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Gay MMA coach and a champion wrestler wins toughest battle by coming out

Chris McLeod fought his sexuality for years in an unforgiving sport, but now is determined to help others reach their potential.

Chris McLeod
Chris McLeod says, “It is disheartening to consider the number of talented athletes who will never realize their potential, because society has created the perception that sports is a straight man’s world.”

Up until about two years ago, I was a closeted gay man doing his best to coexist in a hetero world.

There was not a person who knew my secret and I had committed to keeping it that way for fear of losing everything that mattered to me.

Sports meant a lot to me. From a young age, I knew that I was a wrestler, I wanted to be a coach, I dreamed of being a dad and I knew that I wanted to impact lives, to be like the men who helped build me.

I had never met an openly gay coach, but I had heard of gay coaches losing opportunities after being outed. There were no openly gay male athletes in my sports and I heard heartbreaking stories about men coming out to their wives, only to lose their families in the process.

It wasn’t until I had reached a certain level of achievement and then lost it, that I finally found the strength and courage to reconcile who I was — the athlete, coach and dad — with the person staring me back in the mirror, begging for the opportunity to openly exist.

I spent my formative years developing my athletic skills, excelling in wrestling and football. When I graduated in 1990, I had won three Nevada state high school wrestling championships, one runner-up, and a team state championship. I was named ASICS/USA All-American and had the opportunity to compete at the 1988 World Expo in Brisbane, Australia.

My football achievements included being named outstanding wide receiver at Boise State’s football camp. I went on to wrestle for Lassen Junior College in California and then transferred to University of Montana-Western and emerged a national champion and All-American wrestler.

Despite my level of achievement, the fear was always there, the fear of being exposed. As a freshman in college, I had hoped for an experience like those I had seen in movies, where the kid goes off to college and finally finds the freedom to discover himself without judgement. Instead, I became the target of a violent act of hatred.

Chris McLeod, top, won three state wrestling titles in Nevada.
Chris McLeod, top, won three state wrestling titles in Nevada.

One night, after naively agreeing to meet up with a man who offered a new experience, he lured me into a back alleyway, where I was confronted by a group of his homophobic friends. I was beaten so brutally that I was barely able to get back to my dorm where I hid in shame, taking days to recover.

I thought that if people learned the truth about who I really was, that would invalidate everything, so I used the trauma, fear, anger, and negative emotion as my primary drivers. Sadly, being driven in that manner was a double-edged sword. I spent my life training to injurious levels and engaging in self-sabotage, convincing myself that I had to be better and tougher than my straight counterparts to be relevant.

My fear also led me to fight anytime someone used the word “faggot” around me. I have been in countless fights — drinking a lot didn’t help — and always looked for the baddest dude in the bar. If I heard that word out of them, it was go time. I’m not proud of that phase of my life and quitting drinking helped me get over it.

When my college athletic career ended, alcohol became my coping mechanism. After years of self-destructive behavior, I made the decision to quit drinking and redefine my life, but I chose to remain closeted. A very close friend who had come to me for help disclosed his own truth. Triggered by my college experience, I couldn’t bear the thought of the same thing happening to him. I told him I loved him, it was OK, but that he should never tell anyone. I thought I was protecting him.

While things improved for me on a lot of levels, I was still hiding a fundamental piece of myself which continued to loom over me like a dark, toxic cloud. Years after my friend confided in me, he took his own life and carried his secret with him. I can’t help but wonder if his battle with repression influenced his decision as it has for several student-athletes who have chosen the same path.

In my late 20’s, mixed martial arts was just coming onto the scene and it seemed like a natural progression for a wrestler. It was a perfect place to hide. I spent a decade training with and coaching professional fighters including UFC Hall-of-Famers and had the opportunity to train at some of the best camps in the nation. I coached Ken Shamrock, was a sparring partner for Rashad Evans, and hosted Herb Dean when he officiated one of the events I promoted.

Chris McLeod at a 2006 MMA match in Yakima, Washington. He won in the first round by tapout.

I went on to establish a professional MMA team, the High Desert Hitmen and partnered with several reputable organizations to promote fights. During this time, I married and started a family with my best friend. She was blissfully unaware, which made it easy for me to forget myself.

From that time on, I have directed a lot of my energy toward helping my own kids develop their athletic skill sets, as well as coaching high school, youth, and college athletics, including wrestling, baseball, tennis, volleyball, basketball and golf.

I built a thriving wrestling program at a small high school in northwest Washington and introduced a love of athletics to countless groups of at-risk youth from all across the country. I have worked to fight against inequity and systemic exclusion in youth and high school sports by making it my focus to coach and mentor differently-abled students in addition to traditional student-athletes. One of my fondest coaching moments was when I had the opportunity to introduce a group of rival gang members to wrestling and helped them transform into a state-qualifying wrestling team in a single season.

Even as I allowed myself to feel a sense of accomplishment, I still felt like a fraud. I was great at getting people to buy into themselves and motivate them to succeed, but was unable to heed my own advice.

I hid what I couldn’t pray, drink, fight or meditate away, and as I grew as a coach and as a person, I began to confront every perceived injustice louder and more vociferously. This ultimately resulted in only short-term success and to the detriment of myself, my athletes and family. It has taken me years to reconcile this internal dynamic.

Finally, after decades of repression and experiencing living in a continuous cycle of success followed by extreme loss and failure, I found the courage to say out loud: ‘I’m gay.’ I began to slowly open myself up to close family and friends, beginning with my wife and our five amazing children. I have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and support, especially from former teammates, athletes and coaches.

My wife has been my best ally. She is one of the kindest humans I know and without her love and support, I might not be here to tell my story. We are committed to maintaining a cohesive family dynamic as we continue to raise our kids (ages 4-18) together, with the expectation that our relationship will always look different from most and that is OK.

Being gay does not make you less of a champion, athlete, coach, son, dad or human. Accolades aren’t what matter. It is the spirit of the athlete that must be preserved.

I have made it my life’s mission to protect anyone in need of protection, from defending a student being bullied at a homecoming game on a return visit from college to stopping a policeman in southern Indiana from shooting a black student who had run away as a truant.

Nobody should live in fear because of how they identify, who they love or the color of their skin. More than anything, I want to help other coaches and athletes find ways to relate to one another and to engage in these difficult conversations with each other.

Chris McLeod with his youngest son, Michael.
Chris McLeod with his youngest son, Michael.

It is disheartening to consider the number of talented athletes who will never realize their potential, because society has created the perception that sports is a straight man’s world.

This is especially true in the world of combat sports. I had a situation arise where one of my best wrestlers quit the team after rumors began circulating that he was gay. I went to my administrators to let them know what the issue was and to ask for support and guidance in working through things with the student-athlete and team. Instead, I was explicitly told not to address it. It was a sensitive situation and highly likely to garner the same response across rural America.

It is time to flip the narrative. We need athletes and coaches at every level to engage and support our LGBTQ+ athletes and their administrators, coaches, and allied teammates. I am committed to being part of the movement that reshapes that landscape.

Christopher McLeod, 49, is a three-time Nevada state high school champion and a college All-American and National Champion wrestler. He has dedicated the majority of his adult life to sharing his love of sports with athletes of all ages and skill levels, through coaching. McLeod is a full-time dad to five kids and is working to establish himself as a coaching consultant. His platform places emphasis on helping coaches, administrators, and athletes engage in meaningful and actionable conversations around the development of broad scope DEI policies. McLeod looks to bring his training, insight and enthusiastic approach to teams and organizations aspiring to achieve and maintain positive, safe, and inclusive cultures within their athletic programs. He can be reached on Facebook or via email (poweredbymcleod@gmail.com).

Story editor: Jim Buzinski

If you are an out LGBTQ person in sports and want to tell your story, email Jim (kandreeky@gmail.com)

Check out our archive of coming out stories.

If you’re an LGBTQ person in sports looking to connect with others in the community, head over to GO! Space to meet and interact with other LGBTQ athletes, or to Equality Coaching Alliance to find other coaches, administrators and other non-athletes in sports.

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