Story from May 18, 2011
Will Sheridan was a forward on the Villanova basketball team from 2003-2007 and helped take the Wildcats to the NCAA Elite 8 one year. That whole time, he was out to his teammates, but not to the public. That changed this week when he was profiled by Dana O'Neil in ESPN.com.
Her story, which detailed his close relationship with his teammates and coach and his strained one with his father, thrust Sheridan, 26, into the spotlight, which he is now ready to embrace. A New Age hip-hop recording artist with an eclectic sound, Sheridan is releasing his first full album this fall, while his music video "Welcome to the Jungle" from his Ngoma EP has already gotten 75,000 YouTube views in the month since it was released. He released his second video, "302," the day we spoke. He also works in the fashion industry in New York.
While an athlete, Sheridan regularly checked Outsports, wondering if anyone was speculating he was gay, a concern of his at the time. In a wide-ranging interview, he talks about his career as an athlete, an artist, the reaction to his coming out story and his plans to be active in the community.
Outsports: When did you first say to yourself, I am gay?
Will Sheridan: I was curious at a very young age and I acted on that curiosity. ... I went through a very interesting phase because of people projecting images onto me and me buying into it. Being super-tall, super-big, decent-looking, a decent athlete. I used to say to people - and this will sound really lame - I tried to be straight and it just didn't work.
I legitimately thought it was something I was going to suppress for a really long time and it would just go away and I would get married and be quote, unquote "normal."
I went through a phase where I hated being gay and I denied it. I was curious and I hated it but I was acting on it. Then I was also put in a position where you seek out affection.
But then I just started living my life one day. When you are in a relationship, people kind of bring you out of your comfort zone. When you're truly in love with someone, which I was [he met a man while a college sophomore] that individual helped me really experience a real relationship with a man, and let me know it was something I could hold onto and grow with and grow old with someone. Being in a relationship makes things real.
OS: What has the reaction been to your coming out?
WS: People close to me are like, "Really, you're that big a deal? You're in the news?" Living in New York and working in fashion, it becomes normal. To them, I'm just regular Will. To them this is old news, not even news.
OS: But did they understand the whole sports ramifications of why this is a big deal?
WS: To me, I was even a bit naïve to the whole reception of it. I just didn't know I would be helping so many people. The emails I have been getting and the responses I have been getting are like unreal, unreal, unreal. Hundreds of emails. Hundreds of followers on Twitter (@WillSheridan). Hundreds of messages on Facebook. The reason I was late [for this interview] is that my iPhone has too many emails coming in and it turned itself off and reloaded.
OS: What has been the tone of the emails and who have you heard from?
WS: I've heard from other athletes, I've heard from parents of gay kids, I've heard from straight men and straight women and gay women. I heard from a [gay] couple who moved into a town and their neighborhood wasn't very receptive of them moving in. They printed out the [ESPN.com] article and that's the first conversation they had with their neighbors. That's crazy. I'm just Will Sheridan from Delaware, who played basketball.
OS: When you hear from athletes, what are they saying to you?
WS: Everybody's thanking me, they're saying "your story helped me," but they're not saying they're necessarily coming out. There's one guy who's says he's not out to his parents and he's not out to his family but "your story is helping me and encouraging me to come out to them."
I haven't even had time to reply [to all the emails]. I really haven't had a chance to consume it all. I'm just so busy. In addition to me coming out in the news, I'm also managing my brand as an artist and I also manage a business.
OS: Until you can answer email, what would you like to tell people who wrote you?
WS: I want to thank them for contacting me and I will be getting back to people. My story and my message is that people should be who they are and I stand for the strength of everyone just being an individual.
OS: Do people use their names when they contact you?
WS: They do on Facebook. ... I heard John Amaechi say in an interview that people come out to him exclusively and I thought that's not going to happen to me. But it is. People just trust that you understand their situation and that you won't out them.
All the stories have been touching to me, but I really haven't had the chance to consume it all yet. I really want to get the opportunity to respond to them all individually and acknowledge their experience and really value it, because this may not be forever. If a thousand other athletes come out, this will be watered down. It's therapeutic for me to help other people.
OS: Why did you decide to tell your story right now?
WS: It had been on the back burner for a while [with Dana O'Neil at ESPN] but I wanted to wait for my family to be at a point where I brought someone home for the holidays and they could grasp the facts and really get to know me after basketball. I felt like my core and my foundation were at a point where I could do this.
Also, I'm an artist and if you listen to any of my songs, it's all in my music and I'd rather just come out than be brought out. I'd rather do it [myself] rather than somebody say "he said he was a queen in a song."
OS: So you talk about being gay in your music?
WS: Yeah, of course. "You Know I Got It" is a song on iTunes from my first album "Ngoma," and the chorus is [he starts semi-singing]:
You know I got it. I know you need it. ...
Life, I'm living to the brim
The looks they're giving him, they should be thanking him. Why? Coz he's a pioneer ... he's a fire queers clear, no lies.
"Set Fire to the Streets" has more of a message.
Set fire to the streets, light up the night, fair is fair and right is right. ... I'm going to fight for my rights. ... Fuck being a second-class citizen, I'm here to be a changin' the world that we're livin' in ... are you givin' in or contributin'.
OS: Is being a spokesman or role model something you are looking to do?
WS: I feel I'm going to be a public figure with my music because it's going to be impactful and I'll have no choice but to have a stance and have an opinion. And I want to be a pioneer and be brave for other people. I have a unique perspective. I lived in a straight world. I was socially institutionalized to be a straight man. I've done things that are quote unquote ‘normal' for a straight guy. I feel a lot of people can embrace my experience.
I want to be an advocate for our community, but I stand for so many things. I'm gay, I'm black. I'm 6-8 -- that makes me a triple minority.
Any opportunity where I can go somewhere and talk about my experience, I'm there. Obviously, the opportunity to perform is my priority. I want people to live through my music. But if someone wants to hear me speak, I have the ability and capacity to be articulate.
OS: When you were playing, did you know of any other gay athletes?
WS: Not at the level I was playing at. I know of athletes who have had gay sex but I don't know if they're 100% gay.
OS: Do you think there is a responsibility of athletes to come out, either while playing or after?
WS: I think the right people will come out. If you have the capacity to be an ambassador to the community, come forward.
OS: Do you think there is more homophobia in the black community than elsewhere?
WS: I do. I think the black community has stronger ties to the church, because of slavery and trying to have faith on the slave ships and trying to have faith during the oppression of slavery and then trying to have faith during the civil rights struggle and trying to get equality. And also trying to present themselves in a presentable manner to white America, and trying to be an upstanding member of the community and being part of the church is very important. Black people are more invested in church, which ultimately ties to being homophobic.
OS: Have you experienced homophobia?
WS: Yes, of course. I live in Bed-Stuy Brooklyn [Beford Stuyvesant] and I used to walk down the streets and hear all types of things. And now the neighborhood is gentrifying and it's changing. ...
You have to understand, I'm 6-8, I'm black, I'm gay. So not many people are checking me [picking on me] but if they do they have to suffer the consequences.
OS: In the ESPN story, there was discussion of cross-town Philadelphia rival St. Joseph's fans being homophobic towards you at games.
WS: Fans are fans. They'll say anything they want, they'll come to the games drunk. It wasn't just St. Joe's fans. ... I got an apology from a guy that went to St. Joe's. He was like, "not all St. Joe's fans are homophobic. I apologize on behalf of the community."
Some of my really good friends went to St. Joe's and I have nothing against St. Joe's. It happened everywhere. At Syracuse. At St. Joe's. At Rutgers. At Penn. Everywhere.
"Will and Grace." "Hey Sheridan, what's a dick taste like?" All types of out-of-control things I thought were hilarious. That's one reason I took so long to come out. I could go through that myself, but if my grandmother and mother and father are sitting at the game, then they're going through it with me.
OS: How did these fans know you were gay?
WS: I was dating a guy that went to school in Philadelphia. I went to his school prom my senior year. ... I participated in gay social life, so of course people knew.
And the same guy in the closet is doing the same thing I was doing. He's at the club and he's not trying to be too obvious and he sees me and says, "Oh my God, that's fucking Will Sheridan, the basketball player." And then he goes to the game drunk with his straight friends, and of course he's going to say some obnoxious things and project his insecurities onto me.
OS: Did opposing players ever say anything to you?
WS: I run funny, I walk funny, I talk funny, of course they're gonna call me [names]. I think straight men like to insult other men by calling them gay and implying they do gay things. But to me, if you say, "Sheridan, you suck dick," I'm like "duh."
If I talked trash, they would be like, "I faced you, fucking faggot." But they say that to anyone. I don't think it [him being gay] was something everyone was aware of or was talking about behind the scenes.
I was the big man or tough guy on the team and I was playing against the other tough guy on their team, so of course I'm going to be targeted. They're gonna try to break me down and attack my character to make me weak, but I was strong-minded, so I don't think it affected me.
OS: Everybody knew except your coach, Jay Wright, with whom you still have a very close relationship?
WS: I had a very interesting relationship with my father and it's affected every parental figure in my life. ... Every paternal figure in my life, I was always worried they would not want to be a part of my life because of the type of relationship I had with my father. Of course, I was hesitant to tell my coach. ... I never felt a need to involve that in the dynamic of our relationship.
OS: You were not publicly gay at school in that someone could have done a Google search, but you were openly gay to those around you.
WS: I used to be so paranoid about me being gay that I used to Google "Will Sheridan gay" and I think I made a trending topic on Google because other people must have been Googling it too. It was so funny that nobody noticed that.
OS: Are you dating someone?
WS: I am single but not available.
OS: Do you still play sports?
WS: I have a bit of an ego when it comes to basketball and it would be really humbling for me to pay to play in a league. But I am so focused on my music that I don't really have time to play that much. I play on Sundays with people from work.
OS: Could you ever see yourself playing in a gay-oriented basketball league?
WS: I would like to play in a gay-oriented tournament that was for charity. It would need to be for someone else's benefit. When I play basketball, I enjoy it, but now there's a lot of anxiety for me to be asked to play basketball [after playing at such a competitive level]. There's the expectations. I walk onto a court and someone says, "I got you." I could suck. I don't suck, but I could and it would be the end of my reputation. I don't feel I have anything to prove. It becomes this big ordeal in my head. I would feel like I would have to be like Kobe Bryant, every night.
OS: What is your favorite sport to watch?
WS: Definitely basketball. I'm completely invested in college basketball, but if Villanova lose I have no interest in it. As for the NBA, I root for all the players I ever played against or played with.
OS: Who are some of your favorite players?
WS: I was always a big fan of Shaq but now my favorite big man would be Dwight Howard. I love LeBron James, Rondo's game is amazing. I watch my former teammates Kyle Lowry and Randy Foye in the league all the time, Dante Cunningham for the Trailblazers.
OS: What is a good sports memory from playing?
WS: To this day, people come up to me to talk about the Texas game we played [Jan. 20, 2007] where we held Kevin Durant to 10 points. People say "you guys were amazing that day." Yep, we were amazing. He was averaging like 35 points that year and that game he only had 10 and I was a part of that. Myself, Shane Clark and Dante Cunningham were all guarding him. On Facebook there's a picture someone tagged me in of me blocking his shot. That's cool. [Editor's note: Durant entered the game averaging 24.5 points a game and was held to 12 by Villanova. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported: "Durant ended the game with a shot blocked by Sheridan."]
OS: What would you say to someone young trying to reconcile being gay and being an athlete?
WS: We need you. We need you to be great. We need you to be better than great. We need you to dominate in your sport so we can celebrate you and we will. It's better on this side and that's not cliché. Be as awesome as you can be. Be a master at whatever you want to be and people will respect you. Don't be afraid. But also, never put yourself before the team.