When Rex Woodbury arrived on Dartmouth College's campus, he worked hard to be the proverbial "straight" jock. He dated girls and played the part, denying his attraction to guys. He viewed such an attraction as a flaw, just as many men do — especially athletes. But by the spring of his sophomore year, he found that he had grown tired of his facade.
The middle distance runner decided it was time to come out, and the opportunity arose with the school's May 2013 "Celebration of Excellence" during his sophomore year, wherein 1,000 Dartmouth College student-athletes gather to applaud the year's athletic achievements. Woodbury had been asked to introduce the school's "You Can Play" video, part of a social activism campaign to eradicate homophobia in sports. He decided to go a little off-script and a little more personal. He announced to the crowd that he was gay, exhausted from hiding that part of himself. Surprisingly, he received only applause, positive texts and Facebook messages, and more support from his friends and fellow athletes than he could have ever imagined.
As Woodbury transitions from Dartmouth to the Big Apple, where he'll be an Investment Banking Analyst for Goldman Sachs, he will remain true to himself and never hide that part of himself again. In addition, he'll continue running his Connect Mentoring Program (http://connectlgbtcommunity.com), a foundation that serves and supports LGBT youth and young adults by connecting individuals with the type of advice and guidance Woodbury didn't have access to during his personal journey. Eventually, he plans to relocate to the San Francisco Bay Area, become an openly gay CEO, a husband, and a father, and lead the way in global initiatives for clean energy. Big goals? Not for one with role models such as Neil Patrick Harris, Robbie Rogers, and a loving dad and older brother.
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Marty Maguire: Have you ever experienced or observed homophobia while playing sports? If so, how did things change (or not) after you came out?
Rex Woodbury: While playing high school sports in Arizona, it was pretty common to hear people joke around using gay slurs or saying things like, "That's so gay." I think that kind of speech is pretty commonplace in high schools. At the time, I never thought twice about it. I just always associated the word "gay" with weakness and inferiority. Coming to Dartmouth, things were different. For the most part, Dartmouth has always been very sensitive towards the use of offensive slurs. That's one of the reasons I love this school. Saying, "That's so gay" would never fly here without someone calling you out on it. After I came out, friends, teammates, and coaches were even more sensitive towards the issue.
Marty Maguire: Are there any aspects of being a gay athlete that are just plain awkward?
Rex Woodbury: A lot of people think that being gay and going into the locker room is awkward. I definitely don't think that it is. Something I try to get across to people is that a gay teammate in the locker room is thinking about the same things they are: a nagging injury, the looming workout, the next competition.
My teammates — like all male teams — often talked about girls. Before I came out, I would try to weigh in and go along with the conversation. I was really just trying to play the part. But after coming out, I was pleasantly surprised with how the dynamics shifted. It wasn't me just sitting there silently and awkwardly while teammates talked about girls. I was able to join into the conversation, offering advice and input. My teammates embraced it.
Marty Maguire: Do your teammates reciprocate in those conversations by inquiring about your love life?
Rex Woodbury: Early on, I wasn't often asked about my love life. I think we just weren't at the point yet. But that improved over time as everyone grew more comfortable with having a gay teammate. And it has definitely improved a lot since I've had a boyfriend for the past year — teammates will ask me about him. I think in five or ten years, these conversations and topics will be much less taboo and much more natural.
Marty Maguire: Describe life as a gay man at Dartmouth in general? Perhaps the highly academic and intellectual environment creates an "enlightened" community or perhaps the emphasis on tradition yields a conservative climate?
Rex Woodbury: I think you pointed out an interesting dichotomy. Dartmouth is sensitive and aware of LGBT and other social issues. People will call you out on a gay or racial slur. But at the same time, I think that Dartmouth lags behind its peers, mainly because the college lacks proximity to a big city and because of the predominance of the Greek system. We still have a ways to go until we reach a point at which everyone can feel comfortable being out in the classroom, on the athletic field, or in his or her Greek house.
That being said, Dartmouth has many events that spark discussions about sexuality and gender identity. We've had speakers like Laverne Cox and Janet Mock come to campus. This past winter, I worked with the athletic department to bring Athlete Ally to campus. We had a pretty good turnout for the event. It was great to have our athletic teams, coaches, and administrators there to hear Hudson Taylor speak about homophobia in sports.
Marty Maguire: What was coming out like for you? Do you still remember that experience?
Rex Woodbury: I definitely remember it. Every spring, Dartmouth has the "Celebration of Excellence." It's basically a thousand student-athletes in one room — with coaches, trainers, administrators — to celebrate the year's athletic achievements. I'd been asked to introduce the "You Can Play" video that Dartmouth made, a video combating homophobia in sports. During the speech, I decided to go a bit off-script and get a little personal. I told the crowd, "This is something I've personally struggled with. I'm gay. Society tells us that you can't be athletic, masculine, and also gay. I'm tired of that. I hope that we can take the next step forward and realize that who you are attracted to and who you love has nothing to do with how well you play the game or how committed you are to the team." It was a very public way of coming out. But it was something I needed to do, and it was a huge weight off my chest.
Marty Maguire: What was the the reception like in the room during that exact moment?
Rex Woodbury: It was overwhelmingly positive. Everyone was so supportive. Before coming out, I'd been constantly worried about what people would think. I spent so much time and energy trying to appear the cool, "straight" jock. But what led me to actually come out was an attitude of, "Who cares what people think?" I was tired of pretending to be someone else, tired of maintaining this facade among even my closest friends, tired of the constant paranoia. After giving my coming out speech, I felt like I could breathe easy again. I was finally myself, with no barriers up. I think what people don't always realize is that everyone else has so much going on in their lives, that your sexual orientation is not as big of a deal to them as you make it out to be in your head. People just want to see you happy. It certainly didn't change anything with my teammates. They realized that I was being honest with them and being myself, and it made our relationships that much stronger.
Woodbury graduated from Dartmouth in Economics and Applied Mathematics (Photo by Rex's dad, Derrik Woodbury).
Marty Maguire: Were you inspired by LGBT scholarship in the classroom? Or perhaps your involvement with student groups was more instrumental to your growth as a young gay man?
Rex Woodbury: Dartmouth has a wealth of resources for LGBT individuals, both inside and outside of the classroom. I try and go to all the speaking events on campus. Last spring, we had Laverne Cox from the TV show "Orange is the New Black" come to campus. It was the first time I had listened to a transgender speaker and it really opened my mind and helped me understand the community a little better. She was very confident and empowering.
The most meaningful experiences have just been grabbing coffee with different people from around campus. There's such a diverse student body at Dartmouth. Hearing about different backgrounds and different stories has helped expand my understanding of the LGBT community and appreciate its depth.
Marty Maguire: Why did you start the Connect Mentoring Program? And what age group does the program generally serve?
Rex Woodbury: "Connect" tries to fill a gap, not just at Dartmouth but nationwide. When I was in high school — and even during my first two years at Dartmouth — I was really struggling with my sexuality. It was a constant source of pain. I didn't have a sense of who I was. I think that having a mentor at a time like that — someone to talk to — would have really helped me navigate that tough period. That's what Connect tries to help with. Usually our mentees are in high school or college, though we do have some older and younger. But it's really about people going through that tough time, where they're trying to figure out who they are and reconcile their sexuality with other parts of their life. We try to provide someone to confide in, get advice from, or just talk to — I think that human connection is so important.
Marty Maguire: That's great. And how do you locate mentees? Do they mostly reach out through the website?
Rex Woodbury: Some mentees have stumbled upon our website and reached out through the form there. Then a lot have just messaged me through Facebook. From there, I take down their information and we try to find a mentor who is close to them geographically. If that's not possible, we try to connect them to a suitable mentor to correspond with online.
It's great to receive messages and updates from people who have benefited from having a mentor. Ideally, we would like to grow the organization into a national or even global web of mentors and mentees within the LGBT community.
Marty Maguire: Do you have any specific well-known LGBT role models? Furthermore, did you have any mentors in your personal life who helped your development as a young gay man?
Rex Woodbury: Over the years, I've looked toward different role-models for different parts of my life. Athletically, I always admired the professional soccer player Robbie Rogers. I think he was a pioneer as a gay athlete, and he's a great example of being open and honest with teammates and coaches.
Neil Patrick Harris personifies the kind of confidence and charisma I strive for. He has a truly beautiful family, and I hope one day to have a family like his.
Personally, my support system has been unwavering. My dad and brother could not be more accepting or loving. I take them for granted sometimes, but I really am incredibly lucky to have them in my corner. I'm also lucky enough to have an amazing boyfriend and great friends — they've helped me become happier with who I am.
Marty Maguire: How do you plan on being involved with LGBT community service or activism in the future? Any particular causes?
Rex Woodbury: One area that I've focused on so far is LGBT equality in sports, and I think we still have a long way to go. I hope that in the next decade, professional athletes can be openly gay and younger kids can feel more comfortable being honest and open with teammates and coaches. There's a lot of work to be done, but websites like Outsports and groups like Athlete Ally are helping us get there.
Additionally, I hope to be involved with the fights for marriage equality and equality in the workforce. I hope to continue mentoring, because it's a direct and meaningful way to have an impact.
Marty Maguire: What do you look forward to most about transitioning from Hanover, New Hampshire to New York?
Rex Woodbury: I'm very excited about the transition! One of the reasons I chose Dartmouth was because of its incredible location — the hills of New Hampshire and Vermont are such idyllic, beautiful places. I'll definitely miss the outdoors and everything I've come to love about Hanover. But I'm ready for a change of pace and to experience the vibrancy of New York.
Marty Maguire: What are your professional aspirations?
Rex Woodbury: I'm very interested in clean energy and the inflection point we're at pertaining to energy use worldwide. I hope to one day be the CEO of a renewable energy company that creates innovative solutions to the world's energy needs. I also hope to build an LGBT professional alliance across multiple industries.
Marty Maguire: How do you envision the future with respect to your personal life?
Rex Woodbury: I was lucky enough to be raised by an incredible dad and to have the world's greatest brother. I want to have a family of my own — to marry the man I love and raise our kids together. The tentative life plan has me landing in San Francisco in five to 10 years and calling the Bay Area home.
Marty Maguire: Any concerns about being a gay man in the finance or business world? If so, how has the sports world prepared you?
Rex Woodbury: I think there are still some prejudices in most workplaces with regards to sexual orientation, but I think those prejudices are fading away very quickly. I recently read the book, "The Glass Closet." It's written by the former CEO of BP (British Petroleum), Lord John Browne. ... The book stresses the importance of being honest and open in the workplace — the ‘glass closet' — and I really believe that. During some of my internships, I was still in the closet. I think it's impossible to be comfortable at work and put forth your best work when you're hiding such an important part of who you are. Being out and open with coworkers is the best way to create a comfortable and trustworthy environment at work. It's in the best interests of both the firm and the individual.
Rex Woodbury recently graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth College, where he studied Economics and Applied Mathematics and competed on the track and field team as a middle-distance runner. Woodbury founded the Connect Mentoring Program (http://connectlgbtcommunity.com; contact email: firstname.lastname@example.org), which helps serve and support LGBT youth and young adults.
Marty Maguire is a writer based in San Francisco. You can follow him on Twitter @martymaguire.
Correction: This article was updated to reflect a change about a reference to the former CEO of BP, Lord John Browne. Browne was in the closet during his tenure; he was not out as originally stated. The reference has been deleted.