Sean Warren was tired of hiding and putting up a false front. The junior football player at Pinnacle High School in Phoenix decided to take matters in his own hands in the way that teenagers do these days -- by posting on social media.
Last November, the 17-year-old, posted this on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, under the headline "Deal With It":
"I just wanted to come out in a unique way," Sean told Outsports. "I was at my friend's house and thought, what if I just Photoshopped a picture of a rainbow behind me? Then I looked at more pictures online and saw the picture I used, which was more retro, it was more of a cartoon. What if I cropped out his face and used my face instead?
"People describe me as a person who doesn't really conform. I wanted to do something different than people just announcing that they're gay. I wanted to come out in my own way, since that's how I feel coming out should be. I wanted to do it in a fun sort of way and so it wasn't awkward."
The reaction was all positive, though some wondered if they were being put on. "Some of the football players asked if it was a joke. He said no, and they said OK," said Warren's mom, Kathy Hurford, an accountant. "There was no ugliness. They were very much accepting. I'm just really proud of him. He's a strong kid and he's got a great personality."
With that post, Sean Warren came out to his world and he hasn't looked back. He is now telling his story publicly in hopes of making a difference for other LGBT teens who are suffering through what he did. It is quite a change from just a few years earlier in middle school when Warren was going through puberty and his voice was cracking.
Some fellow students were merciless and he was "viciously bullied," his mom said. Some of the bullying was so intense that Sean hid it from his mom until later. Things got so bad that the school suspended one student after he bullied Sean on the school bus. The bullying was reported by the mother of a student who witnessed it. "I just hated what he had to go through," Sean's mom said.
She recalled one middle school incident when she came home to find one of Sean's new Ed Hardy shirts in the trash. He liked the shirt but he became upset when somebody said only gay people wore them and he threw it away. "I told him you need what you want to wear and be comfortable with it. He talked to some of his friends and the next day the Ed Hardy shirt came out of the trash and he wore it," she said.
College football player Connor Mertens comes out
A place kicker at Willamette University in Oregon, Mertens came out as bisexual to his team. He now comes out publicly in hopes of inspiring other LGBT athletes to come out and be true to themselves.
Sean has grown immensely comfortable from those dark days when he wished he wasn't gay. "In seventh grade I kind of had a feeling, but I shoved those feelings aside because I didn't want to accept the fact that I might be different," he said. But Kathy Hurford knew, even if Sean didn't.
"Mom's know," she said of her only child. "I've known for a while. He went through a period of several years where he did not want to be [gay]. And it just broke my heart to see him so sad. We've gone through a lot of pain."
Starting in eight grade, Sean came to accept himself for who he is. He spent his freshman and sophomore years in high school mostly closeted, to test the waters in terms of acceptance from his classmates. Now totally out, he has no regrets. "I am very proud of who I am and wouldn't change it for anything," he said. He made a special point of crediting openly gay YouTube personality Tyler Oakley, whose videos pushed him to be comfortable with himself.
Deciding to playing football was initially a coping mechanism for Sean, a way to show he was tough and manly. "I had problems with people calling me 'gay' and 'fag' in middle school and me and my mom thought it would help make the situation die down a bit, because people don't normally think of gays playing football," he said.
Sean and his mother, Kathy Hurford.
He is not a star player and has played backup, mostly on the defensive line, for his three seasons. At 6-1, 209 pounds, he is a bit undersized for his position, but his coach, Dana Zupke, nonetheless has seen Sean make great strides.
"One area where Sean absolutely excels is that he has a tremendous attitude," said Zupke, who has been head coach at Pinnacle for 11 seasons. "He responds very well to criticism, even if the criticism is harsh. He bounces back. He's a good soldier. Work ethic-wise, it's been great to watch him mature from his freshman year. It's only been recently that I learned how much football meant to him and how important it is to him."
Sean is a big fan of his coach. "I don't know what I would be like if I did not play football or have him as a coach because he's a real mentor for my life," he said. "He teaches us that character matters." He has been impressed by Zupke's emphasis on what he calls the four pillars of being a good player and person -- Work, Connect, Think, Believe -- and how he structures practice around these themes. "I really respect him and I'm glad he's my coach."
"We do try and preach character," Zupke said, "and one of those things is connecting with human beings. Part of that is understanding differences and trying to not be offensive or hurtful." Understanding and accepting someone who is gay fits right in with these teachings, he said.
Sean's coming out "made me introspective on things that might be said in the weight room. Football's a culture, an alpha male-dominated environment," Zupke said. "One of my perspectives over the years is how much more tolerant and understanding football is. We still have a long way to go, but I think about the time I was in high school 30 years ago and I just know we weren't this accepting or tolerant as what I've seen so far from Sean's teammates and the program, which is a good thing."
Sean waited until late November, after his junior season ended, to publicly come out. He wanted there to be time for his teammates to absorb the information if they had any problems. The only people who knew were his mom and stepfather and six close friends, one of who is on the team. All were supportive. Coming out on social media was Sean's way to deal with it in one stroke.
"I was getting to the point where I couldn't fake being straight any more. It was getting really old." he said. "When I was in the closet, people thought of me as being straight and liking girls. I would say things like, 'Yeah, she's hot' or 'She has a nice butt.' I just hated not being myself."
His mother was apprehensive about his decision to come out publicly. "He's my baby. I worry about harassment. But he was very much tired of living a lie. To me, you are what you are and there's no way I'm going to love him any less. I initially would have preferred him to wait until he got out of high school. After high school, who gives a damn? He made up his own mind to come out and I said I would support you in whatever you want to do."
His mother's worry was all for naught. Sean has received universal acceptance, including from his teammates. One of them is his best friend, Austin Jones, a junior defensive tackle on the team.
"I was proud and happy for him to come out publicly because it takes a lot of guts for someone to come out in a world that is barely accepting towards gays," Austin said. "So I was happy for him to let go and just accept who he is and let everyone know. I don't think it will change anyone on the team's feelings. There will definitely be people who feel uncomfortable but I strongly feel we are all brothers and would not degrade one another. I have known Sean since kindergarten but we didn't become good friends until sixth grade. But I see and feel like he is my brother."
Sean and his best friend and teammate Austin at Lambeau Field last summer.
Zupke is also impressed. He said Sean is the first openly gay player he has had, though a former Pinnacle player did come out after he graduated. "It takes a lot of courage to do what he did and when he did it," said Zupke. "A lot of high school kids are not that courageous to do that."
Sean did not tell Zupke he was gay until I asked to speak to the coach for this story. Zupke had heard the information elsewhere, but felt he did not want to intrude on Sean's personal life unless the player brought it up. One of the first things Zupke did when they spoke was talk about offensive language that might have be used on the team.
"I asked Sean, have I offended you?" Zupke said. "I understand the power of language, even when the intent isn't there. Sean's coming out is getting me to examine my own use of things that maybe I don't think are that big of a deal but other people do. I don't call people 'gay' or 'fag' or anything derogatory like that, but I've made comments that might not be completely appropriate, never with the intent to be hurtful or mean to an individual or a community, but more in jest. Sean and I had a conversation about this and it's most certainly gotten me to think about it."
For his part, Sean has his own views on the use of words like "gay" or "fag." He says they are commonly used by teenage boys his age and that he is not bothered by them. "I threw it around to fit in and I still do," he said. "It doesn't bother me. I don't feel like the word 'gay' or 'fag' should label who I am. I feel like it is just another word.
"I don't think people should walk on eggshells around me and have to change the way that they talk. The words 'fag' and 'gay' really don't upset me. I don't know if it should. I feel like it's just words and people aren't using them out of hate. I feel like it's been ingrained in their mind that that's just another cuss word. I know it bothers some of my gay friends, but to me it's just another word. I will be cautious around using it around gay friends, though."
"If the person was using it out of hate it would make a difference and probably make me upset. But if people are just saying, 'You're so gay,' I go, 'Yeah, I'm gay, thanks for pointing it out.' I think it all depends on the context."
Sean will start spring football drills soon as an openly gay player, but expects that nothing will change. "People in high school are more exposed to the world [than in middle school]," he said. "They are starting to learn that being straight is not the only sexuality out there. Being gay is normal too."
After graduating in the spring of 2016, Sean next wants to set his sights on pursuing a career in interior design and decorating. He has his eye on attending Northern Arizona University, which offers a major in those fields. In the immediate future, though, is one more year of football this fall. This time he won't have to pretend to be into girls. He can just be Sean.
"I am looking forward to a really fun year, getting to play one more season with my brothers."
Sean Warren, 17, is a junior at Pinnacle High School in Phoenix and plays on the football team. He is a huge Green Bay Packers fan and a pilgrimage to Lambeau Field last year was a big highlight. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter (@Sean_Warren_97).
If you're an LGBT athlete in high school or college looking to connect with others like you, you can also head over to GO! Athletes, the largest network of people like you in the world.
And if you want to add your story to the growing chorus of out LGBT people in sports, let us know.