Caleb Persanis, right, with his boyfriend, Daniel. Persanis plays for the SUNY New Paltz rugby team.

For college rugby player Caleb Persanis, coming out as gay to his teammates didn’t involve a speech in front of the team or a long social media post. It involved Daniel.

“I never expressly came out to anybody,” said Persanis, the captain of the rugby team at the State University of New York at New Paltz. “I had a boyfriend and then everyone kind of figured it out from there.”

Persanis met Daniel on the first day of freshman orientation in 2021 when the two shared a dining room table with other students during a barbecue. They hit it off and have been boyfriends for three years.

Daniel goes to the games and also attends team functions, and the nonchalant nature made Persanis’ “coming out” on campus a non-issue.

I put “coming out” in quotes because Persanis, 20, had been out since high school and never hid who he was when he left for college. He felt no need to tell everyone he met that he was gay but knew that people would figure it out pretty quickly.

“Once you come to a new group of people, you kind of have to come out again,” he said. “And while I definitely had a bit of anxiety, once it came to it, there was really no sweat at all. I haven’t had a negative experience yet.”

Caleb Persanis is the captain of SUNY, New Paltz's rugby team.
Caleb Persanis is the captain of SUNY New Paltz’s rugby team.

Part of the reason for the support, he said, was that a previous team captain was also gay. “Several years before me, there was a gay captain who had a profound impact on the team and is often looked up to by lots of players,” Persanis said. “So I think his prominence also contributes to the safe and accepting environment of the team.”

Persanis came to the attention of Outsports after writing an email thanking us for how our coming out stories inspired him, especially one about pro rugby player Nick McCarthy in June 2022.

“McCarthy quickly became my greatest role model, considering he is one of the only openly gay rugby players, plays for the American national team, and even plays the same position as me,” Persanis wrote.

In our interview, Persanis said the positive reaction to McCarthy coming out in the Irish league inspired him.

“I was already pretty well set on my team, but him coming out was just very nice for the whole community, the whole sport to see. And the reaction to it was incredible. I don’t know what he faced, but from what I could see, it was overwhelmingly positive from the pundits, the fans, the teams, the league,” he said.

Caleb Persanis with his boyfriend, Daniel. who is holding a sign of support.
Daniel is a regular at Persanis’ home rugby games.

Persanis has been a driving force in organizing the New Paltz rugby team, which is not surprising given his lineage. His dad started a rugby program in his hometown of Westchester, N.Y., and his older brother also plays.

Persanis plans on playing the sport even after he graduates, noting the robust LGBTQ rugby scene in the U.S. and beyond. “My dad played until he was 45, I gotta get to 46,” he said.

He is a persuasive evangelist for the sport, helping New Paltz grow from about six players when he started to 25 now, with a lot of credit going to coach Joel Venables, who himself played on the New Paltz college team and was instrumental in revitalizing it. Persanis made a compelling pitch to students when he was trying to recruit new players.

“The first thing we always leave them with is that it’s a great group of guys to be friends with,” he said. “As I’ve learned, as everyone learns, all of my closest friends are my teammates. So you’re going to instantly find a social group.

“And then you keep fit. It makes you stay in good shape in a way you don’t really have to think about because you just have to do it.

“And the game’s a lot of fun. I never liked football because I found it too boring with all the stoppages. I didn’t like soccer, because I’m bad with my feet. I tried hockey, but I can’t skate. And I can’t do basketball because I can’t shoot. So I found rugby. And it’s all of my favorite parts of different sports, with none of the bad parts.”

Caleb Persanis on the rugby field
Caleb Persanis plays scrum half on the field.

Persanis plays scrum half on the team, a position a rugby website calls “the heartbeat of a rugby union team. Responsible for making decisions, linking play, throwing key passes and kicking accurately, the rugby scrum half must have a wide skill set that they can execute to perfection.”

Not being in the closet has enabled Persanis to focus on his sport without the anxiety of living a double life. Yet he empathizes with athletes who are struggling, because he felt that way before coming out in high school.

“People are much more accepting of who you are than you think,” he said. “But when you don’t know and you’re kind of scared, you can definitely not give people the benefit of the doubt. [In debating whether to come out] 99 times in my head, it’ll be good. But that one time? It was enough to scare me from doing it.”

Asked what advice he would give to other LGBTQ athletes on coming out, Persanis gave an answer that is sound and universal.

“It will be OK,” he said. “Trust your judgment at first on whether you can come out or not. Not everybody can. Not everyone is as lucky as I was. But most of the time you can.

“And most of the time, your fears are going to be OK. There are communities, there are sporting communities, there are athletic communities. If you need it, if you want it, you can have it.”

Caleb Persanis can be reached on Instagram.