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Uncle's death motivates gay college athlete to create change

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Griffin Hay, a University of Portland runner, looks to work with his coach to form NCAA organization for LGBT athletes

The doorbell rings, and the family dog Homer, a springer spaniel, starts barking.

Griffin Hay, spending the day before Thanksgiving lying around, gets up from watching TV. He holds Homer back as he pulls open the front door.

At the door stands a blonde woman in a dark suit. She introduces herself as a coroner and wants to know if Hay's mom, a lawyer, is home.

She isn't. For Hay, this is simple -- give the lady Mom's work number and get back to watching Comedy Central.

But the lady says she doesn't want Mom's work number. Something has happened. Mom's twin brother, Kevin Gilbert, was found dead that morning.

Hay takes a step back and almost shuts the door.

He composes himself and calls his mom, Kathryn Hay. Following instructions from the coroner, he doesn't tell her why, just that she needs to come home. When Kathryn Hay arrives home, the coroner breaks the news to her while 15-year-old Griffin Hay sits at the kitchen table listening to the news for a second time.

Gilbert, 44, died after he fell in the snow on his way home from a bar and lay outside all night, according to the description of his death in a 2009 article by the Daily News in Granby, Colorado. When an ambulance was called and he was taken to the hospital in the morning, his body temperature was 72 degrees. He died of hypothermia.   

The sudden death devastated the Hay family.

"One of my favorite relatives, one of my closest relatives.  I knew I was losing part of my support system immediately," says Hay, now 21 and a student at the University of Portland.

As the initial commotion calmed, Griffin Hay started thinking about an extra layer to the tragedy. His uncle was openly gay, and Hay never talked to him about it. Even more haunting for Hay, Gilbert never learned that Griffin Hay is gay, too.

An unexpected journey

Griffin Hay's earliest memory of Gilbert is reading J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" together: "They told stories or sang songs as they rode forward all day, except of course when they stopped for meals. These didn't come quite as often as Bilbo would have liked them, but still he began to feel that adventures were not so bad after all."

Gilbert taught Hay to read, and "The Hobbit" served as the primary textbook. The two years before Hay started kindergarten, Gilbert moved in and took care of Griffin and his younger brother, Keaton, while their parents worked. Gilbert took them on adventures biking, hiking and swimming around Fort Collins, Colorado.

"I would get bored with some stuff, like 'The Hobbit' and biking around, but it seemed like they had everything in common," Keaton Hay says of his brother and uncle.  "There's just a connection that you saw."

After Griffin Hay started school, Gilbert moved to the skiing community of Winter Park, Colorado. It was a couple hours away, and they still saw each other frequently. Before sports consumed Griffin in junior high, he and Keaton made almost weekly visits in the winter to ski with Uncle Kevin.

In their time together, neither brother remembers seeing Gilbert date anyone, and occasionally, they wondered why Gilbert wasn't married. Griffin Hay gained clarity on that around age 10 when he overheard Gilbert telling a story about revealing he is gay to someone at work.

"I was kind of shocked, because I had never known anybody that was gay at that point," Hay says. "I barely had an understanding of what it was."

Hay stood about 10 feet away from his uncle and remains unsure if Gilbert knew he heard him, but regardless, Gilbert never talked about his sexuality with his nephews.

"I don't think Kevin was ever totally comfortable with himself," says Doug Hay, Griffin's dad.

Doug Hay and Gilbert became friends while attending Cornell College in Iowa. Gilbert later introduced his twin sister, Kathryn, to Doug, and they got married.

Gilbert once told Doug Hay, "Do you think if I had a choice that I wouldn't want to have someone in my life and have a girlfriend and not feel uncomfortable in locker rooms and all that? It's not a choice. That's just the way it is."

Any lack of confidence Gilbert held because of his sexuality didn't permeate his life.

"My uncle could fix anything in my grandma's house," Griffin Hay says. "My uncle climbed mountains on a weekly basis. He was a bad ass. He was a real man's man."

He tried to share that confidence with his nephews. When they skied, he prepared them, then pushed them to try the hardest slopes. He also regularly attended Griffin Hay's soccer games and cross country races.

On Nov. 7, 2009, Gilbert made sure to be there to see Hay's race at the Colorado state cross country meet his sophomore year. He brought gifts -- a chocolate bar and the book "Born to Run." Inside the book, Gilbert taped a note. On thick yellowish paper in black ink, it said, "Run fast, but look up."

That day, Hay ran the fastest on his team, finishing 37th in the state, and Gilbert engulfed him with a hug after the race. That day proved to be the last time Hay saw Gilbert alive.

Griffin Hay 2

Griffin Hay had this portrait taken during his freshman year at the University of Portland to support efforts to add LGBT students to the university’s non-discrimination policy.

Holding it in

Griffin Hay took a date to Homecoming his sophomore year at Fort Collins High School. They had fun, but her devotion to Hay waned as the night progressed. She ended up dancing with someone else.

Hay saw her and continued dancing with his group of friends.

"I realized it wasn't bothering me that she was dancing with another guy," Hay says.

If accepting you're gay can happen in one night, that was the night for Hay. Sure, he thought about it for months before, but on that night, he realized that girl -- or any girl – wasn't what he wanted.

This was around October. When his uncle died Nov. 25, 2009, Hay had not told anyone he's gay. Gilbert's death forced Hay to face the reality that he wasted more than a month and any opportunity to talk to his uncle about being gay himself.

"It sucks that I wasn't strong enough to tell him before he passed away, because he had been such a supportive part of my life and such a big part of growing up," Hay says. "I wasn't honest with him, and I will never have that chance now."

For weeks, it ate at Hay that he knew he was gay and should have told Gilbert. Who would accept him now? The pleasant face he wore for the world fooled everyone but his brother.

"There was just something that was cold for the next couple months with Griff that wasn't normal," Keaton Hay says. "Griffin is always the happy guy."

For Hay to voluntarily share his feelings was and still is rare. He's a listener and goes out of his way to care for family and friends, but most of the time, his struggles are his own. 

"I could tell him anything," says Erin Hooker, Hay's friend since grade school. "He would tell me nearly anything, if I asked."

Hay's angst and pain stewed -- Why didn't he tell Gilbert? How would he tell someone now? -- until a reprieve arrived around New Year's.

A boy a year older, Connor Weitz, sent him a flirtatious Facebook message. Weitz saw Hay in the hallway at school and felt curious if Hay might be gay, too. Weitz talked some then asked the question, "Griffin, are you gay?"

Hay's blue eyes stared at the screen. Then, he responded and, for the first time, told someone he's gay.

Over the next few months, Hay told friends about his sexuality. Near the end of the school year, he started going on secret dates with Weitz. By May, all Hay's friends knew his sexuality, but no one knew at home.

His parents accepted Gilbert's sexuality, but Hay feared different treatment.

"I wasn't being rational, I know now," Hay says explaining why he didn't tell his family. "I didn't want to burden my family. Also, I didn't want to show all of this weakness.  I wanted to be the rock, the pillar that could hold everything together and be just fine."

He kept his parents in the dark until an early dismissal day when Weitz went home with him. They were home alone until Kathryn Hay came home unexpectedly and caught them cuddling.

She lectured both boys for hours about their secret relationship and being alone together at the house – no differently than if he'd been caught with a girl, according to Griffin Hay. 

"I will always regret not having the opportunity to be honest with my parents," Griffin Hay says. "I'm happy they know now. Do I feel relieved that I didn't have to tell them? Probably a little bit."

Getting traction

Kathryn Hay wanted her newly out son to realize the LGBT community's extent, so she planned a family trip to 2010's San Francisco Pride. Kathryn Hay knew that a group of black, lesbian security guards; an elderly naked man on a bicycle; and throngs of drag queens weren't likely to arrive in Fort Collins, Colorado, especially anywhere a 15-year-old boy would see them, so at Pride, Griffin Hay saw all those things and more for the first time.

Their family watched the parade a few blocks from The Castro district. It made Griffin Hay feel normal. The trip to San Francisco showed him how living openly gay could be, but first, he needed to find his footing.

When he returned to school that fall, a challenge awaited him. Early in his cross country season, the team's top runner, senior David Garcia, started an argument on a long run by telling Hay he was "going to hell" for being gay. For the first time, Hay needed to defend his sexuality against hostility. The two went back and forth for several miles with their speed increasing with each barb.

"I was in a rage," Hay says.

The response from his teammates and coach after the run empowered Hay. Both made it clear that intolerance was unacceptable. The team resolved to avoid the topic of homosexuality that season, which ended with a Colorado state title. When interviewed for this story, Garcia says he still thinks homosexuality is wrong, but he cares about Hay and talks positively about him.

Hay also started dating Weitz that fall, after their parents embargoed contact for the summer. Weitz went as Hay's Homecoming date – which provided the highlight of being the night they first told each other, "I love you," but included the low of no one coming near them when they danced together.

"That was extremely difficult to experience, so we ended up leaving," Weitz says.

They dated throughout that school year, but because of Homecoming, Weitz talked Hay into them both taking girls to prom that spring. In the summer, their relationship waned as Weitz headed to Chicago for college.

The fall of Hay's senior year, he helped Fort Collins High School capture a second consecutive cross country state team title. At one of the season's final meets, a runner on another team said he had a teammate he wanted Hay to meet. Shortly after the season, Hay met Kegan Mengel, a runner and swimmer at Thompson Valley High School, and for their first date, they went for a run.

"Kegan was one of the first guys I met that [showed me] I can actually be interested in athletics and still be gay," Hay says. "He helped me come to an acceptance of myself."

They dated throughout that winter and spring, and Hay took his boyfriend to prom. Mengel made him happy, and his running was going well. So that spring, Hay decided he wanted to announce publicly he's gay. He had the perfect opportunity when he capped his senior year by winning the Colorado 3,200-meter state title in 9 minutes, 30.61 seconds. A Denver Post reporter interviewed him on the infield immediately after the race, but 20 minutes later, Hay realized he forgot to say he's gay.

"I had thought months before the race, I would love to win an individual state title so I could say, " 'Gay kids can compete and beat straight kids. You have to stop stereotyping us,' " says Hay, who enjoyed a team state title that spring, too. "Those statements can make a bigger impact than just a race."|

Griffin Hay 3

Griffin Hay, left, stands with high school teammates John Patterson, center, and Jeff Abbey, right, when they competed at the same college meet, the Mt. Sac Relays.

Plans for Portland

As Hay looked at potential colleges leading up to his senior year to continue running, the University of Portland provided alluring qualities -- an urban campus, one of the country's premier running programs, and small class sizes. The primary drawback – it's Roman Catholic.

Hay has never identified with a religion, though his grandparents are devout Methodists. It seemed enough the coach and campus made him feel comfortable, and Hay decided to enroll at UP, thinking it offered an opportunity to change minds.

"Until it becomes the norm for people to come out as trans or gay, there's a need for activists that are willing to be open and honest to just live their lives," Hay says.

One of the first converts to accepting Hay's sexuality was his teammate Ben Forsee, who learned through Hay's Facebook page that he's gay. Forsee had no gay friends growing up, so before meeting Hay, he developed a fear of seeing Hay with a guy and of Hay not allowing straight guys to talk about their interest in women. That lasted until the first week they met as freshmen, and Forsee realized Hay wasn't someone to fear.

"I was immature about it and just didn't know any better," Forsee says. "Griffin definitely changed my opinion. I don't feel that way now in the slightest."

Forsee now calls Hay his best friend, and they plan to be roommates next year as seniors, academically. Athletically, Hay enters 2015-16 as a redshirt junior.

Later his freshman year, Hay took the opportunity to speak publicly about his sexuality. UP students started a campaign urging the administration to adopt sexual orientation and gender identity into its nondiscrimination policy. Hay signed a petition and the student newspaper quoted him.

"I am a gay student at UP and I want to be able to hold my boyfriend's hand without him looking around to make sure nobody will see us," Hay told The Beacon in February 2013.

Before the start of the next school year, the university adopted the policy for students.

This year, UP cross country/track and field coach Rob Conner approached Hay with the idea for the NCAA to start an advisory group for LGBT athletes. Conner says Hay is the first athlete he has coached in his 25 years at Portland to talk to him openly about being gay.

"The more people that can be exposed to LGBT people, the better," says Conner, whose men's cross country team placed third in Division I this fall. "I know other eras were different, and you didn't want to be out for your own safety's sake. I'm telling you, for somebody to be ostracized or feel unsafe, that kills me.

"I am really proud of our team, to be honest, for loving him as much as they do, and I'm proud to have him on our team."

The 5-foot-7, 145-pound Hay, who finished 26th at the 2014 West Coast Conference cross country meet and is slated to be one of UP's key runners this fall, looks forward to working with his coach to create an NCAA LGBT group. Hay has goals for his own campus as well: create a Gay-Straight Alliance and get UP athletics involved with the You Can Play Project.

Sean O'Hollearn spent more time talking to Hay than probably any other teammate the past three years about Hay's motivation for activism.

"It's reasonable to think that he feels guilty that he didn't tell his uncle, and that has kind of lit a fire for him to really speak what he actually feels," O'Hollearn says. 

Second life

The spring after Gilbert died, Hay remembers being alone outside when he saw a black and gold butterfly.

The butterfly reminded him of Gilbert. Hay says butterflies are light, friendly and energetic, just like his uncle.

"If his spirit was going to come down to me in any form, I feel like it would be the butterfly, hanging out with me in the outdoors," Hay says.

Hay never says anything when other people are around. But the past five years anytime Hay was alone and saw a black and gold butterfly, he calls it Kevin.

"It feels like he's hanging out with me again, just going for a hike," Hay says.

Hay admits Gilbert was not perfect, but his view of his uncle is different than his parents'. Hay's perspective mostly eliminates Gilbert's flaws.

"He was a role model for me, no matter what, no matter his sexuality," Hay says. "He was just a human. He was just my uncle, who was an awesome skier and a funny guy and a bit of a nerd. I loved that about him."

Gilbert's death allowed Hay to define Gilbert as a strong, confident gay man -- how he wants him to be, how he needs him to be as his role model.

A role model that motivates Hay to open doors for himself and LGBT athletes everywhere.

"It's difficult to come out to anybody," Hay says, "but it's important to come out to everybody so that you don't lose the opportunity to get the support, get the acceptance and get the love that you deserve."

Griffin Hay can be reached via email at hay16@up.edu.

Erik Hall can be reached via email at hallerik7@gmail.com or on Twitter (@HallErik) or on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/EHwriter).