There are so few out, gay men in wrestling that most people don’t believe Justice Horn when he says he’s one of them.
For years, Horn used sports as a means to distract from who he was. Now a 20-year old wrestler at Northern State University in South Dakota, he found his calling in the sport in high school. And though he is comfortably out today, he can recall hiding behind his athletic achievements growing up to disprove any notions he was gay.
As gay black man participating in one of the most brutish and racially homogenous sports (and one noticeably lacking prominent gay athletes), Horn’s sense of identity has taken years to mold. And after these years spent wrestling with his own self-perception, he is prepared to use his platform as a college athlete to draw greater attention to inequality along the lines of sexual orientation, race and gender.
HuffPost spoke with Justice Horn about how the Pulse nightclub shooting impacted his life, what inspiration he’s drawn from former football player Michael Sam and why he chose to take on a more outspoken leadership role at this point in his life.
You grew up in Blue Springs, Missouri. What was the culture like?
Blue Springs is a suburb right outside of Kansas City, Missouri. I grew up there, went to middle school there and went to high school there. I was born in Blue Springs, but I initially went to elementary school and middle school in a city called Grain Valley. And that city, although it’s moving forward now, it wasn’t really open-minded. My parents were targeted for being an interracial couple — it just wasn’t the norm in that city, and this was in the early 2000s. So in my freshman year, we took the step to move to Blue Springs, because they’re really a more upbeat town.
When did you first start wrestling?
I started wrestling in high school, and the reason I was convinced to get into it was that they told everyone wrestling could make you a better football player.
Did you have any interest in playing football at the time, or was it just something your parents urged you to do?
I did have an interest in playing football; I come from an athletic-driven family. Both of my parents played some form of college athletics, my sister committed to a D1 university for volleyball, my brother’s being scouted for football, one uncle of mine played in the NFL and I have two other uncles who coached on the college level. So I really did come from that sort of environment.
Given everything your parents endured because of their identities, did you get the sense that, when you came out to them, they’d have a certain empathy and understanding of what you’d gone through?
Yeah, coming from a family with a lot of different cultural backgrounds, I was brought up knowing not to judge anyone — knowing that we need to be tolerant of everyone — and knowing to treat everyone the same in all aspects. And I also grew up in the church, and that really helped define who I am today.
Did you come out to your family before your teammates?
I actually came out to my teammates first. The first time I came out was actually in my freshman year of high school, and honestly, I knew I was going to grow up with that same group of guys and I think that’s why I had such a positive experience. It happened when I was a freshman and we all grew up together. So it was a big deal, but among us, it didn’t matter. It was just who I was. But honestly, how I got the strength to come out came from the fact that Mizzou is really big in our state, and when Michael Sam came out, that showed that there is representation in my sport. That really gave me strength, because seeing him be the first and subject to scrutiny made me say, “I can be authentic with myself and still play all these sports.” It made that process so much easier and I was met with a lot of positive feedback from everyone. Really, everyone just cared about how I played.
I’m so grateful you made the connection between you and Michael Sam because while we often talk about what he meant to the nation, we don’t tend to consider the people like yourself who grew up tracking his success in college and relating to him in an intimate way as a fan and admirer.
Yeah, it hit close to home here for a lot of people.
You’ve been able to witness the arc of his career. Does the fact that he’s no longer in the league despite all of the praise he was afforded instill any self-doubt in you?
I do give him props for doing that, but I am very blessed and lucky to have everything going for me. I have a coach who supports me, teammates who support me, a university that supports me, and a community — a college town — that supports me. And even here in Blue Springs, I’m supported. I knew I needed to take a big step and do this; I needed to share my story because it could benefit someone who isn’t as lucky as me.
The Orlando shooting really did shift my personal belief. It was a tragedy that happened, and if I’m alive today, why am I not living my authentic self? Justice Horn
How did you arrive at this point mentally, where you’re able to express this level of confidence about who you are and why you’re here?
Being gay was never something my family stomped down. It was awkward and it was something new to some of them, because really, we were all about sports. And now I’m able to admit that I played a lot of sports — I was successful in a lot of sports — in part to cover up who I was.
I see. After you’ve done that for so many years, I imagine it’s freeing to live, as you said, as your “authentic” self.
You’ve participated in two of the most hyper-masculine sports in both football and wrestling. Did you ever feel a need to conform to stereotypical senses of what it meant to be a man?
Yeah. I know I had a problem with self-image. I didn’t want to come off as “too gay,” or look “too feminine” or “too soft.” They are male-dominated sports and I didn’t want the idea hanging over my head: “Oh, he didn’t tackle that guy because he’s too soft.” I always had that in my head, even at a younger age. Honestly, though, at this point I do what I have to do. A lot of people don’t believe me when I say I’m homosexual.
They… think you’re lying?
Yeah, a lot of people don’t believe it when I tell them. To them, I’m just a college wrestler. So my thing is, I thank of all the people who came before me. Obviously, Michael Sam helped me come out, but the Orlando shooting really did shift my personal belief. It was a tragedy that happened, and if I’m alive today, why am I not living my authentic self? Why do I care about what people think about me? Really, that incident just showed me how lucky I am to have everything. And there are a lot of events that have changed me personally when it comes to aspects of my sexuality.
Are you comfortable speaking about any of those experiences that have shaped how you identify?
Recently, I’ve been very, very active in my community and at my university, and that’s because of what’s happening in our political system. I think, especially, the 2016 election taught me that if you want change to happen there needs to be action and there needs to be representation. I can’t sit around complaining if I’m not out there changing things and doing things. I’m in my second year being in student government and I’m chair to the state and local governments. Our political environment is changing and I need to be more representative — more of a leader in the community.
And you’ve felt that the people of Aberdeen, South Dakota, and at your current school, Northern State University, have been receptive to your message?
Yeah, I’m very well supported there.
What sort of things have your teammates and coaches done to make you feel so comfortable and welcome?
This is my first year at Northern State University, but in late October, I came out to my coach in a private meeting. He gave me the option to keep it between the two of us, but he was very supportive of the idea of me telling the team. So after one practice, I told my teammates. I mean, those are my brothers and I was met with acceptance. But I think in any environment, especially in sports, it starts from the top.
Who were the athletes you idolized growing up, prior to Michael Sam? Wrestling is one of those sports that isn’t highly publicized and I wonder who you looked toward for inspiration.
One athlete, in particular, was [U.S. Olympic wrestler] Jordan Burroughs. He’s probably one of the best wrestlers in the league and he really is, I think, the face of USA wrestling right now. That was one idol I really did take into consideration. Even being in a predominantly white sport, he was the best and he represented the African-American community. Strong African-American athletes — the Williams sisters in tennis, for example — I idolize them because those are people like me out there in sports going against odds, not even just on the field of competition.