For Jake Bain, the advantages of being openly gay and accepted on his Indiana State football team as a freshman were apparent in the first days of summer camp with his teammates on the Terre Haute campus.
“There are times when we’ll be in the dorms playing video games and I’ll get a Facetime message from Hunter and I don’t get uncomfortable with that,” Bain said. “I don’t feel a need to go into a different room. Everybody knows. A lot of the freshman I’ve been dorming with have seen Hunter and know who he is.”
Bain and Hunter Sigmund, his boyfriend and a high school swimmer now a freshman at the University of North Carolina, have been welcomed by the Sycamore players just like any other couple.
“Hunter came up to Indiana State and I was walking him around campus and passed some of the football guys and introduced Hunter to them and they all treated him like they would somebody’s girlfriend,” Bain said. “They were really nice.”
In most ways, Bain is a typical college freshman football player, learning the ropes in a new position with his new team, sweating in the heat and humidity of an Indiana summer during workouts, and just trying to fit in with his teammates while at the same time get ready for school.
In other ways, Bain stands out from his Sycamore teammates. None of them were honored by the St. Louis Blues as a hometown hero on Pride night, went to the high school prom with their boyfriend or found themselves targeted by the anti-gay hate group Westboro Baptist Church. And none likely were officially welcomed by a school trustee.
”The president of the board of trustees contacted me and he told me how excited they were to have me be a Sycamore and told me if there was anything I ever needed in getting acclimated to the school that I could always reach out to him,” Bain said. “I can’t ask for anything more than that.”
For Bain, 19, his new life as a college athlete starts Thursday when Indiana State hosts Quincy in the college football opener for both teams. The Division I Sycamores of the Missouri Valley Football Conference are coming off an 0-11 season in 2017 and Bain is hoping to be part of a new chapter for a program that hasn’t had a winning record since 2014.
Bain’s life has been a whirlwind since he came out as gay in December in an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. As a high school player at John Burroughs in St. Louis — which counts Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott as an alum — Bain was named Missouri state offensive player of the year, scored three touchdowns in a state title game and was his team’s captain.
None of that compares to the impact his coming out had. He has heard from countless LGBT athletes in the closet and out. A story about he and Sigmund dancing at their senior prom as a gay male couple went viral, with 954,000 engagements on Outsports’ Twitter feed. And his school rallied around him when Westboro Baptist tried to picket.
Despite the attention being publicly gay has brought him, Bain shies away from the activist label.
”People come up and say that I’ve been an activist for the LGBT community, but the way I see it is I’m someone who is willing to be themselves and show everyone it’s OK to be yourself,” he said.
”I try and not put the spotlight on me but instead on the LGBT community as a whole. There’s bunch of people like me, but they’re just not comfortable being out.”
Coach is a big supporter
One major selling point that drew Bain to Indiana State was the attitude of second-year head coach Curt Mallory, whose dad, Bill, was the longtime coach at Indiana University. Bain made a specific point of telling Mallory he was gay during a recruiting trip and the coach’s response told him the school was a great fit.
“I knew that coming in, [being gay on] the football team was never going to be an issue. That’s what he told me and told me he would expect from his players,” Bain said.
Mallory’s approach extended to summer camp when he told the team there was going to be “a completely open and welcoming environment,” Bain said. “He was very clear about the nature of how he wants to shape this team and this program. With this being only his second year that was really important for him to set the standard for the team and I really appreciate that he did that.”
Contrary to the notion that football players would be the least accepting, Bain has found the opposite.
“Football is one of those unique sports where there is a true brotherhood that is made, especially when we’re around each other for so much of the day, it gives us a lot of time to really bond with each other,” he said.
“A lot of people assume that because you’re playing a sport like football that there’s assumption that it’s a very masculine sport, and obviously it is, but it doesn’t mean that my teammates won’t be accepting of someone who is gay. It shows how the tide is turning and shows how we have something special here.
”Football gets that hard rep but I think it creates the biggest bond out of any of the sports I have played.”
Because he was publicly out and his soon-to-be Indiana State teammates saw his social media feeds where he posted photos of his boyfriend and discussed LGBT issues, Bain never had to have a coming out talk. It made for an organic integration on his new team. Even so, he has been pleased by specific comments made to him by teammates.
“One of our best players on the team, [linebacker] Jonas Griffith, came up to me during practice and told me he saw an article about me on Facebook,” Bain said. “He told me that he thought it was really cool what I was doing and that he had my back 100 percent and completely supported me, which was really nice to hear. Some of the other players have said similar things since camp started.”
But as the summer progressed and the season approached, his sexual orientation was not paramount to Bain. Learning a new position was.
Mainly a running back in high school, Bain will transition to defensive back this season and also return punts and kickoffs. His coaches like his size (5-11 and 180) and speed (4.49 in the 40-yard dash in high school) and see him as a great fit for the defense.
He admits to being nervous but is eager for the challenge on a defense that will play a lot of man defense. It helps that his position coach, Deon Broomfield, is only 27 and played cornerback at Iowa State, before signing with the Buffalo Bills for one season. Bain, soft-spoken in interviews, says he had yet to develop the brashness many of the best corners have.
”I don’t think I’ve developed the swagger that the cornerback position usually carries, but our cornerbacks coaches wants our guys to do that and celebrate big plays and have that moment of celebration,” Bain said.
As an openly gay high school player, Bain was the subject of taunts by fans and some opponents, but does not expect this to be an issue in college, where he assumes people are more mature and tolerant.
“One of the reasons people have given up trying to say nasty things to me” is because he’s openly gay, Bain said.
“At this point, I’m not sure what they hope to get out of it other than to be a mean-spirited person. I am gay and I clearly don’t find anything wrong with it and a majority of people don’t find anything wrong with it, so that’s why people realize the battle’s over at that point.”
‘He always been there for me’
As excited as he is by the start of school and season, Bain acknowledges it will be tough to be separated from Sigmund, though they are working on plans to see each other during the school year. They met two years ago and started dating, Bain the more outgoing and Sigmund more reserved. They had a chemistry from the start.
“We’re definitely committed to each other,” Bain said. ”He’s always been there for me no matter what. He’s such a kind person. He’s everything I ever hoped to find in somebody.”
Bain has provided a roadmap for others looking to navigate coming out while being an athlete. He is convinced that being out even before committing to Indiana State made the transition much easier than had he remained closeted.
“I’m really glad I decided to come out the way I did before going to college. It’s definitely helped me to be myself from the start. ... I’m not in the closet any more.”