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Gay college basketball player wants to inspire others to come out

‘I want to shift the conversation away from being the one gay basketball kid,’ Joe Morrell writes. ‘I am not the only one, I am one of many.’

Joe Morrell is a junior at St. John Fisher University in Rochester, N.Y
Hanife Gundogdu

In the summer of 2021, I posted on Instagram about being gay.

Growing up there wasn’t a lot of gay athletes to look up to, which is something I’ve always struggled with. Over this last year I have become more comfortable with who I am as a person and an athlete. Before the end of Pride, I wanted to take the time to post about being gay. When I committed to college, I promised myself that I wouldn’t hide who I was and would go through life authentically as me.

With so much support from my coaches, teammates, friends and fam, I feel ready to share more about who I am. Being out is important for me, not only for my own health, but also to hopefully help other queer athletes who are going through what I went through these last few years.

I have never been more happy and more confident in who I am as a person. I can’t wait to keep loving life. :)

Happy Pride,
Luv, Joe

Coming out was the biggest relief of my life. Although I had come out to most of my friends and family, this was the first time I’d publicly discussed my sexuality. The main reason for wanting to share something like this was basketball. I felt that it was important not only for me, but for any scared little hooper who deserves to see someone just like them.

Gay basketball players didn’t seem to exist when I was growing up. Around middle school in New Hampshire I knew that I was gay, and I only cared how it impacted one thing: basketball. As I started to play AAU ball, I would do whatever it took so that no one would suspect I was gay. I tried to talk deeper, walk differently and make sure I wasn’t wearing anything that would “make me look gay.”

As I got to high school, nothing changed. I didn’t care about my sexuality in most social settings or with my friends, except for basketball. When I was at practice, team dinners or on the bus I tried to maintain an alter ego. This person wasn’t me, it was a character I thought I needed to be in order to survive in the basketball world.

As I grew more comfortable with myself and my teammates I had grown up with, the walls began to break down. The character continued when it came to coaches, my AAU teammates or any reporter I talked to. I had the biggest fear that if the basketball world knew I was gay, my dream of playing in college would be impossible.

For years I convinced myself that college coaches and teammates wouldn’t want the “gay kid” on their team. This thought chipped away at me constantly.

I had many doubts about continuing my basketball career despite the achievements and attention I earned. As the college process continued and I began to be recruited, I felt that playing this character was my only chance. I would dread coaches calling me because I thought they would be able to tell I was gay and lose interest in me. At recruiting camps, I was constantly worried about coaches somehow figuring out I was gay. When I went on visits to schools, I would make sure my outfit, what I said and how I acted wouldn’t make me seem “gay.”

Joe Morrell has found his bond strengthening with his St. John Fisher University teammates.
Hanife Gundogdu

Even after I committed and started college, I was continually fearful of what my coaches and teammates thought about me.

I was paranoid and stressed every preseason workout and practice about them not liking me because I was gay. I hated living in constant fear and having to feel like someone else in the basketball community. My favorite thing to do was now filled with anxiety and stress.

I was never afraid when I played. It was when we were hanging out before practice or having dinner together. This all changed when I started to become more comfortable with who I was and how other people saw me. I started to introduce this part of myself to people in the form of humor. I would make jokes and little comments that would make people laugh but also give them little clues. I started to test the water in the only way I knew — to make people laugh.

The first time I told a couple of my teammates outright I was gay was extremely stressful. The reaction I received, however, was not what I could have ever imagined. They initially felt embarrassed about ever saying anything that offended me. They bombarded me with apologies for ever “making me feel uncomfortable.” I honestly didn’t care about any of that; I was now content and feeling safe.

In every conversation I have had with my teammates about my sexuality they genuinely care and show me the utmost respect. They are the most protective and loving people I have ever met in my life.

I had a similar experience when I came out to my head coach, Mike Grosodonia II. Having a conversation with him was one of my biggest fears. I went into his office with a piece of paper with everything I wanted to say. When I finally got the courage to talk and tell him, his reaction changed how I thought about myself. He told me he had so much respect for me and how much he valued me as a person and athlete on his team.

To say these connections saved my life is not untrue. For my entire life I worried what these people would think of me. I assumed they would hate me and not want me as a part of their team. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Not only are these people a part of my life, they are family.

Playing on a college sports team is like having a second family. You spend so much of your time and go through so many things together. You travel together, eat together, live together and fight together. I always hoped for tolerance when it came to my teammates and coaches learning that I was gay. What I have received is something so much more. I have received a level of unconditional love within this family.

My life is so different after coming out. I finally feel at peace playing the sport I love. I am a better athlete and person because of the support of my teammates and coaches. The biggest supporter I needed though this entire time was myself. My life changed the moment I began to trust people, let them in and accepted who I was.

Joe Morrell fights for a rebound.
Joe Morrell (in red) fights for a rebound.
Hanife Gundogdu

I encourage people to have difficult conversations with their teammates and friends when it comes to who you are. It is important to understand and support each other. To athletes who are debating coming out, I would say find your family. There will always be people to support you, you just have to find them.

It was not that long ago that I would lay in bed, with tears in my eyes, reading the stories of athletes on Outsports. Today, with the help of my family, I feel empowered to share my own. I hope that you know gay athletes exist everywhere. Many are out to a select few or even their teams.

I have decided to share this in such a public way because I want to shift the conversation away from being the one gay basketball kid. I am not the only one, I am one of many. Overall, I just hope that my story helps people, changes some minds, and opens them as well to what kind of life we all deserve to live.

Sports are an amazing thing and we all deserve to play them and engage with their communities authentically as ourselves.

Joe Morrell is a junior at St. John Fisher University in Rochester, N.Y., where he is majoring in Marketing and is a member of the men’s basketball team. He grew up in Lee, New Hampshire, where he played soccer, basketball and tennis on the varsity level. He was selected All-State in both basketball and tennis in back-to-back seasons. To follow along on his journey, Joe can be found on Instagram @joe.morrell.

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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