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Openly Gay Tennis Player Aims for the Pros

(This story was published in 2002).

By: Travis D. Bone

Reprinted with permission from the Gay & Lesbian Times, Southern California

Next week Shawn Hiatt will graduate from San Diego State with a bachelor's degree in psychology. Unlike most of his classmates, who will be going on to graduate school or looking for jobs, he will be heading off to Europe to pursue his childhood dream of becoming a tennis pro. It's a journey that has been a long time coming for the 26-year-old, who began playing junior tennis at the age of seven in Santa Maria, Calif.

"A lot of my friends who are my age are settling for jobs and doing what is normal for society," Hiatt says. "This has taken a lot of faith and belief in myself, but ultimately I love it and that's my passion."

Upon graduating from high school, Hiatt received a full ride tennis scholarship to Brigham Young University in Utah, where he played at the collegiate level for one year before going on his mission -- as many students do at the Mormon Church-affiliated University. While he was on his mission in Washington D.C., the University held his scholarship. In addition to fulfilling his duties to the church, Hiatt was also dealing with struggles of his own sexuality.

"I really thought by going on a mission that God would see my sincerity in wanting to change from having same sex attractions, and that it would go away if I sacrificed tennis and really gave my life over to him," Hiatt said about

his struggle. "A year into my mission, it still wasn't going away and I was feeling really guilty and beating myself up over it."

Hiatt sought out counseling to help him deal with his struggles over his sexual orientation; however, the counseling did not work out the way he had hoped it would: "it was counseling with the church so they were trying to get me to change."

After finishing his two-year mission, with a year of counseling under his belt, Hiatt returned to BYU where he resumed playing tennis while his counseling continued. While he returned to excel at tennis, the struggles with his sexual orientation continued as well and, after two full years of church counseling, he decided to take some time off to find himself and explore gay life.

Hiatt left BYU and moved to Laguna, Calif. He planned to transfer to UC Irvine, just 20 minutes from Laguna, but found both Irvine and the "gay scene" in Laguna lacking what he was looking for; he decided to return to Utah. He considered going back to BYU, thinking that maybe being gay wasn't for him.

"After a lot of soul searching, journal writing, and just time alone, I really felt a lot of clearing of what God wanted for me," Hiatt said about his coming to terms with his sexuality. "Being gay doesn't have to completely be a part of everything the gay scene is all about and ultimately it's about loving another guy."

With a new outlook on life, Hiatt decided to move to San Diego. He spent time there briefly while growing up, and while living in Laguna had made several trips there. Hiatt enrolled at San Diego State as a transfer student and decided it was time for him to get back into the swing of things on the tennis court.

"I walked onto the San Diego State team at the last minute," Hiatt said about his decision to join the team. "They're actually better than BYU and they are in the same conference."

Before he joined the team, though, Hiatt made a very important decision about his relationship with his new coach and teammates. "I came out to the tennis team. That was a big deal because I was sick of hiding it all of my life."

Hiatt first broached the issue with the SDSU tennis coach John Nelson on his recruiting trip to the school. "I came out to the coach right away, and he said, 'I'm a real strong Christian guy, but I believe in treating others as you would be treated and not being judgmental, and if any of the other guys give you any crap I'm not going to take it'; so I knew I had his backing."

After taking a year off to deal with coming out and decide where his life was headed, Hiatt hadn't kept up his tennis game. When he first joined the San Diego State team he found himself ranked number eight on the team, with only the top six players competing in NCAA play for the school. By the end of his first season, though, he had worked his way up to the number two spot.

"I was just more comfortable being me," Hiatt said about his experience on the team. "I guess once that came together, my tennis really came together and I am playing the best tennis of my life."

Coming out to the rest of his team went smoothly as well, although Hiatt admits a lot of the guys were quiet at first. He explained that many of his teammates had never met anyone who was openly gay, let being alone comfortable talking about it. Soon, they began to open up to him.

"They asked a lot of questions and I loved it because I felt like I could change a lot of people's minds," Hiatt said about his coming out experience. He went on to cite a specific example involving one of his teammates, Sean Meyers, who was one of the more outspoken guys on the team. "He told me, 'before I met you I was really anti-gay but since I have gotten to know you

and meet you and see how you're really similar to me and we have the same passion and you just seem like a regular guy, my feelings towards that have totally changed,' and that was probably the highlight of my experience coming out to the team."

Hiatt used up his final year of eligibility to play NCAA tennis last year, and had planned to join the pro tour over the summer, but a shoulder injury put a stop to that. He returned to SDSU last fall to continue his studies and finish up his degree in Psychology. With his shoulder healed up, and since he has been practicing since January, Hiatt has decided to give the pros another try.

"I'm going to have no strings attached so I am going to give it one last shot," Hiatt said. "It's long overdue for me. I am a little bit older than a lot of the pros. I'm 26, but I feel like I have been improving and I am playing the best tennis I have ever played and I know I have more. I just feel like I am a late bloomer coming out and all of that."

Hiatt knows that going pro won't be easy. With hotel, travel, coaching and equipment costs, it's not a cheap life to live. And with two practices daily and the constant travel, it's like having a full time job, so he's already started raising money for the trip to France this summer. To get things started he is doing some local fundraisers in San Diego, including a fund run around Mission Bay.

On June 1, Michael Mack of Club Montage is going to throw a "Launch a tennis pro" party from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., which will help raise money for Hiatt. The suggested $10 cover charge will all go towards launching what could be the career of the first openly gay tennis pro.

When asked about the possibility of being an openly gay tennis pro and role model for the community, Hiatt was humble about his prospects, saying, "If I was at the level of Andre Agassi and in the spotlight, that's a huge deal and the media would go crazy and that would be a big challenge. I don't know of any of the top tennis players who have come out - I mean on the women's side there are a lot of lesbians who have come out, but on the men's side it's very rare to hear of any top players in the pros who have come out."