After years of hiding as a gay man in college sports administration, it was at the University of Kentucky where I found assurance that being out would in no way inhibit my ability to succeed in a career that I love.
I arrived in Lexington in August 2012 in a graduate assistant position working with the soccer, softball and women’s basketball programs. With this new venture, I made myself two promises. First, I was going to be authentic from the start. Second, no matter how insignificant, I wanted to be a part of changing the culture and perception of homophobia in sport.
This was around the time that a concerted effort to tackle homophobia in sport was gaining steam, including the emergence of the You Can Play Project, which was producing videos with college athletic departments around the country encouraging a culture of LGBTQ acceptance in sports.
I remember watching the Stanford Athletics video and thinking how amazing it was and that the University of Kentucky should do its version. After a few months of establishing myself, I hit the ground running.
I met with student-athletes, coaches and administrators, including Deputy Athletic Director DeWayne Peevy and two of the Executive Athletic Directors, Candice Chaffin and Jason Schlafer. From top to bottom, I received nothing but support and encouragement.
At the time, Kentucky had a handful of LGBTQ athletes, coaches and staff. While some were out, others remained closeted. However, the real surprise for me was the willingness of straight athletes, coaches and staff to endorse this message, often with great enthusiasm, including then-women’s basketball coach Matthew Mitchell.
For reasons out of our control, the video never came to fruition. However, the support from every level of the athletic department was a catalyst for me. It was both empowering and affirming to know firsthand that some of the biggest names in college athletics, from the athletes to coaches, were enthusiastic about LGBTQ equality in sport from a state that was far from ready.
This was the moment where I finally believed that all of my identities could coexist. I no longer had to fight being one person on the inside while presenting a different person to the world.
It wasn’t always this way and I had a lot of struggles along the way. I grew up in the small town of Kiefer, Oklahoma. At the time, the population was about 1,500. To give you an idea of the size and talent pool at Kiefer, I was 6-foot center and we had just enough bodies to fill each of the teams.
That said, I loved being a small town Christian kid, a son, brother, grandson, nephew and cousin, hanging out with friends and playing sports. However, that last statement would come as a shock to those who knew me in my later teenage years.
At some point during high school, I started to realize that my identity was far less singular than I once believed. I knew I was different, but I was never quite sure how. I began to feel out of place in every aspect of my life.
An unexplainable disinterest and apathy towards sport began to grow within me. I wanted no association with my hometown, I felt disconnected from my faith, I began limiting my time around family members and I quit playing most sports because said I wanted to focus on school and didn’t like the coaches. Those were lies — the reality was that I was already a 4.0 student and there was nothing wrong any of my coaches.
In retrospect, I had lost the ability to balance the matrix of my identities. I believed an erasure of my identities was the solution to my struggle. I started dating the most amazing girl from a different school. She was smart, funny and beautiful.
I grew close with her friend group and spent pretty much every waking moment with her. I finally felt free, but something still felt off. If I were forced to describe it, it felt similar to holding your breath. If you have ever held your breath, everything in your body starts to get very tight and tense. You can’t think about anything other than needing to breathe. If you hold your breath long enough, you are going to pass out.
In 2007, after kissing my girlfriend on New Year’s Eve, I finally realized why I felt as though I couldn’t breathe. I realized I was gay.
Unfortunately, with this realization, the next three years would be the hardest of my life. I had given up or distanced myself from every other piece of my identity in an effort to piece together a version of myself that was never meant to exist.
However, sports and a friend would be what saved me. Shortly before heading off to grad school for sports management at the University of Kentucky, I decided to come out and test my perceived notions of homophobia in sport. I decided to share my truth with my best friend, Pam, a trainer for the baseball team at the University of Oklahoma.
I told her I needed to talk to her but it was going to take me a minute. We sat there way longer than a minute. I repeated, “I am…” probably 20 times, freezing over and over again, knowing that once I spoke those words into existence I would never be able to unsay them.
Frozen in thought, playing every scenario out in mind, I heard her, with an inquisitive tone, ask, “gay?” For the first time in my life, I responded, “Yes, I am gay.” Looking off in the distance, I felt her arm come across my body to hug me and heard her say, “I love you.” Instantly, I felt oxygen return to my body. I took a deep breath, smiled and exhaled.
I took that moment and weaponized it. I began sharing my truth with various friends, co-workers, and a couple of the OU men’s basketball players who I lived with. Not a single person reacted negatively. In fact, my favorite reaction to this day was when one of basketball players responded, “Yeah, bro. I know. Who cares?” I really began to believe that my sexuality was a non-factor to everyone but me.
I am a firm believer that life has a great way of rewarding authenticity. In the years that followed my time at Kentucky, I landed a job at the University of California Berkeley, where I was able to openly talk about my life with all of those I worked with.
I met my partner, a former college football player, and after four years at Cal, I received a job offer from Stanford University, the same university that gave me the inspiration to begin this journey seven years earlier with its You Can Play video.
Ten years ago, I would have never been able to imagine that I would be the Director of Olympic Sports Equipment at Stanford. Position and employer aside, I had convinced myself that this moment, in theory, was not something that I would be allowed to have.
Now, as I sit at my desk, I am reminded by three photos that all of that doubt was for naught. To my immediate left and right, there are two photos of my partner and I, along with a large poster of runner Caster Semenya and a rainbow flag overlay. Semenya to me represents the next frontier of the fight for equality in sport.
As I think back on the moments that helped me lived authentically, I am reminded that every courageous act of coming out helps erode homophobia in big and small ways. We all possess the ability to change the hearts and minds of our family, friends, co-workers, society and institutions like sport. Most importantly, we all possess the ability to dismantle the homophobia within ourselves.
I was ready to walk away from something I loved because of my preconceived notions of what was and what could never be. As I write this today, I have been with my partner, Devin, for five years. We have created a life together, with our two French Bulldogs, Bardi and Baloo. Our families both welcome us with open arms. We regularly attend sporting events together, even though he likes all the worst teams (i.e. the Cowboys), and I work somewhere that I am able to share all of this with friends, family, co-workers, coaches and student-athletes.
The point I guess I am making is that my life as a Christian, gay man working in the world of sports is actually incredibly normal.
Justin Mathis, 30, graduated from Kiefer High School in Kiefer, Okla., in 2008, the University of Oklahoma in 2012 and the University of Kentucky in 2014. He is the Director of Olympic Sports Equipment at Stanford University. He can be reached by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Instagram (@just_a_cardinal).
Story editor: Jim Buzinski
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