Though the world of sports has, for the most part, trailed the rest of American culture in the fight for LGBT equality, that fight has come front and center in recent weeks. NFL players Chris Kluwe and Brendan Ayanbadejo filed a brief in the Supreme Court fighting for marriage equality. Professional soccer player Robbie Rogers came out as gay in a blog post that also announced his retirement from the sport. And NFL teams have been embroiled in controversy over whether they asked future draft picks about their sexuality and if they “liked girls.”
There still isn’t an openly gay male athlete in American professional sports, but there is a growing sense that that could change soon. With that in mind, I talked to Travon Free, a former college basketball player at Cal State-Long Beach who came out as bisexual after his career ended, about what challenges face athletes who stay in the closet and about the challenges the first openly gay athlete will face. Here is a loosely edited transcript of our conversation:
You came out in a blog post on your website in 2011. What went into that decision, when you decided you were going to be public about it?
Around that time, summer of 2010, there were a lot of kids killing themselves, and it was really sad. Some friends and family knew, so I wasn’t going out of my way to hide it, and so after seeing that and just, like, being heartbroken by all those stories, I just felt like I couldn’t do it anymore. I felt like I was doing a disservice to myself and all those people who might look toward me as a some type of silver lining or a role model; if it was just one person who saw there was one person like me in a space where that was typically frowned upon or accepted.
Did you ever think about coming out while you were still playing basketball?
Oh yeah, I did. I thought about it a couple times. It’s funny. You go through a couple moments where you gauge the temperature of your peers to see how they might handle it, and for the most part, I don’t think it would have been a problem. My team didn’t seem very homophobic. It was funny because I used to tell people, my teammates loved to do really gay things, just do really silly shit. I think it’s kind of like that on sports teams in general: guys love to play around by pretending or doing things that are typically deemed gay, because the joke is, ‘I’m not really gay, I’m just doing this because it’s funny.’ Just hearing the occasional serious conversation or pseudo-serious conversation where guys would say, ‘I don’t really care’ or ‘it’s not a big deal,’ or they’d say they didn’t have an opinion, and I think you know what that means. The closer I got to graduating, the more comfortable I became with it, to where I stopped going out of my way to hide it. It was like, if someone found out, I wouldn’t care.
I think my coach would have not tolerated any type of animosity toward me if I did it. I think [former Long Beach coach Larry Reynolds] was pretty good about stuff like that. He wouldn’t have allowed it to be an environment where there would have been any hostility toward me for doing it.
How did you gauge it with teammates?
The couple times I can remember it came up organically. There was one road trip I remember. We were somewhere and there was a billboard, I don’t remember if it was a pro-family billboard or an equality-type thing. I just remember we passed it and it started a conversation. I would always listen closely to those kinds of things. I didn’t hear a lot of negativity toward it at all, it was really just guys talking about it. I didn’t hear anyone say, ‘No way would I play with a gay teammate,’ or ‘I don’t like gay people.’ At the time I remember thinking, ‘Well that’s a little comforting.’ If I did decide to do it, I don’t think my teammates would turn against me.
Afterward I got a lot of support from them. Old teammates would contact me and say, ‘I heard about it and you’re still one of my best friends, it doesn’t change anything.’ There was only one teammate who I found out about in retrospect who tried to make it a thing that people should be concerned about. I don’t know what his intention was. I didn’t find out about that until after I graduated. I found that out from another teammate. And the thing is, he was telling people stuff that wasn’t true. So that was the only guy who I guess had a problem with it.