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Gay East Carolina Univ. diver left Mormon faith and became Baptist after coming out

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Diving exposed Alex Clark to people that helped him accept himself as gay, leave the Mormon religion and become Baptist. Now he enters his final season at East Carolina University.

Alex Clark has made a career at East Carolina University's Minges Natatorium.
Alex Clark has made a career at East Carolina University's Minges Natatorium.
Erik Hall

Alex Clark filled out paperwork while sitting in the doctor's waiting room. He was nervous, his hands sweaty. It was his first trip to a therapist. Questions of what to expect had consumed Clark since he and his mom left their home in Elkhart, Ind., to drive three hours to Indianapolis.

When the appointment time arrived, he walked in to meet the doctor and scanned the office, the doctor's framed diploma hanging on the wall. The therapist graduated from Brigham Young University — the epicenter of education for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Clark faced a crossroads. His parents, both BYU alumni, picked a therapist who followed their Mormon religion. The theory was that he could listen to the therapist and suppress his homosexual feelings. Realistically, Clark knew he could not keep following the Mormon faith and deny being gay.

That day at the therapist's office in the spring of 2011, he chose to accept himself. Clark spent the hour sitting on a plaid couch across from the therapist mostly staring out the windows at a lake and the cars driving past.

"I sat there in silence for a long time," Clark remembered. "I really felt betrayed by my parents. They're not helping. Now, they're sending me to a Mormon shrink. That's not going to help. I wanted someone who was not involved, who was not Mormon, who was not on that side of the playing field."

As a high school freshman in 2008, Clark couldn't have said he's gay. Yet seven years ago he also hadn't started diving. It was the discovery of that sport that changed his life. Diving provided a constant for Clark through his religious and sexual discovery.

Now beginning his final college diving season, Clark is an openly gay man and the co-president of the Baptist ministry at East Carolina University. He is the first active East Carolina athlete to come out publicly as gay, according to the ECU LGBT Resource Office.

"I had always wanted so badly to have a relationship with God, but growing up in a church that I couldn't made that difficult," Clark said with a quiver in his voice, fighting back tears. "Diving was the thing that led me to be able to create that relationship again in a positive way and has led me to Christianity and a faith that I love and cherish and try to share with other people."

Man of mystery

Equally nervous, Clark made the drive by himself to Indianapolis about a year earlier. He kept that trip a secret from his family and friends, because it was a trip to see his first boyfriend.

Clark met Tyler Offutt in the spring of 2010 as both trained with Starz Diving, which is based in Indianapolis with satellite teams throughout Indiana. At the time, Clark was a high school sophomore and Offutt was a junior. Each guy was or recently was dating a girl, but during a Facebook conversation, they admitted attraction to each other.

They each lived about three hours from Indianapolis in opposite directions. Both came from strict religious families — Offutt's paternal grandfather was a Christian minister — and bonded over their isolation in rural Indiana.

"We both just had the same fear that all rooted back to our parents of not being accepted for who we liked," said Offutt, who dove at University of Indianapolis from 2011-15.

After months of talking, they hatched a plan. Offutt turned 18 in May 2010, which allowed him to reserve a hotel room. Both used diving as an excuse to go to Indianapolis, and they bought prepaid credit cards at local gas stations so their parents wouldn't recognize purchases unrelated to diving during their Indianapolis weekend.

"I felt like I was James Bond living a secret life that no one had any idea about," Clark said. "I felt like a con artist."

They made a few Indianapolis weekend trips that summer, but by the fall, the distance proved too taxing for a relationship. When he returned to school, Clark found a boyfriend closer to home, a male cheerleader at a rival high school, but Clark's younger brother Brandon was now a freshman and also a diver. Alex realized he couldn't be sneaky without Brandon knowing, so near the end of fall as diving season started, Alex told Brandon the secret of his sexuality.
Brandon's expressed acceptance and indifference saying, "Yeah dude, I figured as much. I always knew that you weren't exactly head over heels for girls."

That meant the world to Clark.

"He took it the way I wish everyone had taken it," Clark said. "He was just very nonchalant about it."

Completely coming out

As a high school freshman, Clark started diving and loved it, but he also saw it could bring him respect. To improve, he joined Starz Diving, and through club diving Clark spent time with other gay boys for the first time. At a club diving meet, Clark experienced his first same-sex attraction when a boy walked past him on the pool deck.

Then the thought registered.

"I was like, ‘Wait, what? What did I just think? No, no, no, no, no. That was wrong. Why did I think that?'," Clark said.

Being Mormon engrained in Clark that acting on same-sex attraction is a sin. However, the LGBT acceptance displayed by the diving community led Clark to start accepting himself.

"I was seeing a lot more people being comfortable with themselves," Clark said. "It gave me hope that if I would continue to be an athlete, this is definitely the right sport because it was so very well-accepted already."

After coming out to his brother, Alex told friends that he is gay. By March 2011, Alex said all his friends knew. The major hurdle remaining was his family.

Alex had started questioning Mormon doctrine as he reached high school, and his sexuality added to the fissure. Being Mormon then started to interfere with diving, because his parents, Greg and Linda, would not allow him to compete in Sunday meets. Alex's inability to compete in South Bend, Ind., on a particular Sunday in a particular March provoked an argument. The confrontation crested when Alex told his mom "I hate you" and attended the meet, as a spectator, in defiance.

Two days later, sitting in chemistry class at Northridge High School, he talked to some friends about the argument, and he pointed to his hidden sexuality as heightening the conflict. His friends encouraged him to tell his mom, so Alex sent her a text:

"Uh ... ya ... I'm gay."

She responded suggesting he keep that "confidential" and "private" but also said "I love you no matter what."

"I wasn't surprised," Linda Clark said of Alex, who grew up occasionally wearing heels and dresses and playing with dolls. "I was always kind of hoping that he was really just in touch with his feminine side and that he was still attracted to girls."

Though Linda said she suspected Alex was gay, she didn't make him feel accepted. Alex wrote in his journal he felt "attacked" during his first conversation with his mom about it. His parents grounded him shortly after he told them he's gay. Alex describes the punishment as "house arrest." His parents took away his phone, forced him to quit his job at Hollister, and prohibited him from diving.

Linda said Alex received the punishment for sneaking out of the house and staying the night with a friend, but she admits his dad probably made the punishment harsher because Alex recently revealed his sexuality.

"Greg was not only dealing with a rebellious teen, he was also trying to come to terms with, ‘My son is gay, and I don't want him to be gay. I want him to be straight,'" Linda Clark said.

Alex felt alienated from his parents and his four older siblings, who are all Mormon.

"That was literally the only time I've ever seen him depressed," Brandon Clark said. "He's always had this happy, go-lucky attitude. He was kind of crushed when my father and older siblings felt like something was wrong with him — not that he was different but that something was mentally or physically wrong with him. ... That his own family caused that kind of pain to him was really sad to see."

A fissure too big

While grounded, his parents allowed Alex to only go to church and school. At church, he had to sit with his mom and was now prohibited from blessing the sacrament, a custom performed by teenage boys.No one asked why he stopped blessing the sacrament, but Clark said he noticed whispers and staring. He wrote in his journal about his desire to address his absence from the ritual.

"I just wanna yell, ‘It's because I'm gay bitches!! So suck it!'"

Clark welcomed no longer blessing the sacrament. Now that he accepted being gay, he wanted to leave the Mormon religion all together. Clark, who has 10 siblings, had two older brothers leave the religion, but it wasn't an option for him while still in high school.

His parents gradually relaxed their restrictions. Quickly, they let him dive and, eventually, returned all privileges. But there were limitations — no dates or boyfriends in the house.

"They (mom and dad) believed that if they could watch me and control me that they could not let anything gay influence me," Clark said. "It actually ended up making me go into severe depression. I was pretty much enslaved in my house. They would drive me to and from school. At the time, the only sanctuary I had was diving — so in a sense it honestly saved my life."

Clark wanted to see a therapist, but when his parents chose a Mormon therapist, Clark never went back.

He concluded diving at Northridge High by taking ninth place at the 2012 Indiana state meet. He parlayed that into diving at East Carolina University. He chose the same school as Oscar-winner Sandra Bullock because of the Greenville campus' proximity to Greensboro, N.C., where his family moved in 2012 for his dad's job.

The 5-foot-7, 145-pound NCAA Div. 1 athlete arrived on campus that fall comfortable with his sexuality but without a faith.

"My whole freshman year, I didn't go to church. I didn't affiliate with any kind of religion at all," Clark said. "I was doing my own thing, going about my life."

Unexpectedly welcome invitation

Their freshman year, East Carolina teammate Caitlin Mehaffey, one of Clark's best friends, asked him to go to church with her. He passed.

She persisted, and early his sophomore year Clark agreed to attend Greenville's Oakmont Baptist Church. He expected a replica of the Mormon Church, but walking in Clark felt a "warm, comforting feeling." The service contained joyful singing, and the sermon was about God's love for everyone. It made Clark cry.

"I had never been told that," Clark said. "I came from a religion where everyone was always telling me that I needed to change, that God would love me if I changed. I was just so overwhelmed with that."

Clark started attending the church weekly. He invited friends and teammates to come too. Then in February of his sophomore year, Lawrence Powers, Oakmont's minister to college students, invited Clark and Mehaffey to lead the Baptist ministry on East Carolina's campus. They became co-presidents, roles they still hold.

"His priorities started to change," Mehaffey said. "He was focusing more on school and being at church and diving."

Attending Oakmont translated to improved diving. At the 2014 Conference USA Championships, Clark finished fourth in 3-meter springboard. In 2015, he qualified for the NCAA postseason for the first time, finishing 31st (1-meter) and 33rd (3-meter) at the Zone B Meet a couple weeks after missing the conference meet because of illness.

The lone resistance Clark experienced from Oakmont regarding his sexuality came at Christmas last year. He expressed a desire to be baptized, but Clark said that church leadership would not allow him to be baptized because he's gay. Clark was told that some in church leadership felt concerned that showing acceptance for a gay man would upset older members of the congregation. Pastor Greg Rogers said via phone that he could not comment on the issue due to pastor-parishioner confidentiality.

"It's totally discriminating against me, but if I were to just get all pissed off and walk away then all the work that I've done to this point would be for nothing," Clark said. "Why would I walk away from all these people that I love and this great church family that I have?"

Clark feels like a member of the church, but "I just ... haven't been dunked under water," he said. He still has a couple years to get it done. In May, Clark plans to finish his bachelor's in fashion merchandising then get an MBA from ECU.

"I'm just trying to be patient and hope that it will eventually happen," Clark said. "I still have two more years more of college left, so I still have time and I'm not going to give up."

Supreme progress

Clark's family planned to get together the final weekend of June 2015 to celebrate an older brother's birthday. The day Clark drove from Greenville to Greensboro, the U.S. Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal nationwide.

When Brandon brought up the ruling, only he and Alex wanted to talk about it. A different reception came later when Alex told Brandon about his new boyfriend, as the family was walking through the Greensboro zoo. When Linda Clark heard the news, she asked to see a picture. Alex's 15-year-old sister Maddie leaned in to see, too, and said, "He's so hot."

Alex said his mom's reaction shows "she cares" and "has become so much more accepting." Linda prodded Alex to show his dad the picture, and Greg Clark joked about Alex dating a prophet when he heard Jeremiah's name.

"He will never be excited that I'm gay," Alex said. "My dad is 150% Mormon. He will always believe that it's wrong and that's not how God meant for me to be, but he accepts who I am."

The dichotomy of his family's feelings is still difficult for Clark. His family wants him to be happy, but embracing homosexuality overall has not happened.

Four years after driving Alex to see a Mormon therapist, Alex believes his parents still hope he will return to the Mormon faith. Alex can't see that happening. He's happy with his life and relationship with God.

"I am fine exactly the way I am," Clark said. "I can be a beacon of hope and light to others around me, especially other gay people who commonly think that religion is not for them."

You can find Alex Clark on Facebook.

Diving photo courtesy of Rob Goldberg Jr./ECU Athletic Media Relations.