It was the most anxiety-filled email Justin Lui ever sent in his life. Quarantined with his family, the Canadian native and Stanford volleyball player typed out a simple note to his teammates last spring: “I’m gay.”
He then put his phone down, and went for a long walk. He came back to an avalanche of digital support.
“I just sank back on my bed and felt the burden lift off me completely,” Lui told the San Francisco Chronicle.
Lui recently told his coming-out story to San Francisco Chronicle columnist Ann Killion. In it, he talks about the bond he shares with his teammates, and expresses anger at the school’s decision to cut the program.
Stanford made the decision last summer to eliminate 11 varsity programs, citing the financial toll of the pandemic. The well-endowed university says it’s facing a $70 million shortfall over the next three years, though the savings for cutting sports programs is relatively minimal.
The programs, ranging from synchronized swimming to wrestling, have produced 20 national championships and 27 Olympic medalists. The men’s volleyball team has won two national titles and produced 10 Olympians.
Lui, 20, is in the Canadian national team program and wants to play in the 2024 Olympics. A redshirt freshman, he plans to earn his degree in three years and transfer to a Canadian university, where he will pursue a graduate degree and play volleyball.
But for now, Lui is trying to cherish his final weeks with the team. The club is hoping to play in 2021.
“When I was being recruited, I was told this was going to be the best four years of my life, but the administration doesn’t want to carry through with that promise,” Lui said. “They’re just pushing us to the curb.”
It wasn’t easy for Lui to come out. There’s a lack of openly gay elite male athletes, and he’s afraid his announcement could sink his Olympic dreams.
“There’s no visibility, no role models above you who can say, ‘Yeah, it gets better,’” Lui said. “The stigma isn’t so much from outward homophobia, but from a fear that you can’t come out while participating, fear that you’ll lose a contract or teammates will ostracize you or treat you different. It all leads to more isolation.”
Lui doesn’t feel isolated at Stanford. His teammates feel like family. Above all else, that’s what he’ll miss the most.
“I’ve been on a lot of teams and I know how different team cultures operate,” he said. “This one is so remarkable. How everyone interacts with each other is so beautiful and special.”