clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Coming-out advice from nine LGBT college athletes we haven’t heard from before

Nine LGBT athletes from the five power conferences reached out to share their advice on coming out and being out in sports.

Wes Villaflor dove for Notre Dame from 2007 to 2011.
Allison Wagner

Want to know how to handle being an LGBT college athlete? These nine retired college athletes have their answers.

Outsports recently published a story about the 174 publicly out LGBT athletes from schools in the Power Five Conferences — ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC. Following that story, nine athletes who competed at schools now in those conferences and that have not previously come out publicly took the opportunity to share advice from their experience as an LGBT college athlete.

In addition to other athletes whom we have become aware to have come out, that raises the number of publicly out LGBT athletes from Power Five Conference schools to 188.

Along with these nine additions who have weighed in, Jen Self (Cal Berkeley women’s basketball, 1988-92) and Jeff Stabile (UCLA men’s diving, 1986-88) made OutSports aware they previously came out publicly, and former Iowa swimmer Mike Nelson, former Cal Berkeley golfer Cheryl Lala, and Louisville athlete Emmonnie Henderson have come out publicly as LGBT.

Advice was edited for clarity, length, and to provide a variety of guidance.

Mark Booth

Stanford men’s gymnast, 1990-94

Achievements: U. S. National Team Member (1996-1997); NCAA team championships (1992, 1993); three time NCAA All-American; NCAA floor exercise national champion (1994); U.S. floor exercise bronze medalist (1994)

Advice: Coming out is a difficult journey, but the rewards are countless. It truly is the difference between living and thriving. It takes a lot of energy and effort to repress one’s sexuality. Also, being closeted can take a toll on an individual’s self-confidence and self-worth. For me, the constant low-grade stress was a constant distraction. As an athlete, my low self-confidence had a direct impact on my attitude as well as my performance. For me, it’s truly incredible to see how far we’ve come. The struggle for all LGBTQ athletes is still real, but it is encouraging to know that more and more people are finding the courage to share their stories and live their truths.

Dante Jones

Missouri men’s diver, 2007-11

Achievements: Big 12 platform silver medalist (2010); Big 12 1-meter springboard silver medalist (2011)

Advice: Come out when you're ready. It's your decision when it's time for you to come out, not anyone else's, so therefore when you're ready, that's the time that's right for you.

Dana Sorensen was inducted into the Stanford Athletics Hall of Fame in 2015.
Stanford Athletics

Dana Sorensen

Stanford softball player, 2000-04

Achievements: First-team NFCA All-American (2001, 2004); Second-team NFCA All-American (2000); Inducted into Stanford Athletics Hall of Fame in 2015

Advice: When I was in college, I wasn’t out. It wasn’t that long ago, but in terms of gay rights and how we’ve changed, it was a long time ago. I didn’t necessarily think about my sexuality in college because I was so driven on the softball front and the school front. I put my personal life on the back burner, but I think you put your personal life on the back burner because you don’t really want to address it.

At that time, softball had a bad stereotype. It was a negative stereotype where you would hear things like, “Softball is going to make you gay, and softball is going to turn you into a lesbian.” I remember my teammates joking around that we didn’t have any gay teammates. We were somehow immune from this disease, and funny enough, post-college four more of my teammates have come out.

My advice to a college athlete would be that — You coming out is very hard and it’s very difficult and I don’t underestimate that. But every athlete who comes out is a chance for a younger athlete to feel more comfortable in their own skin. Because they do look to the college athletes. They look to the pro athletes. When they see those athletes coming out and being proud of who they are, it makes it easier. If just one kid feels better about themselves and feels less fear then it’s a huge success. That would be my advice to college athletes is that you’re a role model to a lot more people than you realize.

Travis Wagner

Georgia Tech men’s swimmer, 2007-11

Achievements: Competed at the 2008 and 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials; Set Georgia Tech school records in the 100-yard butterfly and several relays; Finished top eight at the ACC in the 100 fly as a freshman, sophomore and junior.

Advice: I grew up in Ohio in a fairly conservative Protestant home. When I came to Georgia Tech, I never imagined coming out in college. However, as I came to accept myself and my sexuality more, things started to change. I came out to my friends and the team in my junior year, and I wish that I had done it sooner.

One thing I struggled with but came to realize is that you are probably never going to feel ready to come out. There is always going to be something in the back of your mind that wants you to keep waiting. But, if you are thinking that it might be time and you might be ready, listen to those voices because you will probably never feel 100 percent ready.

Also, you don't have to be something that you are not. If you haven't been exposed to a certain aspect of LGBTQ culture, by all means try it out. Listen to every song by Madonna or Cher; watch every episode of AbFab or “Golden Girls,” but if you don't like it, don't feel obligated to play the part. Your sexuality is one aspect of you. It doesn't define everything you are and should be. You are still the same you that you were before coming out. Just being open about your sexuality allows you to be that true, authentic self. And that version of you is unique and great.

J.P. Perez

Purdue men’s diver, 2006-11

Achievements: NCAA All-American by finishing seventh on platform (2011); NCAA Honorable Mention All-American on platform (2010) and on 3-meter springboard (2011); Bronze medalist four times at the Big Ten Championships — three times on 3-meter (2007, 2010, 2011) and once on platform (2010).

Advice: When I came out, it was actually when I was graduating from Purdue, so I came out at the end of my diving career. My advice for any college athlete is to really trust your teammates that they’re going to be there for you. I wish that I had trusted myself to know earlier and not to be afraid of it. Once I did finally come out, it wasn’t as big as I thought it was going to be. Everyone was super supportive. They were there for me. That was one of my biggest fears. Your coaches and your teammate are not just there for you being an athlete. They are there to help you through all sorts of issues through life.

Barron Nydam fenced for Notre Dame and won a national title in 2011.
Notre Dame Athletics Communications

Barron Nydam

Notre Dame men’s fencer, 2007-11

Achievements: Four-time NCAA All-American by finishing sixth twice (2008, 2011) and 10th twice (2009, 2010); Helped Notre Dame win the team national title (2011).

Advice: Be brave. Be strong. Be proud. Looking back on my experiences as an athlete, I only have one regret. I wish I had the bravery and strength to come out sooner to more people. Every time I came out to someone — no matter if they were a teammate, coach, administrator, or friend — I was greeted with love and acceptance.

Eight years later looking at when I came out for the first time, it was a difficult process not because it was difficult for me to obtain love and acceptance from others but because it was difficult for me to obtain love and acceptance from myself.

I challenge all of the LGBT athletes to be brave, strong, and proud by loving and accepting yourself. If you do so, you will give others the opportunity to love you for who you are.

Matt Tang

Georgia Tech men’s swimmer, 2007-11

Achievements: Finished third as part of the 800-yard freestyle relay at the 2009 ACC Championships while setting a school record that stood for six years.

Advice: College is when you can be yourself. College was where I came into my own and began not caring what others thought. This was where I began to get to know myself and surrounded myself with those I cared about and who cared about me. If you’re in college and LGBT, don’t be afraid to be yourself. Own who you are and be proud of who you’re becoming; to me, this is what college is for. If I had come out during college, I believe I would have been able to establish relationships with more LGBT Georgia Tech athletes/students.

Also, our generation, regardless of religion or political leanings, is accepting of the LGBT community. Shortly after coming out to my family, I sent individual notes to my close college friends, who are a diverse group of people from various backgrounds. Within a day or so I had received a response from each of them voicing their support and that they were so happy that I was able to now be my authentic self. I will always be grateful for this great group of friends that I have from Georgia Tech.

Wes Villaflor

Notre Dame men’s diver, 2007-11

Achievements: 2010 Big East Champion on 1- and 3-meter springboard

Advice: Be confident in who you are and belonging on that team. As a college athlete you were recruited because you are one of the best athletes in your sport. You were also recruited based on a number of other factors outside of just your athletic abilities, like your intellect, your leadership potential, and your character. And through this recruitment process, it was decided that you belong on this team. As a member of the LGBT community, we are all familiar with the feeling of being an “other.” When you become aware of your “otherness,” it is easy to question your belonging and lose a bit of confidence. It is important in these moments to remember that you were recruited to be on this team as much as the next athlete.

Thad Ellis was the 2010 SEC freshman diver of the year.
Auburn University

Thad Ellis

Auburn men’s diver, 2009-11 (career shortened by injury)

Achievements: 2010 SEC Freshman Male Diver of the Year

Advice: Growing up, I played baseball because my father played in college, as well as after college. I had never been so bored or hated a sport so much in my life, but I hid my feelings due to the fact that I wanted to make Dad proud.

When I was 9 years old, I told my dad I was quitting baseball and becoming a diver. My dad, who I am named after, looked at me and said, “Son, I don't care if you want to be a figure skater or a ballerina, just do what makes you happy, and be the best you can be at it.” I was so shocked.

Until college, I never entertained the idea that someday I could end up with a guy, but by the end of my freshman year, I mustered up the courage to talk to a guy. He was a baseball player and had similar experiences growing up. I had a real connection with him, but I felt guilty and almost dirty that I was having these conversations with a man. So I decided to shut myself out and only talk to girls.

That lasted until a couple years after college when I met a guy who was in a fraternity at another SEC school and was also from Georgia. We had a lot in common. It became a secret relationship, but he was ready to be open about us when I was not. This was a turning point in my life, and it led to me coming out to my parents.

My dad was the macho, athlete, frat star in college turned successful businessman. No dad like that could want a gay anything, I thought. But he told me, if this is who I really was then he didn't care. He went on to say that all he and my mom want for me and my siblings is for us to be healthy and happy. A flood of relief washed over me as I realized I had just overcome my biggest hurdle.

Keeping your feelings inside and trying to process them all by yourself isn't healthy, and it never helps. Talking and exposing how you feel to someone allows you to truly say and experience the feelings that have just been thoughts. For me, saying them out loud actually validated them. It made my feelings more tangible, and in turn helped them become real.

Shame on me for thinking that the community I was raised in would disown me because of my sexuality. It’s been the opposite; my friendships are closer than ever and my family and I have a better communicative relationship.

Erik Hall is a member of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. You can reach him on Twitter @HallErik, Facebook, or by email —