Gay Athletes and the Ongoing Challenge of Full Acceptance

Media attention has rightly focused on Jason Collins and Michael Sam who have courageously confronted a homophobic professional sports culture. Like Jackie Robinson, they have exposed the intolerant underside not only of NBA and NFL locker rooms, but of American culture itself.

This week, University of Notre Dame varsity tennis player, Matt Dooley, joined Jason Collins and Michael Sam by coming out publicly as a gay male. In a brutally honest first-person account of his agonized struggle for self-acceptance, Matt Dooley illustrates the challenge of self-acceptance in a hostile environment. His understanding of homosexuality began at age nine in his home where he learned from his older brother that that to be gay was bad, sinful and shameful. Throughout his high school years, he was never comfortable with the steady stream of gay slurs and jokes. As he wrestled with his sexual identity, his Catholic education made him feel even more apprehensive about his future: "The Church's teachings were not exactly adding up with where my life was headed."

Matt writes that he never fully acknowledged to himself that he was gay until his sophomore year in college. That realization brought with it self-condemnation: "I was wrong, undeserving of respect, and I had a life that was not worth living." In his sophomore year, Matt attempted suicide: "Death was better than accepting -- or revealing -- that I was gay."

After he left the psychiatric ward, Matt's tennis team became his lifeline. He cut himself off from his family, and kept his sexual identity closeted. Once again, feelings of worthlessness began to overwhelm him. Over the summer before his junior year, he told his parents that he was gay. They supported him without reservation. But that was not enough. Matt recounts that he was still plagued by feelings that he was basically "unlovable." Desperate, when he returned to school, he came out to a teammate. As the second anniversary of his suicide attempt approached in September, he then came out to his team. To his surprise, they all embraced him. Matt's life changed from one of despair to hope. He and his team both became stronger. Matt is now involved with others at Notre Dame in reaching out to other gay athletes.

Like Jason Collins and Michael Sam, Matt Dooley asks for nothing more or less than the respect that any human being deserves. Yet, as Matt Dooley's story demonstrates, one cannot demand respect from others until one comes to respect oneself. Self-respect is nurtured in groups, like the Notre Dame Tennis team, where morality matters and coaches and players commit themselves to care for and trust in each other.

Matt's "internal homophobia," which nearly led to his death, was rooted in his upbringing. Like many young men and women, he had learned that to be gay was to be an aberration, an object of ridicule, a life sentence. Educational and religious leaders have a responsibility to make schools and churches places where young people, whatever their sexuality, can learn to study, play, pray and love with self-respect, gratitude and hope.