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Paying it forward: Out athletes inspired gay college volleyball player to be true to himself

"The realization that I was not alone was both shocking and profound. All my fears had been completely unjustified."

Nathan Matthews
Nathan Matthews
Robb Shirey Photography

From the outside looking in, it probably seemed as though I had it all. While attending Gahanna Lincoln High School in Gahanna, Ohio, I was a two-time All-State volleyball player, two-time team captain, and finalist for the Wendy’s High School Heisman, awarded to the top male student-athlete in the state.

I was also editor-in-chief of the school newspaper and a valedictorian during my time at Gahanna Lincoln. By all accounts, I had accomplished everything I had set out to do. I was everything my family, teachers and coaches had hoped I’d be. 

The truth is I wasn’t able to enjoy any of this success. The person getting credit for all these accomplishments was a fraud. In reality, I was scared and desperately trying to keep a part of myself hidden.

I am gay. I have known this since probably sixth grade. However, I was never able to accept it during my middle and high school years. In fact, I fought a six-year long battle against who I am.

While the rest of the world saw a successful student-athlete in the midst of his glory days, I was fighting my battle in solitude. Literally countless nights during my adolescence were spent alone with my thoughts and in prayer. Again and again, with tears streaming down my face, I begged God to fix me. Each time I would eventually fall into a tear-soaked sleep, dejected and alone. For years I went on tormenting myself like this, trying desperately to change something that could not be changed.

During these years I was so scared of losing the life I had that I rejected who I was. I didn’t believe I could be gay and be accepted by those I cared about. I didn’t believe I could be gay and be a successful athlete. Looking back on it now I realize what I urgently needed was a role model. A role model who could show me that I could be true to who I was and still live the life I wanted. Unfortunately, this role model never came during high school and acceptance continued to elude me. 

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(Robb Shirey Photography)

These were undoubtedly difficult years for me but I was able to find solace in one place:  volleyball. Volleyball provided an escape for me during a time in my life when I so desperately needed one, which is probably why the sport rapidly developed into a passion and an obsession.

Volleyball has absolutely dominated my life for the past five years. From 2013-15 I played for Vanguard Volleyball Club in the winter, Gahanna Lincoln in the spring, and Ohio Valley Region High Performance in the summer. During this time, I met some of my best friends and most influential mentors through the sport.

Due to the incredible positive impact volleyball had on my life, playing in college was always something I was committed to doing. Ultimately, I decided to attend Wittenberg University to be part of the school’s inaugural Men’s Volleyball team.

By the time I arrived on campus last fall the battle to try and change myself had ended. I had finally conceded the truth to myself, but coming out was not an option. I went on through the first semester establishing myself in this new place and establishing a new program along with my new teammates.

This was enough to occupy me and I continued the well-established precedent of hiding who I was. However, late in that first semester a single moment came that would prove to be the most transformative moment in my life. This moment was discovering Outsports.com.

The realization that I was not alone was both shocking and profound. I read through story after story of gay athletes who had been through what I had. I was filled with a new hope and optimism that I had not experienced before. For the first time I began to consider doing something that had always been completely unthinkable — I began to seriously consider coming out.

After getting advice from some awesome people, I decided I was ready to come out to my family. As it turned out, the next time I would see my family would be my first collegiate match and I settled on Jan. 22, 2016, as the day I would tell them.

The week leading up to that day was emotionally exhausting. My mind was constantly wandering trying to come up with exactly the right words to say. No matter how much I reassured myself that everything would be alright, the fear that had built up over the last six years would always creep in.

As for the day itself, the match kept me preoccupied. I was thankful to have something to keep my mind off the task that lay ahead of me. However, as soon as the match was over the fear, anticipation, and nervousness all hit me at once. As I grabbed my stuff and headed out of the locker room my mind began to race. I couldn’t believe I was actually about to do this.

I went out into the crowd to meet my mom, dad, and younger sister. When I asked them to come back to my dorm with me so we could talk, they were noticeably confused but complied without questioning. The walk to my dorm seemed like forever. I tried to make small talk but my nervousness was building and I could see their minds rapidly trying to decipher what this was about.

Once we got back to my dorm, I turned to find them fidgeting with anticipation. I swallowed the lump in my throat and started in on my prepared speech. I started off by saying how much they meant to me and how I wanted to have a relationship where I could be totally honest with them. The confused looks intensified.

I decided to just get on with it. "So with that being said …I’m gay."

They were totally shocked. I told them the story of the silent struggle I endured. I told them about how I tried so hard for so long to be what I thought was the perfect son and what it put me through. My story pushed them to tears and they quickly surrounded and embraced me. We sat there like that in a silent family huddle for several minutes. Words couldn’t do the moment justice.

Once the tears stopped flowing, the Q and A session began. I shared with them entire chapters of my life that they never even knew were occurring. Afterward, my parents’ only interjection was that they wished they could have been there for me. It was the acceptance and love I received on this night, from the people that matter most to me, that destroyed the deeply rooted fear within me.

After coming out to my family I am now closer with them then I ever have been. For years I was scared of losing the love of my family by coming out, but it really took coming out for me to be able to fully accept their love.

While telling my family was a major step, I still had yet to tell anyone with whom I interacted on a daily basis. As it turned out, the first person on campus I would come out to would be my roommate.
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Nathan Matthews sets up a shot in a tournament. (Photo by Steve Matthews)

I have known my roommate, who is a football player at Wittenberg, since we were kids and we quickly developed a habit of sharing our successes and struggles with each other. During one of our late night talks, he sensed that something was on my mind.

Despite my best efforts to move on, he continued to press me. Unlike coming out to my parents, this opportunity was spontaneous and I wasn’t quite sure if I wanted to do go through with it. I ultimately took the chance and forced out the words, "I’m gay."

"That’s awesome man."

He immediately told me he had my back and that he was there for me. His acceptance built up my confidence but the next step was the one I by far dreaded most — telling my brothers.

Now I don’t have any literal brothers, but my three best friends from my hometown are the closest thing I ever will have. My friendship with these guys goes back to sixth grade and I contend that they know me better than anyone else. However, there was obviously one part of myself that I had kept hidden from them.

My friendship with these guys has always been extremely important to me and the thought of being rejected by my brothers always terrified me. This fear was also fed by how society told me they would react. Two of them were linebackers in high school and the other a baseball player. According to their stereotypes, they would never have a gay friend.

Nonetheless, with my confidence built from being accepted by my roommate and other female friends from back home, I finally decided to go through with it. One of my friends attends Wittenberg as well so I determined I would tell him first.

It ended up being after a midnight Taco Bell run when the courage to tell him just kind of swelled up inside me. I remember my mouth started moving before I was even able to make the decision if I was ready to tell him. From there I let the words I had been going over for weeks spill out in a manifesto that ultimately ended with me saying those two words again, "I’m gay."

I had spent years of my life living in absolute terror of what would happen at this moment. As it turned out, my fear was completely unjustified.

He immediately reinforced that we were brothers and always would be. In addition, he was so genuinely happy that I was finely able to be myself.

I then texted the other two and the reaction was the same from them: "Holy shit man, I’m so happy for you!!"

I then went on to answer their barrage of questions. It was incredibly liberating to be able to be completely honest with my best friends for the first time in my life. 

Finally, repercussions with volleyball has never been a concern of mine. I have had out teammates in the past and have never seen a negative reaction. In addition, all of the coaches I’ve had while playing volleyball have been completely dedicated to inclusion both in their language and actions. My teammates, coaches, and the athletic department here at Wittenberg are no exception.

I know there are many people who will be learning that I am gay by reading this and I hope that for these people my story can help fight the stereotype that made me feel alone for so long. As one friend told me: "This is your chance to really prove that gay isn’t just underwear and high voices."

But in the end this is not the reason why I was compelled to share my story. I can personally attest to the power that these stories can have, as they helped me to realize that I was not alone and that I could live the life I wanted and still be myself. In addition, I know the positive effect a gay role model could have had for me when I was in middle and high school.

At the end of the day I am sharing my story to reach those who need to know they aren’t alone. I am sharing my story so that perhaps I can be the role model I so desperately needed. Coming out has brought me closer to the people who are most important to me and has made me realize just how loved I am. With the support of these people, I am ready and excited for a future where I can be who I truly am.

Nathan Matthews, 19, is a freshman at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, and is majoring in Sports Management and Business Management. He is a libero on the men’s volleyball team. He can be reached via email at Matthewsn@wittenberg.edu; or on Twitter (@NathanTMatthews) or Instagram (NathanTMatthews).

Story edited by Jim Buzinski

If you are an LGBT athlete, coach, administrator or media and want to tell your coming out story, drop us a line: outsports@gmail.com.