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Tennis player was out at Catholic College

Troy Smith broke down barriers and built acceptance at St. Vincent College

Story from May 12, 2010

By Troy Smith

troy_smith_tennis

After competing in a USTA Tennis Tournament at the Greensburg Racquet Club in 2005 and being defeated in the 2nd round, I was approached by the tournament director, Enrico Campi, who was also the head tennis coach at Saint Vincent College. He asked me to apply to Saint Vincent and play tennis for him. He said I had a lot of flaws to my tennis game, but with a little help from him I could turn out to be a very successful collegiate tennis player. Without hesitation, I went online and applied to Saint Vincent College, where I was accepted to attend.

Tennis was my passion. It was the only thing that could take my mind off of my overwhelming dilemma my hidden sexuality. I was already attending high school dealing with hatred from prejudice students due to my ethnicity: I was a half-black kid having to deal with racial slurs shouted at me every day. As much as I was excited to get away from all of the racial hatred, at the same time I realized that I was moving on to a different place where the entire institution's religious beliefs were against my sexuality. I was a homosexual moving forth to attend a conservative Catholic institution.

When I first arrived as a freshman at Saint Vincent, I posed as a straight guy fearing mistreatment from my classmates, who at this point were complete strangers. I played it out as long as I could, but I grew tired of not being me. I only lasted one semester before I told a couple of my "bros."

Though I felt I had to tell them, I was scared of losing their friendship. I had every reason to believe that everyone would have treated me as an outcast at this conservative Catholic college. But the two friends I told surprised me: "We might not agree with that lifestyle, but that doesn't change the way we feel about you as a person. Just be you, and nothing else matters."

I was relieved. It actually strengthened our friendship, and these became two of my best friends for the remainder of my education at Saint Vincent. After having talked with my close friends, I really didn't care what other people thought of me.

Rumors swirled around campus, and when people finally began to question my sexuality, I didn't deny it. I felt that I could gain respect of all the "haters" and people who opposed homosexuality. I had the attitude, personality and looks to fit in despite my sexual orientation.

When tennis season came around I was anxious to see how my teammates and coach were going to respond if they found out I was gay. The captain during my freshman season, Justin Repasky, quickly became a close friend of mine midway through the season. I came out to him at a tennis match in Ohio, but he said that he already knew and it didn't bother him at all. My other teammates knew as well, but we rarely talked about it. At one point, a couple of the guys pulled me aside and said "We're a team! You know we have your back no matter what-- bisexual, gay, whatever."

I never discussed my sexuality with coach Campi. One of my teammates mentioned it to him, and I heard he didn't care at all. Coach was like a friend to me. We texted each other, went out to eat at times, traveled to Florida together to compete during spring break, and were together much of the time because of practice and matches. My sophomore year he chose me as one of the two captains of the team. I was thrilled because I knew that he saw my dedication and strive to be the best that I could be on the tennis courts. He could see that I was a leader, gay or not, and he rewarded that.

I was well known in the President's Athletic Conference and around campus due to my trademark on the tennis court. I perform a very loud breathing technique in which the noise "ee-ya-naa" is belted out every time I hit the ball. The scream developed from playing with a good friend of mine, Michaela Kissell, who was the three-time Pennsylvania Girl's State Champion, USTA National Champion, and current stand-out NCAA Division I star. It is actually her scream, but I tried it one day while playing with her and it just kept me more focused. Once I started it, I couldn't stop. I became known as the "gay tennis player with Michaela Kissell's scream.”

My relationship with the college's President was a topic that came up a lot around campus. My sophomore year, former personal assistant to U.S. President George W. Bush and Mother Theresa, James Towey, was named the college's new President. I was first introduced to President Towey at an honors ceremony, and shortly thereafter I became good friends with him. I often stopped by his office on my way to class for a chat. He said to me one day "I hear you're quite the tennis player?" We just looked at each other and smiled, because I knew what he was talking about.

I also played tennis with him, his wife, and his kids. I got to know his family, and that was special to me. I was a gay guy hanging out with a religious Conservative President and his family. I never had the conversation with him about my sexuality, but I knew that he knew because there were less than a handful of gay students at Saint Vincent. I was known as the cool gay kid, and President Towey was okay with that. He was my President, but also a good friend.

During my junior year, Mary Collins became the new Vice President of Student Affairs. I actually became closer to her than any other faculty/staff member during my whole education at Saint Vincent. I had a strong connection with Mrs. Collins. And unlike my relationship with the President, I actually talked to Mrs. Collins about my sexuality. She always told me that there was nothing wrong with it, and to just stay true to who I am. She was always there for me, and I felt as if she was one person that I could talk to about any problems that I had.

For the most part, the students were open-minded and respectful. I never felt like an outcast, and I was rarely discriminated against by any students. There's always going to be that few who you can tell don't like you, but it wasn't my job to try and change their opinion. The only thing that I could do was try and gain their respect as a person, and that's what I did. I had a few friends who claimed that they hated gays, but they were cool with me. Not everyone understood that, and I'm not so sure that I did either.

I had a lot of friends from the football team and other sports teams. My biggest shock came during my senior year when I was elected to the Homecoming Court: I was gay and nominated to be Homecoming King by the student body at a Catholic conservative school. I really didn't even expect to make court, but when I did I knew at that moment, for sure, I fit in.

A week later, many of my family and friends came to Saint Vincent for the big homecoming game. At halftime of the football game and the largest sell-out crowd in SVC history, I was shockingly crowned Saint Vincent College's first gay homecoming king. The applause was so loud that I felt like I was at a Lil Wayne Concert. President Towey was there to crown me, and he gave me a big hug when my name was announced. A couple of the football players ran over and gave me high fives. Friends ran onto the field crying and jumped on me, and then security hauled them off of the field. The fans of the other football team didn't know what was going on, but someone must have informed them because when I walked off the field and through the stands a lady from the opposing team gave me a hug and said "the world's changing, and you are proof."

I walked out of Saint Vincent with a Bachelor's Degree in Political Science, a minor in English, as a stand out performer on the tennis courts, and most importantly, a feeling of success. Not only was I proud of my academic and athletic achievements, but also of the message made by my career at Saint Vincent--- no matter where you are, you can fit in no matter who you are. I attended this school where I was assured to be an outcast, but I countered with hope and courage. My four years at Saint Vincent College are proof that fortune rewards the brave.

The last thing that I can remember about Saint Vincent was receiving my diploma from President Towey. I'll remember what he said to me on the day of graduation for the rest of my entire life. He handed me my diploma and said: "You really are a star, Troy. You're just a star." I left Saint Vincent hearing that statement as my final words from President Towey, and that left me with a conclusion of certainty. Yes, I was gay. Yes, I was at a Conservative Catholic School. But no, I wasn't an outcast. Life is such a crazy thing, it's never really what it seems.