The first breakthrough moment in Trae’ Robinson’s coming out journey as an openly gay man happened on the top of a campus parking garage late on his birthday night. With the celebration winding down, and the sun almost rising, Robinson stood on the garage’s top floor and screamed. In the preceding months, the promising freshman track star started coming out to close friends. But now, he was ready for the world to know.
“I just screamed; I just screamed it,” Robinson told Outsports. “I started crying. It felt so empowering. From that day forward, I just wasn’t afraid to tell my story. I was never afraid to be who I intended to be. I was never afraid of just being Trae’.”
Nowadays, Robinson is doing more than just being himself: he’s opening up himself to anybody with an Internet connection. The five-time conference medalist recently posted a YouTube video about the challenges of being a Division 1 athlete, and the extraordinary demands it places on student-athletes. Robinson speaks at length about missing out on social events and tearing his body apart. Doctors told him he has the joints of a 32 year old, due to all of the wear and tear.
Robinson also speaks about his experiences as an openly gay athlete, and the additional challenges of being a senior co-captain, expecting to lead those who may engage in casual homophobia.
In a recent interview with St. Joe’s student newspaper, “The Hawk,” Robinson says he decided enough was enough, and was going to start addressing homophobic language in the locker room. As a freshman, Robinson would usually enter the room with his headphones on and mind his own business. One particular incident sticks out in his mind: a lacrosse player grabbed a towel from a teammate who had just exited the shower. In response, the player shouted at the top of his lungs that he was not a “fucking faggot.”
Nobody, including Robinson, said anything.
Like all members of our community, Robinson’s coming out journey is still in progress. As a young undergrad, he would occasionally attend campus Pride events, but only at the behest of friends. He never ventured out himself, and couldn’t imagine telling his parents. Until finally, one day, he did. In the midst of an argument with his father, Robinson decided to let them know via text message, tired of hiding and pretending to be something he wasn’t. Much to his pleasant surprise, his parents embraced him, and asked what took so long.
In a heteronormative society, most LGBT people face stigmas and prejudices growing up. Robinson says his identity as a black man further complicated his struggle.
“As a black male, society really just doesn’t want you to be gay,” he said. “Your own people don’t want you to be gay. That’s what made it so hard for me.”
Growing up, Robinson, who runs longer sprints between 400 and 800 meters, lacked LGBT role models, which is a big reason why he decided to go forward with the YouTube video. In quarantine with his boyfriend, the couple has also posted a video detailing how they met, which has been viewed nearly 8,000 times as of this article’s publication.
“I just honestly wish I had (a role model),” Robinson said. “I’m so glad other people are having that. That’s what making me want to help others and be the best I can be. If I can just touch one person, even if it’s just for a split-second, I’m fine.”
Since coming out publicly, Robinson says he’s received dozens of messages of support, including from a girl in his honors fraternity, who said he inspired her to come out to her patents.
Messages like those give Robinson gratitude, and serve as confirmation he made the right decision to stick with the team. Prior to this season, head coach Mike Glavin sat Robinson down and told him he couldn’t think of a better person to select as captain. It was a great responsibility, and required Robinson to lead with his actions and words. Though a nasty tendonitis injury hampered his winter season, Robinson still showed up for 6:00 a.m. lifts, and led the way at 5:00 p.m. practices. To get through the excruciating pain of racing, he told himself it would only last for 40 seconds.
In addition to the physical pain, Robinson was taxed emotionally after witnessing a longtime teammate use anti-gay slurs in the locker room. In December, Robinson publicly acknowledged his sexuality for the first time on social media, posting a picture of him and his boyfriend. One month later, he stumbled upon his fellow senior referring to “fag shit.” While the teammate sent Robinson a message apologizing, Robinson says the incident affected their relationship.
“I’m not saying you can’t be supportive and use that language, but it’s like, ‘Yo, how supportive of me could you be when you use that type of language?,” Robinson said. “The only reason you felt guilty is because I walked in. If I had walked in one second later, you wouldn’t have felt bad about what you said. That’s my issue.”
After a long talk with his parents, Robinson decided he was going to push through and finish the season. He says he did it for the next Trae’ Robinson: a freshman or underclassman who might be struggling with his identity, and is searching for somebody to serve as inspiration. Already, a younger teammate had confided in Robinson, opening up about his sexuality for the first time.
“The reason why I stuck around was because of the people who didn’t feel comfortable when they were younger, like the track kid who came out to me, and told me certain things,” Robinson said. “What would I look like if I stopped being a captain to those people? I feel like that’s honestly what made me stay and push through. I’m damn proud I pushed through it, because it’s made me such a stronger individual. It’s made me so strong. I will take these lessons with me forever.”
Robbed of his spring season due to the coronavirus, Robinson was given the option of maintaining his eligibility, a gesture extended to all NCAA spring-sport student-athletes. While Robinson says part of him wants nothing more than to make up for a disappointing indoor campaign, he understands part of growing up is moving on. He’s eager to start an accelerated nursing program at Villanova University in the fall.
Most importantly, Robinson feels he’s grown exponentially as an individual during his years at St. Joseph’s University, successfully making the most of his opportunity.
“I would love to rehab this entire time and blow the socks off everybody who didn’t see what Trae’ could do senior year, but then I also know that part of life is growing up and accepting things for what they are,” he said. “I’ve started speaking stuff out loud. The fact that I’ve been able to speak things out loud, really believe it, and say it to myself, that’s a big thing as well.”