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How one former Harvard men's tennis coach came out to his team...accidentally

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Written by Peter Mandeau

I was the deeply closeted assistant coach of Harvard men’s tennis team in 2003, when I accidentally outed myself.

I was in my office one day prior to an afternoon practice, writing a private email to a friend in London. I was dishing all of the gay news in Boston that had transpired while he was gone. I sent off the email and headed dutifully to practice.

Returning to my office later that day, the head coach asked me if I had received some sort of “gay” email. I panicked and said it was probably spam and to erase it. When I checked my email to see what had happened, I discovered that I had accidentally ‘replied’ the email not to my friend in London, but TO MY ENTIRE TEAM!

I was panicked, lost and confused. Later that night I called the head coach and asked if I could come to his house. I also asked if his wife could be there, as she was a psychologist. I was desperate for help.

I told them that ‘the letter’ had come from me, and that I was gay. They were totally accepting, and in fact the coach said he had always suspected. But he didn’t care because I did a great job and was always professional. We decided to write a joint email to the team outlining the details of the situation and his continued confidence in me. It stated that of course I had not meant to come out in that embarrassing way, and that we would have a team meeting the next day to discuss any issues that it might have brought up.

Up until a few years prior, I was only peeking out of the closet. I had been a professional tennis coach for over 30 years; my career included directing a large junior program, a national junior tennis academy, and a well-known summer tennis camp. I taught kids from ages 6 through 18. It was after my time with junior tennis that I found myself working as associate coach of men’s tennis at Harvard.

Even in the early 2000s, there was a stigma about gay male coaches working with athletes, so I didn’t want to be out to my team. I lived at Harvard and was out to some of the students, but not out to any of the members my team. A team is like a family. The athletes often spend more time with the coaches and other team members than their professors or anyone else in their college career. I didn’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable about working with me on their fitness or in any other way.

With one email mistake, those years of careful consideration had been tossed out the window.

All of this raced through my head as I returned home from the head coach’s house. I turned on my computer afraid of what I might find in my email.

Mandeau with former Harvard player James Blake

Instead, my inbox was full of supportive notes from almost all of the members of the team. I cried as I read them…

“You are a great coach and this changes nothing."

“I still respect you. You have always been professional.”

“My roommate is gay so I know how hard it must have been to come out this way.”

Others had a number of gay friends and were understanding of the coming out process.

During the team meeting the next morning, no one spoke for a few awkward seconds. The head coach then broke in: “Pete obviously did not mean to come out this way, but he did. He has always been professional and I still have every confidence in him.”

He went around the room giving each person the chance to speak. The vast majority of the team expressed support. The only silence came from two of the freshman. Afterward the team meeting, I asked one of the captains if the freshman had issues and he said that ‘No, they’re just young and don’t know what to say”. What a relief! The team and coach had accepted me as a gay man!

Soon after, we had a volunteer coach visiting from Alabama. One day on a trip he decided to lighten the mood with what he thought was a joke.

“Did you guys see that coach back there from the other team? I think he likes me. Ha. He’s probably gay.”

Dead silence.

The next day that volunteer coach came running into practice with something in his hand.

“Peter, I said something really inappropriate in the van,” he said. “I’m really sorry. I didn’t know you were gay. It’s totally cool with me.”

He said he had gay friends, and he even handed me a pamphlet about a gay film festival in town. I told him it was okay, and we returned to practice.

When I asked the captains how he found out, they said that when we stopped for lunch on our trip, the entire team confronted him. I was really touched by their compassion and solidarity.

While that coach’s joke wasn’t funny, there was a lot humor and jibing that came out of the closet with me.

In the van on one trip to Philadelphia, the music blaring to the chagrin of at least one of the guys on he team. From the back I heard, “Pete turn off that music, it’s so GAY!”

Then, seconds later…

“Oh, Pete, I don’t mean in a gay sort of way, I mean in a happy way.” I replied that it wasn’t even my CD… it was the captain’s. We all laughed and continued on our way.

During the middle of another match in California, one of my players shouted out, “This guy just called me gay!”

I went over to the court and told the opponent that if he was going to call anyone gay, he should start with me. That put the brakes on him, and we went on to win the match.

Things have changed a lot over the last years at the school, with diversity training for athletes and coaches, as well as society’s improved opinions of gays in general. Many athletes are ‘out’ and living in harmony with their teammates..

Before most of that, a decade ago, these athletes showed me understanding and compassion I didn’t think they or the sports world had in them. I didn’t trust them to treat me the same way, but luckily they trusted me to do just that. Their sense of humor went a long way disarming a potentially uncomfortable situation, a lesson that hasn’t been lost on me.

Currently, Peter Mandeau is currently President of a GLBT Talent Agency, www.PMEPTalent.com, specializing in representing musicians, comedians, dj’s, drag queens, diversity speakers and more. You can also contact Mandeau directly via email.