Every March, tens of thousands of people from around the globe flock to Austin, Texas, to learn and connect over panels, parties and tacos at South by Southwest's interactive, film and music conferences. America Tonight's SXDiaries Q&A series highlights interesting and inspiring figures at SXSW.
Conner Mertens’ story has played a significant role at the intersection of sports and LGBT rights. In January 2014, the kicker for Willamette, a Division III program in Salem, Oregon, became the first active college football player at any level to publicly announce his bisexuality. Today, Mertens continues to be a force in helping young athletes going through similar experiences before coming out. His story is one of several featured in "Out to Win," a new documentary chronicling the history of LGBT participation in American sports.
In an interview with America Tonight at the South by Southwest festival, Mertens discussed Michael Sam, fakeness and what it will take for sexual orientation to become a nonissue in college football. Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
You’ve touched on how growing up in southeast Washington state isn’t the most LGBT-friendly place in the world. What was it like growing up there? Did it push you away from coming to terms with your sexual orientation?
I never felt in danger. I was just never, ever, ever comfortable. I was fortunate enough that my school was never big on bullying, but there were certain things that were swept under the rug and nobody ever mentioned them. I’m sure there’s a better phrase for it, but I call it secondary bullying. It was more the language and the gender norms, the stereotypical “Don’t be a faggot.” Every single word was another nail in the coffin and forced me further and further into the closet.
I pushed it so far away from me that I completely ignored that part of my life. I have amazing friends and family back home. When I look back, I learned to stay away from comments sections on any article in general. [Laughs.] The most disgusting and horrible things I heard were comments sections on local news articles from my town. That was the disappointing thing for me growing up there.
In your Fox Sports interview, you said you'd been concerned about being stuck in fakeness for the rest of your life. What’s it like to be stuck in that kind of fakeness?
One story I love telling is about a friend back home who was a stereotypical redneck. We’ve been best friends since eighth grade. There were many weekends back home where he’d say things about killing all the gays or burning them alive — very morbid and terrible things. When I was going to tell him, I knew exactly how he’d react. I called him, and we hung out and played video games. I was like, “Hey, man, I’ve got to tell you something.” I just told him, “I like guys. I don’t know how you feel about that. Sorry, I can’t change it, but it is who I am.” He immediately broke down and started crying. He hugged me and said, “If anyone treats you a fraction of how bad I treated you, you tell me, and I will kill them.” It was such a powerful moment to see this rough and tough redneck who had condemned homosexuality and was so violently homophobic to completely change his views in 30 seconds. That image will stick with me my entire life. That was a big turning moment for me.
When I told my team, I immediately started getting texts from my teammates after the meeting they had. I wasn’t in the meeting, because I wanted them to have an open discussion to say what they felt about me without me present. Once I got their reactions, I was able to gauge how the rest would go.
It’s been almost a year since Michael Sam became the first openly gay football player to be drafted to an NFL team. As we know, he didn’t see the field and is now a free agent. Looking back on his story and how the league and society as a whole handled his case, what effect do you think it's had on LGBT athletes who are thinking about coming out? Has he gotten a fair shake?
I think it was a polarizing event. It baffles me when people say he didn’t deserve to be in the NFL when he was co-defensive player of the year in the SEC. For people to say he didn’t deserve it, I’m not blaming it on homophobia, but I do think it was influenced by society. Society is just going to go along with what other people say. Everyone knew if he didn’t get drafted that there would be this media storm about homophobia.