For several months, Max Showalter had a secret boyfriend.
The boyfriend was two years older than Max and an athlete at his school. Their friendship turned into a relationship near the end of Max’s sophomore year at Fenwick High School in Oak Park, Illinois.
The boyfriend was not out as gay. Max, an all-state diver at Fenwick, had only told his mom and three close friends that he identified as gay himself. The relationship ended when the boyfriend left for college, but it did not end amicably. On Aug. 21, 2013, the boyfriend sent Showalter a text message aimed to end the relationship and do more damage. It said:
“You’re a fag. I’m not gay. All this was a mistake. Never talk to me.”
It devastated Showalter and left him heartbroken, something he hid from almost everyone for months. It also set him free of any obligation to hide his sexuality. He started telling people he’s gay and even challenging his Catholic high school’s anti-LGBT teachers.
“After I came out, I was ballsy,” said Showalter, currently a sophomore men’s diver at Purdue University. “I don’t know what came over me. I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m out. I’m super cool. Look at me, I have all this confidence.’”
Beyond being gay, Showalter never fit gender expectations. That boyfriend taught him conforming to other people doesn’t make him happy or them happy. He’s found it much more enjoyable to wear eyeliner and heels than shield who he is from the world.
“Max knew he was never going to hide who he truly was after experiencing a secret relationship with this guy,” said Shea Smith, one of Showalter’s best friends since high school. “That’s when he started openly being to anyone and everyone, ‘I am gay, who cares.’”
Feeling uninhibited wasn’t new to Showalter, but he had to re-learn it.
Jill Showalter owned a silver sequin cocktail dress. The dress’ sparkle drew the attention of her 5-year-old son, Max, when he saw it in her closet, so he tried it on.
“I felt fierce in that dress,” Max said.
He did it again, adding heels this time.
“I would come home from work, and very specifically on many, many occasions, Max had on this silver sequin dress of mine and my silver heels and panty hose,” Jill Showalter said. “He loved that [dress], oh my god.”
Later, Max grabbed jewelry and makeup, too.
“It’d be in the middle of the day, and Max would come down having raided my mother’s jewelry collection,” said Reed Showalter, Max’s older brother. “He’s … skipping through the house with pearl necklaces and hoop rings as bracelets.”
If Max got in trouble, it was because he didn’t receive permission first, and it had nothing to do with a grade school boy trying to look like Zsa Zsa Gabor on a Tuesday afternoon.
“I was never uncomfortable with the disregard for gender norms,” Reed Showalter said. “When you’re a kid, I don’t think you have those same things hammered in, at least our family didn’t.”
Jill Showalter said her best friend was gay. Max’s dad, Brent Showalter, said half of his and Jill’s wedding party was gay. A gay son was never going to be a problem for Jill and Brent.
But still when Max reached middle school, he succumbed to pressure and had a girlfriend, even though he told his mom that he’s gay in second, fourth and sixth grade — quickly taking it back the first two times. Showalter also gave up gymnastics, which he’d done for seven years, for team sports in middle school. He briefly tried basketball, soccer, and volleyball but struggled in those, and he stopped playing sports. Showalter lost his desire to stand out.
“I wasn’t super comfortable with myself, so I was more focused on blending in,” said Showalter, who in middle school was frequently called a fag, homo, and queer.
His dad knew that fierce personality was still in there, and he signed Max up for diving during eighth grade. Max instantly enjoyed the sport, and he found an outlet to express himself. At Max’s first major diving meet in July 2011, he met Kyle Goodwin, a diver his age from Denver that now competes for University of Missouri. Goodwin, who had dived for five years by that point, knew most of the competitors, but Showalter knew no one and tried to change that.
“He was really outgoing,” Goodwin said. “Rather than just hone in and be very self-focused, he would rather go out in-between his dives and actually talk to people.”
Drastic inconsistency in Showalter’s behavior started to develop. Showalter at home and at club diving felt comfortable being expressive and outgoing. But other times, particularly at Catholic school, he masked that character. When he joined the Fenwick boys swimming and diving team as a freshman, Showalter didn’t show his personality initially.
“He was a pretty shy kid,” said Justin White, a swimmer at Fenwick two years older than Showalter and currently a senior on the Lehigh University swimming team. “Then his sophomore year, he gained a lot of confidence on the board and with the team.”
Success helped. As a sophomore, Showalter placed fifth in the state of Illinois. In the 40-year history of Fenwick boys swimming and diving, Showalter is the only athlete to earn all-state honors in diving.
Showalter turned 16 in April 2013, and his diving success continued that summer as he moved to the 16-18 year old age group. Though the breakup that August hurt, it allowed Showalter to dissolve the distinct differences in his behavior.
“That is the substantive change in his personality [since he came out],” Reed Showalter said. “He’s not only Max with our family and his closest friends, but he’s comfortable being Max with everyone, which I think is pretty cool.”
Max Showalter never personally knew anyone else gay in diving until he met diving coach Nunzio Esposto.
Their first introduction occurred at a diving meet in early December 2013. A couple weeks later at the Youth Olympic Games Qualifier, Jordan Windle, one of Esposto’s divers, gave an impressive performance taking third place on 3-meter springboard and platform, despite Windle being about two years younger than Showalter and primarily focusing on platform diving previously.
“Jordan, who hadn’t really dove springboard before, … started getting so good,” Showalter said. “His coach must be phenomenal.”
A couple weeks later, Windle and Showalter spoke via FaceTime. Following the conversation, Showalter convinced his parents to let him move from suburban Chicago to Durham, North Carolina, to train with Esposto and finish high school by taking online courses.
Showalter expected Esposto to influence and improve his diving, but he didn’t foresee the overall influence Esposto would have on his life.
“He ended up being like my second dad,” Showalter said. “He was the only one in North Carolina I could talk to about any gay issue that I had. He is still one of my best friends.”
Esposto coaches the Duke University men’s and women’s divers in addition to the young club divers. Despite multiple jobs, he tried to make time for Showalter, who didn’t have his family in North Carolina. Their personalities clicked, so it wasn’t hard to form a connection.
“He came out very early in his life. For me, I came out late in my life. But … the fact we’re both gay, I think had something to do with [relating to one another],” said Esposto, who is 47 and started coming out at 35. “And our sense of humor is similar, so we got along well.”
Showalter’s sexuality was never a secret when he arrived in Durham. His first day with Esposto’s club team, Showalter told his club teammates that he is gay.
“The second he showed up to the team, he was his authentic self,” said Connor Callahan, a diver on the Duke club team and currently a freshman diver for Cal Berkeley. “He realized that not everywhere is like a private Catholic high school. He realized that it’s OK to be himself ... and not give a shit about what anyone thinks.”
Showalter became so comfortable with his Duke teammates that for Halloween 2014 he came to practice dressed as a Greek goddess, a modest outfit he got at a costume store. Talking about drag had become a popular topic for Showalter and Esposto. Though RuPaul’s Drag Race started in 2009, Showalter never saw an episode until Esposto brought it up to him, and it became Showalter’s favorite show.
“We would talk about RuPaul all the time,” Showalter said.
Showalter trained with Esposto for 16 months before heading to Purdue for college.
“He grew as a person,” Esposto said. “He became more focused in not only the diver that he wanted to be but where he wanted to go in life.”
Max makes it public
Purdue diver Steele Johnson, who earned a silver medal at the Rio Olympics, won two NCAA titles a couple months before Showalter arrived in West Lafayette, Ind. Almost daily, Johnson produced videos for his YouTube channel.
Showalter wanted to create his own channel, and with Johnson’s help, Showalter launched it that July. He only created five videos, but in the fourth video, he discussed his first boyfriend and the experience telling his family that he’s gay. He initially recorded 46 minutes, but he trimmed it to 9 minutes, 6 seconds that he published Sept. 14, 2015.
It marked the first step in what Showalter hopes is continued public visibility as an LGBT athlete.
After his teammates saw the video, they were all supportive. Showalter said one of the best responses came from Purdue men’s swimming and diving head coach Dan Ross, who told him, “Thank you for posting that video and having the courage to do that.”
Showalter enjoyed a strong freshman year at Purdue. He took eighth (1-meter springboard), ninth (platform), and 12th (3-meter springboard) at the 2016 Big Ten Championships. He qualified for NCAA championships in platform and 3-meter, finishing 15th and 20th, respectively, and he was the fourth best freshman in both events.
Throughout his freshman year, he also nurtured his first relationship since the high school boyfriend. He went on his first date with David MacDonald, a former all-American diver at University of North Carolina, near the end of his time training at Duke. Showalter called MacDonald “the best thing that could ever happen to me.”
Showalter’s diving success continued in June at the 2016 U.S. Diving Olympic Trials in Indianapolis. He finished 14th in individual platform diving and third in synchronized platform diving.
A week before the trials, Indianapolis’ Pride festival took place. USA Diving invited trials participants to ride in the Indy Pride parade. Only Showalter accepted the offer, so he rode solo in a red BMW convertible with signs on the sides that said “Olympic Hopeful Max Showalter.”
“It was really cool, people were cheering my name,” Showalter said.
But the best part of the parade came afterward, Showalter said. It was “meeting drag queens, without a doubt.”
When Showalter finished his freshman college diving season, he went on a shopping spree, and for the first time, he bought makeup.
He’d spent hours during the season watching YouTube videos to learn how to apply makeup. Becoming a makeup artist intrigued him, and he wanted to start practicing on himself. One time when Showalter wore fake nails in the past year, it prompted a question from his mom, “Are you transgender?”
“By no means am I transgender,” Showalter said. “It’s like playing a character that is just so fun. Even when I was little and I put on that silver cocktail dress or painted my nails, it wasn’t so much, ‘I want to be a girl.’ It was, ‘This is fun, and it looks cool.’”
Showalter, who is 19, said he now wants to pursue a career doing other people’s makeup — he is already scheduled for two weddings this spring. He also wants to become a regular drag performer.
“I’m a thousand percent going to be on RuPaul’s Drag Race,” said Showalter, who plans to enter Purdue’s semi-annual drag show this spring.
He’s worn makeup to diving practice this season. And for Halloween, he dressed in full drag for the first time. The 5-foot-9, 155-pound Showalter needed three hours to get ready — makeup, wig, heels, fake boobs, and hip pads. He realized how convincing the outfit was when he arrived at Steele Johnson’s party and caught the attention of a Purdue football player.
“One of the swimmers was like, ‘That guy keeps looking at you,’” Showalter said. “Then I heard him from across the room say, ‘Damn, you got cake.’”
A few moments later, the football player walked by, grabbed Showalter’s rear end, and kept walking, probably disappointed to learn it wasn’t real.
“I had a great, great time,” Showalter said. “I do things that are very outside of the box. … Most gay men, if they do makeup, they’re not going to post it or they don’t have the stress of representing a university or being an elite athlete. I do stuff like that. I have absolutely no shame that I wear makeup.”
Showalter appreciated the football player’s attention, but the most meaningful response to his Halloween drag experiment came from David MacDonald.
“I have the best boyfriend in the world,” Showalter said. “He shows all his friends — look at how good my boyfriend is at makeup, look at him in drag on Halloween. He’s going to be on RuPaul’s Drag Race.
“It was one of those confirming moments where he’s totally the one. I found that guy that makes me feel super special and is proud of me no matter what I do.”
Max Showalter can be reached through social media on Twitter @MaxShowalter, Instagram @MaxShowalter, and Facebook. He also has the Instagram account @AllEyesOnMax devoted to his makeup work. Showalter’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org