This week we’re highlighting the experiences of LGBTQ athletes who have come out to their teams and participated in the Out In Sports study, which Outsports conducted with the Univ. of Winchester and the Sports Equality Foundation. The study revealed widespread acceptance of LGBTQ athletes who come out to teammates in high school and college. You can find more here.
Carlin Yetts is a Black gay man who wrestled at a small Catholic high school in rural West Virginia.
And when he came out to his teammates 22 years ago, he was universally embraced. It’s just another example of how Yetts’ life story doesn’t mesh with tired stereotypes.
“At the end of the day, they knew me,” Yetts said. “They knew the person I was, they knew my morale, they knew my spirit in life. I know a lot of people don’t have the same story as me — I have friends who had it a lot worse. It was just an environment where I had loving Catholic people around me who practiced what they preached.”
Yetts is one of 820 out athletes who responded to our Out in Sports survey about how they were treated when they came out to their teammates. More than 95% of the athletes said their teammates’ responses were “neutral” to “perfect.”
While the vast majority of athletes surveyed have come out recently, Yetts’ story harkens back to another century — albeit by just one year. He told his wrestling teammates he was gay in 1999, back when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was in place and same-sex marriage wasn’t even on the table.
It was a big deal, but in a good way. Yetts’ teammates told him they would protect him, and though he could handle himself, he appreciated the gesture. As the only Black male at his school, Yetts was used to standing out.
As a kid, he experienced homelessness, and moved in with his uncle in lily white Long Island. Those trying circumstances bolstered his self-confidence.
“I’ve never felt out of place,” Yetts said. “I’ve always made my place wherever I’ve gone.”
That holds true today. Yetts currently coaches wrestling in Columbus, Ohio, where he had to come out all over again. Right before a tournament, a parent approached Yetts and nonchalantly asked if his partner would be in attendance. Yetts answered truthfully (he didn’t know), but before he could say anything further, he noticed the parent was walking away.
“I was like, ‘What did I just tell him?,’” Yetts said. “Did I just out myself without really noticing it?’”
The answer is yes, but it only strengthened Yetts’ bond with his team. He formally came out at a post-season banquet, and handed out his participating medals from the 2014 Gay Games, in which he competed.
The kids ate it up. One of them put the medal at the end of his bed, where he keeps his prized possessions. Another one of his wrestlers threatened to beat up parents from an opposing team who were speaking ill of Yetts for being gay.
“The kids had my back,” Yetts said.
So did their parents.
“I have some redneck parents; I have some city parents; I have some parents who are super religious. How are they going to take it?,” Yetts said. “At the end of the day, it was like, ‘We don’t care. Our kids love you. We’re not going to pull someone who’s positive and pushing them to be better in life.”
One parent even told Yetts his coming-out prompted her husband and son to stop using gay slurs around the house.
“I was like, ‘I’m just here to coach wrestling,’” he said. “I didn’t realize I was changing lives and changing the way people were living.”
Yetts has never changed the way he lives for anybody, and that’s the message he preaches. Wrestling is a meritocracy: you’re accepted if you can hold your own on the mat, not because of who you sleep with.
“When you step onto a wrestling mat, the first thing you don’t need to shout is, ‘I’m gay.’ The first thing you need to do is prove yourself,” Yetts said. “I think that’s what a lot of athletes are doing now: proving themselves, and then they’re like, ‘By the way, I’m gay.’”
That’s what Yetts did in 1999. He’s not afraid of standing out. Instead, he embraces it.
Thanks to stories like his, more young wrestlers are doing the same each year.
Learn more about the Out In Sports study here.