It was a random yet powerful encounter last week that showed me the power of gay athletes telling their stories.
An alumnus of Penn State, I was on campus as the guest of the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity and John Affleck, who runs the Curley Center for Sports Journalism, giving a talk about the history of Outsports and the state of LGBTQ athletes.
After my talk, a few people from the audience came to chat with me. Among them was one young man who waited patiently while I spoke with a few other people. When I got a chance to talk with him, we shook hands and he said that he came to my talk to thank me, saying that Outsports saved his boyfriend. Stunned, I did a double take, being quite surprised to hear something so dramatic, and said I wanted to know what he meant by that.
He proceeded to tell me that his boyfriend was an athlete on a Penn State men’s team and did not have a good experience, though he said things improved near the end. His boyfriend was beside himself, questioning who he was and whether or not he was normal. He was seriously thinking about admitting himself to a mental hospital.
The person speaking to me said Outsports proved to be a catalyst. He said he showed the site to his boyfriend and told him that, “See, there are others like you.”
His boyfriend read the myriad Outsports coming out stories and it totally changed his perspective. He realized he was not alone and, more importantly, that there was nothing wrong with him.
Hearing that blew me away. In the 24 years of writing and editing LGBTQ sports stories it was maybe the most powerful thing anyone has said to me about the impact of what Outsports does. I was so overcome that I stupidly never got the young man’s contact information (some journalist I am!), though we did share a nice hug and some fun chit-chat with one of his roommates. (If he’s reading this, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org).
The encounter reiterated how crucial stories are to marginalized communities. What Outsports has done first and foremost is tell stories or, more accurately, allow athletes and other LGBTQ people in sports to tell theirs. It’s a cliche to say visibility is so important, but it is 100% true in the case of our community. Until an athlete steps forward and declares that they are LGBTQ, their story is mostly hidden from anyone except maybe a few people close to them.
That’s because LGBTQ people, unlike their straight counterparts, have to come out, an awkward process fraught with anxiety, trepidation and fear, along with hope. Discussing one’s sexuality publicly is stressful, something straight people don’t have to deal with, and one reason I think so many pro male athletes stay silent. But public disclosures are necessary to show that there are LGBTQ people in all areas of sports.
Being at Penn State, I thought about Carl Nassib, a fellow Nittany Lion who shook the sports world in 2021 when he said he was gay in a short but powerful Instagram video. Nassib was no more gay the day he did the video than he was the day before, but until he told his story, no one knew of a publicly out NFL player. “I’m a pretty private person so I hope you guys know that I’m not doing this for attention,” he said. “I just think that representation and visibility are so important.”
Stories matter because they allow us to see similarities and garner strength and hope from others we can relate to. In the case of the Penn State athlete whose boyfriend I met, it was reading about other gay athletes in sports that gave him the strength to realize he wasn’t screwed up; like all LGBTQ people, he was different from the majority of the populace, but being different does not mean being abnormal.
I am not writing about the encounter as a way to brag, but as an illustration of how people telling their coming out story can make a huge difference, even if they never become aware of their impact. These trailblazers allow us to create a space for people to feel they are not alone and that they can be out in sports and thrive.
I know from experience that most athletes become better at their sport after coming out because they no longer had to hide and keep up a false front. And their mental health improves. This is why I tell people that sharing their story publicly is not an act of vanity, a ‘Hey, look at me’ pose, but rather an act of selflessness that allows one to share an intimate part of themselves to help others. And help it does.
It’s amazing how many people have seen stories about out athletes and then decided they wanted to tell their own story as a way to pay it forward. It’s why storytelling is so powerful and important.