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Gay volleyball player’s self-acceptance led to deeper bond with college teammates

‘I wish I had come out sooner.... but I also realize that my story happened this way for a reason,’ volleyball player and coach Shaughn McDonald says.

Shaughn McDonald spikes
Shaughn McDonald played volleyball at St. Francis University and now coaches there.

“Why did it take you so long?”

“How long did you know?”

“Are you the guy or girl in the relationship?”

“How can you tell when another guy is gay?”

The questions came fast and often from my college volleyball teammates at St. Francis University near Pittsburgh when I came out as gay.

I was honest with them about what kept me in the closet: the homophobic locker room talk, wondering if people would accept me and not being able to accept myself. It was the lack of accepting myself that caused me to be exhausted so many days.

Almost every student-athlete is exhausted from balancing their practice schedule, strength and conditioning sessions, and academics, as well as any kind of social life they can muster. I was exhausted from all of those things. But most of all I was exhausted because I was spending so much energy hiding who I really was from my friends, my family, my teammates.

Is this really who you are? What will everyone else think of you? How much tougher will your life be because of this?

These are the questions that would flash through my mind almost every time I thought about my sexuality. Some part of me always realized that I was gay. However, there is always separation between realizing and accepting. In high school the times I would hear words and phrases like “fag” or “that’s gay” thrown around really made it hard to accept that I was gay.

The kicker about the people using those phrases is that quite a few of them were friends or teammates. Often, I did not even think that it was them making an attack on a person’s sexual orientation. It had just become a socially acceptable phrase.

Shaughn McDonald rocks his Pride shoes at the St. Francis gym.
Shaughn McDonald, now a coach, rocks his Pride shoes at the St. Francis gym.

However, the damage is done when someone like me hears those words — it became harder and harder for me to say the words I so desperately wanted to say. I buried that part of myself, focusing on my academics and earning my way to play Division I volleyball at St. Francis. And it took energy to do so. I had to be conscious of what I said, how I said things, how I did things. It became exhausting

College came and I was hoping it would be different. Unfortunately, the “locker room talk” that pushed me deeper in the closet in high school kept me there throughout much of college, preventing me from accepting who I was.

I was being fake with myself. I would do anything I could to avoid talking about my personal life. I would talk too much about volleyball with my teammates — annoying them — because I couldn’t let them see who I was. I added extra baggage to volleyball, academics and trying to build a new social circle.

I was miserable. It was in my junior year that I started to watch “Glee.” Two of the main characters of that show, Kurt and Blaine, are in a relationship together for much of the series and end up getting married.

There was just something about seeing two men be happy with each other, and maybe even more importantly seeing their friends fight to protect who they are, that struck a chord. I started to think, there is nothing wrong with being gay. You are gay. You are gay and that’s a good thing!

I was starting to accept my authentic self finally. And that switch being flipped was great. But I knew there was a road ahead of me. I started to think about my family, friends and teammates. How would they feel? I then realized that this was not about them. This was about my happiness, my need to be my authentic self and to be open about who I was.

Shaughn McDonald holds a trophy.
Shaughn McDonald was an assistant coach for the University of Pittsburgh women’s volleyball team that won the ACC title in 2018.

On New Year’s Eve of my junior year, I made myself a resolution — I was going to, at the very least, come out to my parents. They had always been my greatest support system and raised me to treat all people with kindness. Because of this, I felt that they should know who I am. This did not translate to it being easy, though. In fact, it was one of the hardest things I have ever done.

One evening that summer, my dad and I were home by ourselves. I knew this was the moment. I went outside where he was working and started talking to him, at first about random stuff because I had no clue how to bring this up.

Eventually I went silent and just stood there, thoughts racing as he worked. And then I started again with trivial talk, only to fall silent again. It had been an hour of my father working, me talking and then falling silent before he just stopped and said, “Is everything OK? Is there something you need to tell me?”

“Yes,” I responded, “but I might throw up first.” His look of concern was quickly met with my words: “I am gay.”

This is still the best thing I have ever done.

Saying those words for the first time to someone was absolutely freeing. This was the start of me being able to be authentic with other people. My dad and I talked for two hours. He was asking questions, trying to get a better understanding of my journey to get to this point.

Not once did I think he was disappointed or judging me. All I got from him was love and understanding. It was this first experience that set the tone for my coming out journey. Late that night I told my mom and the first words out of her mouth were, “I love you no matter who you love.”

I went back to school confident that I would end up coming out to my team this year. It started with me telling my roommate and teammate of four years and my good friend on the women’s volleyball team at Saint Francis. They both were great about it, but they were the easy ones. I spent the rest of that first semester nervous about how to tell the rest of my team. I had been hiding myself so long that I wasn’t sure how they would handle me being myself.

Shaughn McDonald
Shaughn McDonald went from playing to coaching.
University of Pittsburgh athletics

One night in January during my preseason with my teammates it all started. My teammate whom I had come out to informed me that our other roommate and teammate had heard me on the phone talking to my parents. Part of the conversation was about me coming out to my team.

My heart dropped a little, but then I thought, “Is this a bad thing? This could be an opportunity.” So I texted that teammate so we could talk. He agreed and he started asking me questions about my personal life, and here I was answering them honestly and unashamedly.

We took our conversation to the rest of our senior class and soon it had gone from one teammate who knew about me to four, all who respected me for coming out and started asking me about my personal life. I was finally revealing the part of me that I had worked exhaustively to keep hidden. And I finally felt that I had formed a meaningful connection to them.

I spent the rest of that preseason coming out to the rest of my teammates — 20 guys who treated me with friendship and respect over my revelation.

And that was when I felt it. I felt so much lighter. The exhaustion that I had felt hiding myself from everyone was gone! I was instantly freer, lighter and happier than I had ever been.

They asked questions and they worked to understand. I had people by my side who were saying that they were going to be more cognizant of what they said and how they acted. I knew they had my back.

I spent my last semester of college living my life openly as a gay man and athlete. It was by far my happiest semester of college where I made the most authentic connections with people.

Following my graduation from Saint Francis I accepted the volunteer assistant position with the University of Pittsburgh women’s volleyball team. I was nervous about revealing my authentic self in the professional world, but I knew that it was the right thing to do for me to reveal this to my co-workers as well as my players.

Shaughn McDonald prepares to serve while at St. Francis.
Shaughn McDonald prepares to serve while at St. Francis.

This time it was less of a coming out and more of an acknowledgement of who I was. The staff at Pitt was grateful that I had revealed this side of me to them. Throughout my time with them they asked me about my personal life, joked with me and forged a connection. This experience helped me realize that I could be better at my job and forge better connections with my fellow coaches and co-workers by being real and authentic with them.

I wish I could give my teenage self some advice: Accept yourself. Be unafraid of what others think of you. Your story has nothing to do with them. Your happiness has nothing to do with them. At the end of the day it was my own acceptance that mattered the most.

I wish I had come out sooner, that I had accepted myself sooner. But I also realize that my story happened this way for a reason. Maybe it was so that someone else in my situation could learn from it. It would mean the world to me if my story helps someone else out there. We all deserve to be happy and we all deserve to live as our authentic selves.

Shaughn McDonald, 24, is the assistant women’s volleyball coach at Saint Francis University, his alma mater, where he played men’s volleyball. He has previously been on the volleyball staffs at the University of Pittsburgh (2018-19, 2020) and the University of South Florida (2019). You can reach him at smcdonald@francis.edu or on Instagram: @shaughn.mcdonald

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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