been a few instances of athletes sharing their sexuality with me, this is not the goal. Eliminating homophobia in sports is the organization’s main focus.

A bright future

Athletically, our team has won conference championships in indoor track and field, outdoor track and field, and just recently cross country. I have been a contributing member and scored in each of the championships and seen huge improvements from where I was my first two years in college.

I still have another year and a half to better myself as a runner. However, I have already accomplished far more than I ever imagined that I would have in college overall. The growth in my personal and social life has been extremely rewarding. To be shown the compassion and support from my team is amazing, such as when I did a video for the “It Gets Better” project. My teammates have also stood up for me in countless situations and we have forged strong friendships that will last a lifetime.

Austin Hendrix, 21, is a business major at Eastern Michigan University and a member of the school’s cross country and track teams. He can be reached via e-mail or on Facebook.