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AP/Statesman Journal, Danielle Peterson

Bisexual football player hopes sexuality will become ‘nonissue’ in NCAA

While pro LGBT athletes have attracted more attention recently, college player Conner Mertens is blazing his own trail

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?

Conner Mertens, second from left, was joined by coaches and teammates at Willamette University when he announced he was bisexual in January 2014.
AP/Statesman Journal, Danielle Peterson

I was always the parents’ pet. I would always have parents and teachers coming up to my family and being like, “Oh, your boy is so nice.” My parents never understood it, because when I came home, I was so emotionally, physically exhausted from faking it all day. I’ve apologized to my parents, because I realize it now. When I would come home, I was, for a lack of a better word, an ass. Unfortunately, the way I let my guard down was through angst, and I wouldn’t say disrespect, but more I was more absent from my home life. I don’t want to say I regret that time, because I don’t like regretting things. I feel bad I took my angst out on my family when I did, because they didn’t deserve it.

It’s a cliché, but even when you’re surrounded by people, you’re really all alone. I found out later [that] I was the person that people would go to for help. And I loved doing it. But I realized it distracted me for my own problems. I never dealt with any of my own insecurities. I just buried them, pretended they didn’t exist and put on the face everyone wanted to see.

In talking with other athletes and coaches about coming out, they’ve expressed some preconceived notions about who would take the news better than others. Were there any people in your immediate circle of friends and family that you were the most nervous about telling? And how did they react? 

Before things went public, I made list of 50 close friends and family to tell in person. Each time was a new experience. The first time I told somebody, it took me hours. We talked back and forth about little random things.

I did these little tests with them before coming out. I’d slip something in, like, “What do you think about gay marriage?” I’d gauge their reaction to figure out whether to tell them or not. This is what was crazy — the ones most indifferent to it made me so uncomfortable. The easiest were the ones I thought were going to react negative. For me, it was the certainty of knowing if something was going to go bad and just thinking to myself, “OK, let's just get it over with.” 

‘I never dealt with any of my own insecurities. I just buried them, pretended they didn’t exist and put on the face everyone wanted to see.’

Conner Mertens

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. 

Conner Mertens, right, speaks with Jason Collins, the first openly gay athlete to play in the NBA, during South by Southwest.
Rick Kern/Getty Images for Samsung

I think it’s impossible to say one way or another whether it was fair. I do think teams are apprehensive about it because they’re nervous about the backlash they’ll get for it. It’s hard to blame it entirely on that. Michael is an amazing football player and I’m disappointed he didn’t get his chance.

Your situation is a unique one, Conner. You came out at Willamette, a Division III school. Could a Division I powerhouse handle the situation in the same way?

That is a tough question. In my letter to my hometown, I included my email, and I got contacted by plenty of college athletes. I can’t say which schools they’re from, but there are many impressive, impressive D-I programs with gay athletes who are terrified to come out. Whether that’s justified fright or not, it’s hard to tell. Alabama coach Nick Saban openly said he’d accept a gay player in his locker room. That’s an amazing start. We need more coaches saying stuff like that, as it opens up the conversation. It isn’t “endorsing” homosexuality. It’s endorsing acceptance and the motto “You can play.”

It’s such a dichotomy, because there is this idea that we want to be more accepting and we want people to feel comfortable with what they are, but it’s not going to happen until one person does it. We always hear people complaining about the “gay agenda” — I hate that phrase. These stories are going to be in people’s faces until LGBT youth aren’t 10 times more likely to have depression. Until then, we’re going to keep telling these stories. The more in-your-face these stories are, the more comfortable they’ll get with it. That’s why telling these stories are so important.

As soon as we see 10 or 15 athletes out and being who they are at these big schools, then it’ll be a nonissue. Until that happens, we’re going to keep perpetuating this idea that gay athletes can exist. 

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