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This gay Major League Soccer referee is coming out to ease his mind

Pro soccer referee Matthew Nelson says ‘hiding the fact that I am gay was unproductive.’

Matt Nelson has been a professional soccer referee working since 2012.
Don Garber

This past June, after getting back from the gym, I sat on my couch wondering how much longer I could hide in plain sight from my family and friends. Rather than continuing to hide from my fears of rejection, I decided it was time to stop hiding in the closet and tell everyone in my life that I am gay.

I wrote a few paragraphs, sent it to my close friends and family first, and posted it on social media for the world to see. Hitting that post button was one of the most terrifying moments of my life. Luckily, that feeling of terror did not last long as messages of love and support came pouring in from my family and friends.

Looking back, it seems laughable how terrified I was of saying those three words, "I am gay." Over the past five years, as a professional assistant referee, I have been fortunate enough to take the field with professional athletes in stadiums throughout the U.S. and Canada. It's a job I love, but also one that kept me in the closet for so long.

While there are many stories of professional athletes coming out, being accepted by their teammates, and living their lives openly, there are only a few such stories about referees.

I feel that this is in part due to the nature of the job. Referees are not there to be the star of the show. Rather, a majority of the referees, officials and umpires I know judge their performance as a good one when they leave the field with no one knowing they were there. The pressures of officiating in a professional setting are real, and your decisions have consequences. It means that I have to be physically fit enough to be in the right spot with the right angle, and mentally tough enough to ignore the distractions to get the decision correct.

Matthew Nelson taking a break from the MLS season on Cape Cod this summer.
Chelsie McMann

In June, I realized that one of those distractions for me was hiding a part of who I am: the fact that I am gay.

During a game, my job on the field is primarily to judge when an offside offense has occurred or the ball has left the field of play. In addition to those responsibilities, I also help the referee as necessary, whether that be recognizing a foul they did not have a good angle to see or providing input about misconduct.

From my experience, a key part of being successful as an assistant referee is a mutual amount of trust and respect amongst the referee crew. The ability to communicate well with the referee, and understanding the signs of when they need help are skills I continue to develop. Now that I am no longer trying to hide that I am gay and being true to myself, has helped foster a more trusting and respectful relationship with fellow referees.

The weekend before I came out, I was in Colorado for a training camp, and one of my best friends asked me about my dating life. As usual, I shrugged off the question telling him how I was too busy with work, finishing my dissertation and traveling for soccer. I couldn’t possibly date someone seriously.

That was a lie. In fact, at that time I was dating someone and had been dating him for about a month and a half.

While that relationship did come to an end not long after I came out, it helped me realize the importance of being true to myself. Hiding the fact that I am gay from my friends, family and colleagues was distracting, unproductive and mentally draining.

Since coming out, I have been able to focus more on performing to the best of my ability as an assistant referee. It has freed my mind from the fear of what others will think. Most importantly, it has allowed me to be myself. The ability to be myself, without feeling the need to put on a façade, is truly freeing. In the past month, I have begun openly dating an amazing man who I now proudly call my partner. Sharing with him my passion for refereeing soccer is truly fulfilling.

Before coming out, I would often read the stories of other athletes coming out as gay. Hearing how other athletes' stories on Web sites like outsports.com felt like relief from the experience helped me feel comfortable enough to come out of the closet. It helped me realize that being gay is just one part of who I am as a person. I am also a soccer referee, a doctoral student, a friend, a partner, a brother and a son.

I hope that telling my story can help others comes to terms with who they are as well.

You can email Matthew at matthewsnelson@icloud.com. He is also on Instagram @msn5017.