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Six years ago, Conner Mertens made history as the first active college football player to publicly come out. Since then, Mertens has dove headfirst into advocacy, currently working on behalf of the chronically ill.
As an LGBTQ person, Mertens thinks it is vital to possess first-hand knowledge of our healthcare system, and the challenges our community faces.
“I don’t believe in one-sided advocacy,” Mertens told Outsports recently. “It has to be all-encompassing or nothing.”
When Mertens announced he was bisexual in early 2014, it was roughly nine months after NBA center Jason Collins had came out, and three months before the Los Angeles Rams selected openly gay Michael Sam in the final round of the 2014 NFL Draft. Derrick Gordon also became the first active NCAA Division 1 men’s basketball player to publicly come out as gay during this period. It was a seminal time for LGBTQ male athletes, and the place kicker from Willamette University in Oregon — undergraduate population of 1,624 — was right in the middle of the story.
Looking back on the last six years, Mertens says he’s surprised there aren’t more openly gay male athletes in college football or professional team sports. But openly gay male professional athletes are only one small component to the overall fight for LGBTQ rights and visibility. There’s been a lot of progress since Mertens came out as a red-shirt freshman on his small Oregon campus, including two landmark Supreme Court rulings: marriage equality and protection from workplace discrimination.
“Six years sounds like a long time, but in the scheme of things, we’ve come a long way over the last 50 years,” Mertens said. “I feel like I would be an impatient 20-something-year-old who doesn’t think we’re moving fast enough.”
It’s not always bad to be an impatient 20-something, however. As a college student, Mertens landed multiple prized internships in politics and media, working for a state legislator and Anderson Cooper at CNN. Mertens also started a nonprofit group supporting homeless LGBTQ youth, Out On The Streets. This all happened before he graduated, by the way. Mertens has gusto.
Upon graduation, Mertens moved to New York, where he linked up with gay high school teacher and basketball coach Anthony Nicodemo, who came out to his team in 2013. Mertens ran Nicodemo’s campaign for New York State Assembly, and also restarted an LGBTQ advocacy organization, the Hudson Valley Stonewall Democrats. Mertens parlayed his experience with Nicodemo into a position in New York Sen. Shelley B. Mayer’s office.
Mertens is striving to obtain a holistic view of advocacy. His experience has shown him how intertwined the push for LGBTQ rights is with other struggles for equality, from education to healthcare.
“I tried to always look at a bigger picture and make sure we’re talking about the important issues that affect the day-to-day lives and wellbeing of our community,” Mertens said. “I was celebrating when we got marriage equality, but that was just a start. Anybody who thinks we’ve won the battle is misinformed and only does a disservice to our community’s advocacy. There’s so much more to do and so much to fight for.”
Today, Mertens is fighting for chronically ill patients. As a patient advocate outreach manager for Global Healthy Living Foundation, Mertens advocates for patients at the state and local levels of government. His position is especially crucial now, given the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Approximately 133 million Americans combat some form of chronic disease.
Mertens says his work in the healthcare sphere will help him better advocate for the needs of LGBTQ people. Research shows LGBTQ people face multiple health disparities, due to discrimination and stigmatization.
“Healthcare is essential to any sort of LGBT equality conversation,” Mertens said. “Our community is disproportionally affected by a lot of different health disparities.”
As a bisexual man, Mertens is cognizant of the disparities even within the LGBTQ community. Studies show bisexual women are at higher risk of violence, while bisexual people in general are likelier to experience mental health issues than either lesbians or gay men. As Mertens phrases it, the bi+ community is the “marginalized within the marginalized.”
“For so long, it was hard for me to come to terms with who I was, because I thought everything was binary,” Mertens said. “I either had to be gay, or I had to be straight. Feeling those emotions growing up — praying it away, ’this is just a phase, you’ll be straight soon’ — then the fact that I still liked girls doing that convinced me it was just a phase. I never once considered I could be bisexual.”
Mertens has been afforded to support and education to find peace with himself, and he wants to do the same for others. That’s why he ties his advocacy work to his recognition of privilege. Mertens knows he’s been afforded ample opportunities in life, and strives to help others who do not have access to the same resources or megaphone.
“I’ve been afforded a lot of privilege in my life and given different platforms, and a lot more deserving people haven’t,” he said. “Any chance I can gain to elevate other people’s voices, I want to do that.”