There was a time when Israel Gutierrez says he didn’t harbor enough self-respect to keep wearing an earring after a pitcher had called him out for wearing it in the “wrong place.”
Now, Gutierrez is an open book, sharing his personal triumphs and tragedies with the world. He says life is more fulfilling this way.
On this week’s edition of “The Sports Kiki,” I spoke with Gutierrez about his powerful coming out story, and road to self-acceptance. Since publicly coming out in 2015, Gutierrez, who works as an NBA reporter and commentator for ESPN, has emerged as one of the most prominent openly gay figures in sports media.
It’s quite the transformation, considering he didn’t write his coming-out blog until eight days before his wedding.
“I think I was just really good at compartmentalizing,” Gutierrez said. “It was never something where I thought I was missing something. Maybe it was because I didn’t really value myself enough to believe that I deserved that part of my life.”
Gutierrez, 43, immediately found professional success. He started working for The Palm Beach Post out of college, and soon found himself named to the Marlins beat. Shortly thereafter, Gutierrez made his debut on ESPN’s “Around the Horn,” beginning a 16-year run with the network.
Gutierrez says his professional accomplishments allowed him to comfortably stay in the closet. He could put off thinking about his sexuality, because there was work to focus on.
“I was getting the satisfaction of being not only successful professionally, but envious for a lot of my male friends — being around sports,” Gutierrez said. “That fulfilled a lot of areas where I needed personal fulfillment and joy.”
Nothing came before the job, including his dignity. One day, then-Marlins closer Antonio Alfonseca teased Gutierrez for wearing an earring in his upper ear cartilage, insinuating it was a gay fashion statement.
The earring came off, never to be worn again.
“It was not worth it to me to have to defend myself when somebody who liked me, presumably, is telling me to my face that that’s not cool, and that’s gay,” Gutierrez said. “I probably really had some anger inside, but the lack of just self-worth didn’t really make it worth it for me. I didn’t have that anger come out of me, because it was more self-preservation than fighting for who I am.”
As Gutierrez puts it, his hand was literally forced into coming out, because soon there was going to be a ring on it. He met his then-partner David in 2009 and marred him six years later. At 31 years old, Gutierrez was publicly out.
But he was just starting to share.
Gutierrez’s coming out journey hasn’t only been about smiles and euphoria. He’s dealt with personal tragedy and loss, and found power in telling those stories, too.
Three years ago, Gutierrez separated from his ex-husband after a bout of infidelity. That day, David attempted suicide.
Gutierrez, who was supposed to cover an NBA game that night, was afraid of asking for the day off.
“I was nervous. Are they going to think I was some sort of drama queen?,” Gutierrez said.
Despite publicly coming out, and receiving universal support from his bosses at ESPN, Gutierrez was still worried about being judged. He almost didn’t allow himself the time to grieve.
“It’s crazy to think that, and I would never want anybody else to think that way, and sort of repress any sort of outlet, because I needed to be able to grieve,” Gutierrez said. “I didn’t even think I was worth that, which is crazy to think about.”
In August, David suddenly passed away from a terminal illness. Within a handful of years, Gutierrez had publicly come out, gotten married, divorced, and experienced the loss of a partner.
It’s been a lifetime’s worth of emotions. And this time, Gutierrez has decided to talk about it.
“Where I’ve landed after all of this is, if just everybody would just admit to what is troubling them in their lives, or what’s going not great in their lives, we would all recognize we all have so many things we can relate to each other by,” he said. “We are way more alike than we are different.”
“If I go along and pretend everything is great, and just leave a nugget of information here or there, people wouldn’t think that somebody like me would go through something like that. Maybe they think it’s a fairy-tale happy ending: he came out, he got married, everything’s great. Then you realize there’s a lot more to that.”
Each day, whether it’s on the ESPN airwaves or his social media feed, Gutierrez normalizes being gay in sports, and simply in the world. The rookie baseball beat writer who was too nervous to wear an earring now poses shirtless for Men’s Journal.
Gutierrez is unapologetically gay, and proud.
His visibility goes a long way towards helping others feel the same.
“What I like to do more than anything, is just talk about things in the context of everyday conversations, or everyday discussions — whether it be radio or television, just to sort of get the ear comfortable to hearing it,” he said. “Hearing a man say ‘boyfriend’ or ‘partner’ or ‘husband’ or interjecting a gay joke where they weren’t expecting it, or a gay sex joke. That’s the part where I think, for lack of a better term, I can do the most damage.
“I don’t find any reason not share, at this point.”
Click here to check out this week’s edition of “The Sports Kiki” podcast. You can also subscribe to the show on Apple’s Podcast page as well as on Google Podcasts, and wherever you’ll find Outsports podcasts.
If you are considering suicide and age 24 and younger, contact the Trevor Project Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 and is available to people of all ages and identities. Trans Lifeline, for people who are trans, non-binary or gender-nonconforming, can be reached at 877-565-8860. All are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.