Byron Perkins is the first HBCU football player to come out publicly as gay. | Chris Brown

Byron Perkins, a defensive back for the Hampton University Pirates, was in a dark spot a month ago. He wasn’t being authentic to himself and it was causing pressure in his life, he told Outsports.

Over the last month, he had realized that being in the closet as a gay man was eating at him. And that needed to change.

“I’ve been self-reflective and trying to prioritize what makes me happy and makes me feel alive,” he said. “I thought it could be just football and school, but there was a component missing. And recently I’ve been able to figure out that I haven’t been fully happy because everyone didn’t know who I was. Authenticity is everything to me.”

Today he came out publicly as gay in a powerful message of love for everyone in his life.

“I’ve decided that I’m going to make a change, and stop running away from myself,” Perkins wrote on Instagram. “I’m gay, let it be known that this is not a ‘decision’ or a ‘choice.’ Yes, this is who I am, this is who I’ve been, and this is who I’m going to be.

“Simply put, I am who I am.”

Hampton is an Historically Black University that competes in the Colonial Athletic Association, a Division I FCS conference made up, in part, of former Atlantic 10 schools. The conference currently includes 13 football teams from Maine to South Carolina.

Perkins is the first gay football player to come out publicly at an HBCU. Other gay Division I football players have been out during their college careers — Scott Frantz at Kansas State and Arizona’s My-King Johnson — in addition to various other gay college football players.

In the rest of Perkins’ coming-out Instagram story, he talked about removing the mask he has worn for too long, and his love for people in his life, whether they can accept this or not:

I have come to understand that life is precious and I could be gone at any moment, therefore, I will no longer be living a lie. No one should have to live a life crippled by what society thinks.

I have been told on many occasions that I walk around a look as if I’m upset. This is not because I am an angry person, but because I have put on a mask, a mask that has restricted me. Today, I am destroying that mask.

For the friends and family that have known and supported me to this point, thank you, and for the friends and family that I will lose… Thank you too. You have all helped me in the process of building the young man I am today.

Perkins is a junior defensive back for the 4-2 Pirates, meaning he’ll now play one-and-a-half seasons as an out football player. In six games so far this season, he’s recorded 16 tackles, two deflected passes and one interception.

He told Outsports that the reception from his team has been “very good,” but also a bit mixed. His coaches, he said, have supported him.

Perkins said he understands some people may not fully understand him being gay, but he primarily wants to help other gay Black men who are struggling, particularly at an Historically Black University.

“It’s about that kid who’s going to see this and think he can be himself too.”

“Especially at an HBCU, young Black gay men need an outlet,” he said. “They need a support system. There hasn’t been an out gay football athlete at an HBCU. I want to end the stigma of what people think. I want people to know they can be themselves.

“It’s about that kid who’s going to see this and think he can be himself too.”

Perkins also understands that religion may play a role in people’s perspectives. He himself is a devout Christian, including #ThankYouGod on his coming-out post.

“You can be gay and be religious,” he said via phone shortly after Wednesday’s practice. “I’m a God-fearing man. I love Christ. I just want to be better than the man I was the day before, and I want to help people.”

Perkins was previously on the Purdue Boilermakers football team before transferring to Hampton. He grew up in Chicago and went to De La Salle High School, where he played offense, defense and special teams.

It was at De La Salle where he made a name for himself, reportedly landing a spot on a Chicago Sun Times high school all-50 team and earning props at a competition event from football recruiting writer Allen Trieu:

Earlier this year he posted an Instagram story that in some ways foreshadowed his big coming out, saying: “Don’t follow society. Follow your heart. You will never make a difference being like everyone else.”

Before coming out, his last Instagram post quoted 19th Century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche:

This Saturday, Hampton hosts Richmond at the school’s homecoming game.

Previously the team has made five FCS appearances, the most recent being 2006. Over a dozen Hampton players have landed in the NFL, included DE Kendall Langford, who played for five teams over a decade-long NFL career.

Outsports salutes Perkins for his courage and willingness to break new ground and inspire others. The positive effects of his coming-out will be seen for years.

You can find Byron Perkins on Instagram.

Images thanks to Chris Brown. You can follow him on Instagram, and check out his website,