Rob Kearney did not roll out of bed on Oct. 20 thinking he would change the world. He just went about his day.
One of Rob's days is a lot more - how shall I put it? -- a lot more macho than the rest of us. With his imposing shoulders and rebellious mohawked hair, Rob Kearney is undoubtedly a certain type of red-blooded man's man; the type of powerhouse that holds the rest of us guys absolutely dumbstruck.
The guy moves quite literally tons of weight each week with nothing but his bare, brute strength. Rob's lifting and training make the rest of us gym-goers look like we're playing a lazy game of croquet. His ability to use his thick, muscular frame to make immobile objects take momentum is astounding, and even intimidating. Thousands of pounds of steel and cement obey his aggressive, almost hostile muscular force. But unleashed, male super-strength is not uncommon to Rob. It is just a part of his day.
Rob Kearney is like a strength hero.
But this particular Monday would be one where Kearney shifted the thinking of an entire community and stepped - quite suddenly - onto the pages of social change. Rob is already no foreigner to the spotlight: he's not only a professional strongman (yes, that means he lifts heavy stuff for cash money, folk), but he actually competes on an international-level, on the world stage among the strongest human beings currently documented. He recently came in second as a middleweight in one of the most prestigious of these global-level contests, making him, in effect, officially the second strongest man of his weight-cohort on planet Earth.
Global acclaim? Yeah, no big deal for Kearny. And having managed so many strength accolade's before age 25, he is already quite clearly comfortable with being received with awe, envy and admiration. He knows what it is to become an icon of accomplishment. But what about becoming an icon of social equality heroism? Yeah, that role would be a new one for Rob.
It happened in an almost silly way. While Rob's professional athletic career may thrust his body in the spotlight he is nonetheless as human as the rest of us, and he has the heart of a romantic. And that heart was pounding inches chest that Monday morning as he went on to Facebook and, for the first time in his life, gushed about how much he adored his boyfriend:
Rob Kearney, Professional StrongMan, World's Strongest Man Champion, strength coach of some of the toughest guys around, is happily dating a dude.
As soon as his post hit, the strength and bodybuilding communities shifted a little. It was as if Atlas himself momentarily giggled with affirming glee, and the world of powerful, musclebound men became just little more progressive.
It is not just that Rob was casually coming out of the closet as a strongman. It would be more than enough for the heteronormative world of strength competitors to absorb that one of the best men in the game was proudly into gaming with men. That would have been more than enough impact to make men reconsider gender models and women realize that not all that is physically rough is necessarily psychologically rigid. But the news of Rob's "coming out" was notable for a far more historical reason.
Rob Kearney is the first self-acknowledged gay man to be actively competing in pro-level, international strongman competition. He is in a pantheon of brave souls who decided to not hide for the fear of harming their social status or career aspirations.
Coming out in any arena is a pressure-filled venture. We often forget that this world is still rather ignorant when it comes to same-gender love and sex. There is plenty of hate brewing - and plenty of folks who act on that hate to cause harm and instill fear in those who may love another of the same sex. To be the first of something unique is not something we all get a chance to experience in life. But to be the first 'gay" something can be just as frightening as it can be positive.
This all speaks to Rob's character as a man. He understood that there might be consequences. "I thought it was important to be honest," he told me. "People need to know that one of the top strength athletes on the planet is also gay. But I didn't want it to affect my ability to compete. And that possibility definitely crossed my mind before I made that post."
But once made, the first reactions were overwhelming. "I can't remember this many people being this supportive and encouraging in my life!" he raved to me. "I mean, I have always had people back me for events, but that was nothing compared to the sheer numbers of positive messages that came to me. It was really humbling!"
Rob is aware that the real impact of his revelation would be felt more gradually over time. "I am not only the first actively competitive professional world strongman," he explained to me. "I am also a gay strength coach."
And this was where I gushed in return to my colleague. "At last!" I thought. "At last I am not so fucking alone!" I have been coaching in the bodybuilding and competitive world for over 15 years, and am not only usually the only queer coach in the arena, but often the only out gay man in a given contest. Having someone else step forward bravely was one thing; having it be someone with certified international athletic status is another. But that it was someone I always already a peer with took my elation to a whole new level.
Rob Kearney is one of my strength heroes.
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Rob Kearney in action
Strength and bodybuilding are iconic symbols of machismo. The idea of a burly, thick dude grappling a piece of cold granite and wresting it away from gravity is the stuff of testosterone dreams. The image of a thick-chested, mountainous-armed Adonis with tight abs and majestic shape is among the heights of male inspiration. These pursuits are nothing if not hyper masculine.
But with such bro-powered iconography comes the other foibles of maleness. Ego, competition and aggression conspire to make these sports sometimes accosting in their small-minded versions of what it is to be "a man." These are sports that transact on symbolism - ideas of strength, fortitude and dominance - and so it is no wonder certain characteristics of men become quietly wrapped up in the ideas which drive these sports.
One such idea is that "real man" are adored by the ladies; our strength and power and shape is what makes us the most viable studs in the herd. To be male means to be heterosexual, and anything less than that infers you are less than a man. Of course, no one says this. Most men would even deny that they think this way. But the general vibe of these pursuits has these messages riddled throughout. While it may take a heterosexual dude a little analysis to begin to see these themes, to a gay guy these messages blare like bullhorns in our ears.
Sexuality has an influence on gender roles, but sexuality does not outright define gender roles. So while one's sexuality has nothing to do with bodybuilding or strength, there is no escaping the associations our culture enforces. Those associations get turned up loud for gay men like Rob and me, making the landscape require a deft step to navigate.
The athletic side of strength and bodybuilding sports overlaps one's "everyday life" much more than many other sports. How we eat, how we sleep, whether we're stressed, even how we play can all affect our athletic progress. It is hard to say where one's personal life ends and one's training pursuits begin in these sports.
As such, coaching strength and bodybuilding athletes often means a degree of familiarity between coach and athlete that is a lot more personal than many other sports. As a coach, I can not effectively guide an athlete unless I am aware of the factors that contribute or conflict with their progress. These factors are often found in their life details, and as such I am often made available to a high degree of intimacy.
And with intimacy comes trust.
Much can be said about the tenuous state of trust between men in our contemporary world. But in few other categories is intra-male trust more delicate than between a gay man and a heterosexual man. Too often, a gay man who gains intimacy with other men is unfairly and incorrectly seen as predatory; he is something for heterosexual men to avoid. This subtle distrust is a common and incorrect stereotype to which many men still bind their evaluation of gay guys. Even gay men themselves often find it suspect should a gay peer have a deep bond with a heterosexual man. It is an ugly and rotten idea that is unfortunately very common.
I have experienced the receiving end of this stereotype often in my life. I have had many men over the years gravitate away from my coaching or assistance, made uncomfortable with the idea that a gay dude is commenting on their physique. I have even had some men go so far as to think people needed to be "warned" that Ii am not heterosexual. "If a gay guy is working with bodybuilders," I once read in an ugly email about me, "you know the real reason is he's just trying to get in their pants."
The author is a competitive bodybuilder and coach.
But I continue to remain out of the closet because, by doing so, I can potentially change the minds of those still spreading ignorance. By staying out of the closet those with like minds for reasonable thinking can locate me. Guys like Rob Kearney.
Rob and I have to navigate the relationship with the heterosexual men we coach in very delicate and vigilant ways. We have to always be aware of discomforts and fears, and slacken or speed our pace unnaturally in order to avoid implosions or distrust. Most of all, we have to live as very open books. Over 15 years, only I think seven or eight of the 200+ athletes I have worked with were queer - statistics far below the Kinsey Scales estimations. This means I am constantly a minority, and must be always ready to work through confusion, concern and, yes, even curiosity. Anything to affirm trust.
Indeed, coaches in sexually discordant mentoring relationships often have to go further out of our way to demonstrate trustworthiness. Not because we are somehow more suspect, but because we are often the first queer person the straight person has become intimate with. In order to get to a relaxed stance, we often find ourselves needing to be artificially paced, especially in the early stages of the coach-athlete bond.
This is all very lonely work for me, and to be honest nothing I would have wanted to do if I had the choice. But I didn't. And as such, I have found an immense joy in the process. I am proud that I am "the gay dude who coaches heater dudes in a super macho set of pursuits." I keep my sense of humor about it, and keep my eye on the fact that I am potentially influencing the world in positive ways far beyond this pursuit.
And this is what Rob has just elected for himself. Naturally, our choice to not hide will change minds and open eyes within the world of strength and bodybuilding. But where we play a more vital role is in the bigger world far beyond these teeny, tiny sporting communities. Each person we impact goes forward back into their world with a message of tolerance, temperance and compassion. With enough of these out there, society begins to change. It's like dropping ice cubes into boiling water. The first few handfuls will just melt away, but if you keep it up eventually the temperature of the water changes. And even if it remains hot, at least it is no longer boiling.
Rob experienced one of these events within 24 hours of coming out of the closet. A fellow beast-man of strength and power who knew Rob as a tough bull of muscle contacted Rob with a surprising message. The man described himself not only as disliking gay people, but actually outright anti-gay. Somehow he thought gayness should be halted. Yet, by his own admission, he did not realize how it could be right there in his own space of strength and power, and that manly men can love men just as much as the stereotyped sissies he imagined all gay men to be. He warmly told Rob that knowing how good a man Rob was and admiring so much of Rob's life work told him that maybe there is nothing wrong with gay people at all, and he overestimated the category. He thanked Rob for teaching him, and admitted to having to rethink his position.
Rob Kearney was this guy's hero.
And Rob was startled and amazed by this. He knew being out as a gay man while still firmly in the professional sports spotlight - even only a smaller one - would cause ripples among those who lift and train hard. But he never thought he would so soon see how his voice would extend beyond that world, and send someone forward with thoughts of peace and kindness. It was miraculous for Rob.
Rob Kearney is among the strongest men on the planet.
On Oct. 20 Rob Kearney learned the difference between being a winner and being a leader. By becoming the first actively-competing professional World Strength top competitor to be openly gay, he became more than just a notable achiever: he became a force for change.
We all pursue what attracts us and appeals to us. And sometimes - like a trophy - they can seem petty. Sure, some accomplishments exist on a global scale, and they gain merit because of their uniqueness. These types of accomplishments inspire others, yet do so passively. They are icons and symbols, and people admire and even chase them accordingly. But every once in a while, our work becomes more than a token of excellence and actually becomes a beacon of enlightenment. Sometimes, our pursuit of some great feat allows us to dialogue with our world, rather than just stand proudly above it.
Rob Kearney is at the start of this journey. He has the ability to transform is acclaim into a powerful message to others. And he seems entirely eager to begin.
You would have to be completely naive to not know that the pursuits of strength and bodybuilding often have a huge appeal to younger men. Guys whose mind's and outlooks are still forming and grappling with the world obviously love pursuits that allow them control and a sense of power over ever-changing variables. This is what strength and bodybuilding pursuits provide.
Obviously, the "dude at the top of his game" plays a profound role as role model for these eager upstarts in the pursuit of muscle. The likelihood is that your average "gym bro" probably wouldn't recognize Kearney's name, and may only have the most tenuous grasp on the idea of what strength competition looks like. However, he sure as heck would be paying close attention whenever he sees a dude who represents his goals. The strongest, most powerful men become spontaneous role models for those looking to achieve physical greatness. All they have to do is walk into the room, and everything they do and say leaves an impression upon those interested in muscular prowess. They are scrutinized anonymously, analyzed for clues about "what makes it all happen. Does strength come from their knowledge? From their attitude? From how they talk and what they say? Any aspect to a strong, built man carried weight in the eye of those eager to follow that path. And therefore, everything else attached to that big guy is interpreted part of the formula for gains in the eyes of those who want to grow as well.
It sounds exhausting when it's boiled down like this! To think that every aspect of a muscular man is perpetually scrutinized by peers in society who want that kind of muscle. But the effect is not all-at-once; it is subtle and only happens in brief moments. Yet the more a man is in this world of strength, the more likely he is to be the one under scrutinization, especially by those same younger men in pursuit of their own macho victories. It's from this same demographic of "new lifters" that the next emerging leaders in these pursuits will arise and have similarly profound influence of their own.
Being at the top of his game - and still achieving more - Rob Kearney represents so much of what men in these pursuits may want to achieve with their bodies. Even if they don't have aspirations of global competition, the symbol of a man like Rob Kearney is a powerful one. What Rob and the other advanced athletes do is what enters the value systems of those who seek to emulate their successes. So the fact that Rob is gay allows those who admire his work to understand that sexuality is not necessarily a factor in success, but just another feature of a man.
Rob is now ready to experience leadership, which is the ability to move others forward rather than merely inspire them to follow. Any winner can get people to copy them, yet only a leader can take action to engage people in ways that uplift and change their perspective on their work. As a strongman, Rob was a winner. As an out man in professional strength sports, he is now poised to truly lead. And as a young coach coming up in the field, he will be able to directly impact the next generation of leaders.
And while he probably had a vague idea of the importance of his choice, I don't think Rob Kearney thought he would effect change with a Facebook post. He was just doing what was honest and right to honor his truth and show respect to his boyfriend.
But in the process, Rob Kearney was being a true hero.
Christian Matyi (often known as just "XN") is a writer, designer and performer with over two decades experience in strength and bodybuilding competing and coaching, and founder of The Next Level and the PhysiQulture Collaborative, communities which intersect physical development with leadership academics. He has coached several physique competitors to professional status while also helping evolve new businesses and communities which work benevolently to end the scope of what human development can mean and collaborative projects from within the wider sports community. XN graduated from Carnegie Mellon University and lives in Boston, Massachusetts. This article is reprinted from his blog, The Next Level.
He can be reached via email (firstname.lastname@example.org), on his blog (www.TheNextLevel.me), Twitter (@PhysiQulture and @aka_XN) or Instagram (@TheNextLevel_teams and @christian_aka_xn)