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Life Was Hell for a Gay Teen Jock

(This story was published in 2002).

By: Dan Woog

From Jocks 2: Coming Out To Play (Alyson Publications, 2002)

Copyright 2002, Dan Woog

Reprinted by permission

By now, millions of Americans have thrilled to Corey Johnson's story. Thanks to an insightful page one story in The New York Times, a positive portrayal on ABC's 20/20, and a passionate speech Corey gave at the Millennium March on Washington, the tale has achieved almost mythic proportions. With the full backing of his coaches, the Massachusetts high school football star came out to his teammates and received overwhelmingly strong support. Fellow players at Masconomet High School covered his back on the football field; the few times opponents tried to taunt him, the team just played harder. On the bus home after a victory the players serenaded him with "YMCA" and "It's Raining Men"; when he attended gay youth conferences and pride marches, they asked for souvenir T-shirts. Corey became an articulate spokesman for gay civil rights, hung out with senators and movie stars, and even appeared (wearing football pads and eye black) in an ad for the Mitchell Gold furniture company.

Greg Congdon is another football player. He is just a year older than Corey, and lives only a couple of hundred miles away. He is as firm as Corey in his determination that his story be told. Yet it is an entirely different tale. Greg says that its message must be heard by the many gay athletes who may think that because Corey came out to broad acceptance, even reverence, the coast is clear for everyone else to do the same.

Greg's story begins in-and never really leaves-Troy, Pa. A dairy-, pig-, and beef-farming community of about 1,200 in the northeast part of the state, it is a typical American small town. Most residents were born and raised in the area. The high school is regional. The closest gay bar is in the "big city" of Elmira, N.Y. (population 31,000), half an hour away.

Greg's mother, JoAnn, a registered nurse, comes from Elmira; his father, Neil, a construction-site job expediter, was born and raised right in Troy, where most of the Congdon family has always lived. Neil was an excellent wrestler at Troy High School, and when Greg was 10 he followed his dad's footsteps and joined the youth program. Wrestling is big in Pennsylvania, and Greg enjoyed it for several years-at least until high school, when he felt pressured to drop his already-lean weight, 135 pounds on a 5-foot-10 frame, to 119.

He also played football, from Pee Wee to high school. He was a defensive end and center, though small for the latter position. "I liked just going out, hitting, and not worrying about the consequences," Greg says of his love for football. "It was a great way to relieve all the stress. Out on the field, nothing bothered you. You were in your own world. Practices sucked, but playing was so much fun."

Feeling Different

Some of that stress related to sexuality. From the time he was 11 and first realized he was "different" from other boys, Greg tried to suppress his feelings of attraction to the same sex. He was successful for a few years. Then, in 1997, his parents bought a computer.

Like many teenagers struggling with homosexuality, the Internet opened up an amazing world. For the first time, Greg learned there were untold numbers of other boys just like him. Many gay youths find this to be an empowering, life-affirming discovery. For Greg, however, the effect was devastating.

Stuck in his small town, he realized how much he was missing. "I saw so many people with boyfriends," he laments. "I didn't know any gay people around here. I didn't think I could ever have what they had, because I was here in Troy." And Troy was not a good place to be. The only time the subject of homosexuality arose was as a joke. It was never discussed in sex education classes. Even the local newspaper, the Daily Review in nearby Towanda, ran regular diatribes against homosexuality, sometimes citing the North American Man-Boy Love Association as a representative gay organization.

Adding to Greg's confusion was the fact that for two years, starting at age 13, he had a sexual relationship with his best male friend, who instigated it. However, when they were 15 the other boy said he was straight and ended the encounters. Greg--who was also dating girls, primarily for show, and soon lost his virginity to a girl in an experience he calls "awful"--wondered how his friend could simply say he was straight and change his feelings. Try as Greg might--and he certainly tried hard--he could not become straight as well.

The next year, in a gay chat room, was the first time he typed the words "I am gay." "It felt so odd and weird," he remembers. "I never thought just saying it would be so overwhelming." It was liberating in a way, but also frightening. Greg began withdrawing from friends. He locked himself in his family's computer room, spending every night prowling the Web for information and chatting with other gay youths. He even stopped wrestling junior year, telling the coach he was under too much stress.

His best friend--the boy with whom he had had a sexual relationship--asked why he was spending so much time on his computer. Greg replied vaguely that he was meeting "all kinds of people." Everyone else, including his parents, thought it was simply a new interest that would soon die out.

A Suicide Attempt

But 17-year-old Greg had another type of dying in mind: his own. On Sunday, February 1, 1998, he decided that the only way out of his misery was to kill himself. "I just didn't know how to go about being gay," he explains. "I was afraid what would happen if my parents and friends found out. I had no idea how I could live my life. I had no role models. The only gay athlete I knew was Greg Louganis, and he was a swimmer. I couldn't associate with that. There was no Queer as Folk or Will & Grace on TV. The only gay people I saw were the drag queens on Birdcage. I never thought I'd find a boyfriend, like everyone else. If you really believe you'll never find love, you think about killing yourself."

He thought his mother's blood pressure pills would do the job. He downed them, then went online and mentioned what he had done. A boy in California called 911, and from a continent away the Troy police were alerted. "The cop was more interested that the call had come from California than in me," Greg laughs ruefully.

As it turns out, his life was never in danger. The pills were actually diuretics, and they had no effect on Greg's health. But in tiny Troy Community Hospital, while Greg was being treated by a doctor and nurse, the policeman urged him to reveal why he had attempted suicide. He promised the information would remain confidential. Greg, in an emotionally fragile state, worried that his parents would get in trouble if anyone thought they were contributing to his problems. He broke down, told the officer he was gay, and said he could not cope. The nurse noted the information on Greg's medical chart.

He spent a week in an adolescent psychiatric ward at a hospital near State College. The only visitors permitted were his relatives. Meanwhile, his mother had searched his room and found brochures from PFLAG. She thought his homosexual feelings were only a phase.

The night he got home, Greg called his best friend--the boy he had had the relationship with. The friend told him that everyone at school knew Greg was gay. He added that the football quarterback had found out through his mother, a secretary at Troy Community Hospital, who after reading Greg's chart had told her son. The quarterback told friends at Troy High, and the gossip raced through the entire school. Greg was shocked, stunned, and scared, but his friend said soothingly, "Don't worry. No one cares." It was his way of trying to get Greg to come back to school.

The Fallout

When Greg mustered the courage to return, a week later, his best friend-and virtually everyone else-turned against him.

"I lost everything I thought was my life," Greg says. "Kids I'd grown up with, played backyard football with, been in their houses-it was all gone in the flash of an eye. One guy told me he couldn't be my friend anymore. My teammates said if I played sports ever again, my life would be a living hell."

It was not only teenagers who shunned Greg. His coaches ignored him as well. The wrestling coach talked to Greg's father but refused to look at Greg standing next to him. When the football coach was asked why Greg stopped playing, he replied, "I never thought about it." Greg says sadly, "He was a man I knew well. I used to hang out with him during my free periods. I was close to all the coaches."

Only two people in all of Troy High School stuck by Greg's side. Both were girls. "They were all I had," Greg says.

Even his teachers and counselors seemed unmoved by Greg's ordeal. He skipped classes, sleeping in his car in the parking lot--or at a local creek or cemetery--instead of going inside to be tormented. No one called his parents to report that things were amiss.

At home, Greg worked hard to put up a false front. "I was so used to keeping feelings to myself," he says. "When you're gay and young, that's what you do. You're scared, but you learn to hide your emotions. So I'd come home and my mom would ask how school was, and I'd just say, 'Fine.' "

But it wasn't. One month after his first suicide attempt, Greg made a second. This time he used pills from an extra-large bottle of Extra Strength Tylenol. He swallowed 33, then went to bed.

In the morning, his mother woke him up. He was furious that once again his plan had failed. He put the remaining pills in his varsity jacket, then drove to school and took 10 more. It did not take long before his stomach knotted up. He threw up, walked out of school, drove home, and told his mother he did not feel well. She told him to take a nap. Silently, he took the pills out of his jacket. She hustled him to the car and drove to the local hospital. Soon, he was in the intensive care unit at a larger one. After four days he was transferred to the teen psychiatric ward of a Wilkes-Barre hospital.

Greg never returned to classes at Troy High School. The principal was not surprised to learn that the quarterback had been a ringleader in Greg's torment. The principal said, however, that while he could protect Greg on school grounds, he could offer no help off them. He advised Greg to get a tutor and finish his junior year at home.

Although the school year ended, Greg's misery did not. After summer football practice his former teammates often drove by his house, yelling obscenities from a truck. His neighbors all heard, yet no one did anything.

A Media Frenzy

That same summer, using the Internet, Greg found a boyfriend: A 16-year-old living 45 minutes away. While reading XY, a publication for gay youth, Greg's boyfriend thought it would be a good idea to send a photo of Greg in his football uniform for an upcoming issue. The picture appeared at the same time ESPN was searching for gay athletes to interview for a television show. When that aired, a media frenzy began.

For the first time, the local press looked into Greg's situation. The Daily Review's story on Greg highlighted a lawsuit he had filed against the hospital for breaching his confidentiality.

Today, Greg regrets that newspaper coverage. His uncle and older sister were harassed at work; his cousins, attending a different school, were teased. Another cousin, at Troy High, got it the worst. "It was constant, every day," Greg says. "There was no one to stand up for me, and no one in my family knew what to say." The closest support group for gays and allies was an hour away in Binghamton, N.Y., and no one in the Congdon family knew it existed.

Greg spent his entire senior year "doing basically nothing." He was told to wait until his class graduated before earning his GED. He attended football games and wrestling matches but felt unwelcome. He often stood on the opponents' side, trying not to stand out. He learned later that the ploy did not work. Football players, he was told, would see him and make jokes on the bench. They were the boys he had been friends with all his life.

The murder of Matthew Shepard in October 1998 terrified Greg. Up to that point, he ascribed the reactions of his former friends and teammates to ignorance and small-mindedness. After the gay University of Wyoming student was tied to a fence and left to die, however, Greg wondered whether the hatred he felt in Troy might lead to violence there too. He stopped going out alone.

'Part of My Youth Was Gone'

Despite the hard times, Greg was learning to cope. He traveled nearly two hours to Scranton to visit his first gay club, where he finally met in person some of the friends he had made online. The experience opened a new world for him. "Wow!" he marvels. "It was so beautiful. It was exactly what I'd heard about and looked for for so long. I felt like a 5-year-old kid entering a candy store." As Greg entered the gay community, he tried to build a new life for himself. Still, he acknowledges, it was impossible to replace what he had lost.

"A part of my youth was gone," he says. "Everybody says high school is supposed to be the best time of your life. You've got sports and friends and no worries. But all that stuff was taken away." Missing graduation hurt the most. No longer considered a member of the class of 1999, he did not receive an invitation.

Greg is perceptive enough to realize that despite all his losses, there were some gains. He cites inner strength and a better knowledge of who he is as positive outcomes. "I've been to the bottom of the barrel, and I know what it's like. I don't want to be there again, but at least now I know how to handle it."

If he had the chance to do things differently, Greg says he would have come out to his parents first and would not have tried to commit suicide. After realizing his homosexuality was not a phase, they have become strongly supportive. He would also not try so hard to live two different lives: his straight life and his Internet one. "They just never met," he notes. "If I could do it over, I'd try to integrate them into one. Maybe I'd tell a couple of people I'm gay and let them handle it so there wouldn't be this massive witch-hunt. I think if people didn't have this thrown at them in their face by the quarterback, they wouldn't have freaked out so much."

Greg completed two semesters at Central Pennsylvania College. Yet even at that two-year school across the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg, he found it hard to concentrate. One day someone (he never learned who) got into his dorm room and hung photos of nude girls everywhere.

Today, he works in Elmira for a grocery chain. He is completely out there, and everyone is friendly. He hopes one day to return to college and become a policeman.

He has done some speaking appearances on behalf of the Pennsylvania Department of Health. His messages, he says, are important: letting gay teenagers know they are not alone, and raising awareness that even in the 21st century homophobia exists.

Greg's speaking profile is not as high as Corey Johnson's. He makes it clear that there are other differences between the two openly gay ex-high school athletes as well. "The more I hear Corey's story, the more compelled I am to tell mine," Greg says. "I'm always afraid some teenager will read about Corey, who has a perfect story, and believe things will always be like that. But they have to be careful. Most gay youth live in small towns.

"When you're older you can move to a city, but when you're a kid you don't have that option. It's great Corey had such a happy ending, but that's not always the case. I think there are two sides to every story. And even though some people have come pretty far in terms of accepting gay people, there's still a long way to go. I'm proof of that."

And so, he might add, are nearly all the 1,200 citizens of small-town Troy, Pa.