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Embracing the Storm: WNBA exec Kenny Dow on growing up gay and closeted

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Gay WNBA executive talks for the first time about growing up in Montana football, his near suicide attempt, and finding freedom through out lesbian basketball coach Sherri Murrell.

The Seattle Storm celebrate WNBA Pride Friday, June 27, against Seimone Augustus and the Minnesota Lynx.

I grew up in a sports family where success was defined by winning championships. Becoming a masculine all-star athlete was a rite of passage. My grandfather was the long-time head football coach at Carroll College in Helena, Montana, and he was very successful in winning championships. My uncles are now head football coaches at Division I institutions - Bobby Petrino at Louisville and Paul Petrino at Idaho - and have also achieved championship success. Football and sports were a way of life for our family. My dad coached me in football, baseball and track, and I was instilled with the ideals of masculinity and toughness from birth.

In 1994 I was a fifth grader going to Catholic school in Billings. Raised through the lens of sports, I was - even at that age - a football and track athlete trying to find my own success. It was about the same time I also realized I was gay. While I knew the truth, I struggled to accept it, lying to myself and suppressing whatever feelings and attractions I had. I needed to focus on becoming successful and strive to become a champion. That would make me a real man.

As a middle school and high school student-athlete I was entrenched in a conservative social environment. Attending a private Catholic school in one of our country's reddest states didn't exactly provide a diverse social climate. Most of my friends were white, middle- and upper-class Catholics. In Catholic school we were taught how to think and how to view the world, without much diversity.  Being "different" was not an option.  I would ask myself, how could I be Catholic and gay? Going there was a non-starter.

As I entered college at The University of Montana in Missoula, I began to realize there were other gay people in the world. Even more shocking - They actually lived in Montana!

Denying my truth began to weigh heavily on me as college continued. Making sure that nobody knew I was gay became like a second job. I was constantly lying to everyone about who I was, where I was going and what I was doing.  I felt helpless and deeply insecure.  I ended up second-guessing every action and decision I made.  I avoided other gay people in public; I didn't want to be "guilty by association." I dated girls, pretended to date other girls and made up stories about hooking up with girls - all to "prove" to the outside world that I was indeed straight.

The lying was one thing - But the truly damaging dynamic was my refusal to accept who I was internally.  That eventually led me to be closed off, sit in the back of class, not speak up and keep just a small group of close friends.  I was alienating myself from the rest of my world.

All the while I was secretly dating a guy. He went to school at our rival institution - Montana State University. It was bad enough that I was gay - but worse, I was dating a Bobcat! We would travel to and from each other's campus to visit. We would strategically plan visits when our roommates were out of town so nobody would ask questions.

That relationship kept me sane. We were in it together - both gay and closeted - and were able to confide in one another. I had someone else to talk to about the issues I was dealing with. When we ended the relationship, it wasn't a huge issue in and of itself.  But all of a sudden I know longer had anyone to talk to, no one to confide in, and no one with whom I could just be myself. I was suddenly more alone than ever.

One night in the summer of 2005 I got in my car with one goal in mind: ending my isolation forever. Speeding down a backwoods street I was filled with both fear and relief. I came within two feet of wrapping my life around a tree at maximum speed that night. Something inside me still wanted to live, and I slammed on the brakes. I sat there behind the steering wheel, the engine exhausted, my eyes welling with tears. I could not deal with life anymore the way I had for my first 20 years. If I wasn't going to end it, something had to change.

That night I called my parents and told them everything. Their love and support shocked the hell out of me. They drove that night to come get me, and the next day I dropped everything, including summer school and my internship, to head home. I got professional help. All of the emotions I had tucked away since I was in fifth grade poured out of me. My counselor suggested I create a support system at school, so I came out to five of my friends at UM. While they all offered nothing but support, my concerns and insecurities didn't fade fast. Old habits die hard.

When I graduated from college I took a job as the assistant marketing director for athletics at the University of Montana. I suddenly found myself creeping back into the closet. I figured there was no way I could be an openly gay administrator working in an athletic department. My friends were one thing, but big-time Div. 1 sports? Not a chance. I again found myself withdrawing from my colleagues and friends, needing to hide my sexual orientation from my professional life.

In the spring of 2009, I moved to Portland, Ore., where I would become head cheer coach and assistant athletic director of marketing for the Department of Athletics at Portland State University.

About a month into my job, I met the woman who would change my life forever: Portland State head women's basketball coach Sherri Murrell. Coach Murrell is the only openly gay head women's basketball coach in the country.  Like me, she went to private Catholic school.  She took me under her wing as soon as I got to know her.

She told me to be who I was and stop worrying about what other people thought of me.  She told me that if I was truly going to be successful in life, I was first going to have to become comfortable with who I was.  I needed to stop living a double life.

Her words hit home. I didn't necessarily have a press conference to announce my coming out party, but I stopped hiding it.  It was such a relief to finally have that weight off of my shoulders.  I was able to open up to co-workers and create a closer bond with them. For the first time in my professional life I felt a family developing around me that wasn't my family.

Now the senior manager of marketing for the WNBA's Seattle Storm, I have the privilege of being part of the first professional sports league to "come out" with a Pride platform. I have never been professionally more proud than the day the WNBA last month announced their new initiative embracing LGBT fans, players and coaches.

When I first started working here only six months ago, my new co-workers asked if I was married, had kids or who my girlfriend was.

"Actually," I was happy to say, "I have a boyfriend."

It didn't faze anyone and it felt very empowering to be able to stay that out loud without hesitation. Our organization prides itself on diversity and a work environment that promotes inclusion.  My partner, who is a reporter for a local TV station, is welcomed as part of the Storm family.

Starting 10 years ago in the Montana athletic department, I truly never thought I would get to this point.

As I move forward in my career, my goal is to help show that success isn't only defined by how many championships you win and the revenue you generate. Success is also being part of a community that can come together to support one another. I'm proud to be not just part of the WNBA family and the LGBT community, but to see those two groups so important to my life embrace one another. For this former fifth-grader growing up in Montana in 1994, today was impossible.

Everyone's "coming out" process is different, and there is no timetable except the one you set for yourself.  Just understand that you are not alone, and you have a community - no, you have many communities - ready to support you.

You can follow Kenny Dow in Twitter @Kenny_Dow. You can also email him at kdow@stormbasketball.com.

The Seattle Storm celebrate WNBA Pride Friday, June 27, against Seimone Augustus and the Minnesota Lynx.

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