This month, Akil Patterson of Athlete Ally sat down with Will Sheridan as he prepared to host one of New York’s hottest events, Westgay. Will was also selected to be the Grand Marshal for Chicago Pride last month.
Akil Patterson: Will, it’s great to finally meet you face to face here, even better that we get to do this right before you host one of New York’s hottest parties, WestGay. Will Sheridan: Yes, totally!
Akil Patterson: With the announcement of so many LGBT athletes of color coming out in these last few months, like Brittany Grinner and Michael Sam, I thought that this would be a perfect time to reflect on the legacy of athletes that came out before them such, as Roy Simmons of the NFL New York Giants and Glenn Burke of the Oakland A’s. I came out while playing college football, while you came out to your teammates while playing at Villanova.
Tell me about that first moment when you said the words, “I am gay.” Will Sheridan: I remember coming out during freshman orientation to people I didn’t even know, and it felt kind of weird but it was safe for me. I had been coming out to friends in high school, but I wanted to go to college and not be gay and wanted to be straight. I thought I was going to get a girlfriend and be a role model.
Akil Patterson: So, how did that work out for you? Will Sheridan: Not so well. I ended up trying to date this girl for six months, but during that time I ended up telling my roommate. I was like, “ Look, if you use my computer, you might not see some things that are for you, they might be like more for me and it might be two guys kissing.” He was like, what does that mean? So I told him I was gay and all he said was that he didn’t want me smelling his underwear or anything.
Matter of fact, I remember one night we had a conversation and I was complaining that I didn’t have a boyfriend. He then looked at me and said, “Well, maybe if you dressed a little gayer you might get one.” I think at that point it was cool to have someone that I could talk to about it and not be so judgmental. I was offended that he didn’t think I dressed well more than anything else.
Akil Patterson: The first time I came out to my parents was much different than coming out to my teammates in football. Tell me about how telling your parents was for you? Will Sheridan: I thought it was going to be the end of the world or some terrible tragedy. I remember sitting in the basement watching a game with my father. I wanted to tell my dad because I had just met this boy and I really liked him . So I told my dad I wanted to tell him something and he said, “Son, anything you have been through you can tell me cause I have been there.” Well, I told him, “Dad, I am gay.” In that moment my dad just kind of froze and we really didn’t say much after that. We never really talked that much anyway. I was way closer to my mom then my dad.
Akil Patterson: So when did your mom find out? Will Sheridan: During this time, my dad had just stopped smoking. He and my mom are both cops. She saw him outside of the station smoking. When she was him smoking, she asked what was wrong and my dad told her I was gay. In about ten minutes, I was on the phone with my mother and she was yelling at me about, “What’s this I hear about you being gay? You going to get AIDS and die.”
In this moment, I realized that I was no longer the gay kid trying to talk himself through his self identification process. Now I was the coach, trying to coach my parents through something that I had to take the time to understand and wrap my head around.
Akil Patterson: You know when Michael Sam came out, a lot of people made a big deal of his parents not really rallying behind him. I know for a fact that Michael’s family was not made aware of his announcement until a few days before. What is your feeling about families of color rallying around their children when they come out in such a major way? Will Sheridan: You know, it’s a process for all of us. Like I said, I had to coach my parents through a time when they really didn’t understand what was going on. It took me about ten to fifteen years to really start to become more comfortable with who I am. I wanted to give them the same amount of time it took for me.
Akil Patterson: That’s really amazing that you’re willing to give them that much time to come to an understanding. I think too often people want parents to react in some way. As people of color, our parents know that life is already harder and now we are throwing the LGBT stuff on top of it and the stigma that may come with it. So I understand that we as a community will take time with the public recognition of our queerness; but over all, I really think our parents do love us. They just aren’t always ready for the public attention that comes with being out publicly. Will Sheridan: Yeah, I think that’s a good point.
Akil Patterson: Young athletes are coming out now more than ever. What challenges do you think they still face? Will Sheridan: Right now, I see many athletes coming out, but they aren’t coming out and going back to work on the courts or in the gym. Instead, they’re being media figures and creating a brand in some way. When I came out on ESPN, I didn’t do it for the market share, because I was already moving away from sports and just wanted to help set a tone that you can be gay and live life outside and inside of sports. Right now, what’s going on is that people are trying to create a brand and draw attention to themselves. I think that if an athlete wants to come out, that is fine; but if they are still playing, they need to be focused on winning and making themselves marketable for there skills, not because they are gay. I don’t think teams want to feel like they have to recruit you or draft you just for that purpose.
Akil Patterson: That’s powerful. Do you think you are a role model for these young people? Will Sheridan: Well, I don’t see myself in that manner because that’s not what I am focused on right now. I don’t want to feel like the sports space was the only thing I could do, because the truth is I have my dream of making it has a hip hop artist and that dream is coming soon.
Akil Patterson: Do you think that having a gay sports role model will help young people? Will Sheridan: Just knowing that you’re not the only person that identifies as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender in sports is huge. It shows that sports is about your talent and not your sexual orientation.
Akil Patterson: Many times the black community has been given a bad reputation when it comes to dealing with the coming out process for youth. What impact has that had on you? Will Sheridan: I don’t think that the issue is that the black community doesn’t accept it. I think that as a people we have been so deeply rooted in faith and spirituality that it has impacted many aspects of our lives. What also has to happen is that we don’t have strong LGBT role models on television that we can relate to. I remember watching “Living Single” and really connecting with the character Kyle, but always thinking, “Why doesn’t he have a boy friend?” I mean his swag was so on point when it came to everything but because he wasn’t gay I just couldn’t mess with him like that. In sports, all I had was Dennis Rodman, but hell I was more of a David Robinson fan so I guess I didn’t have a mentor there either.
I always had a crazy story anyway, as my mom is mixed with black and white folks and my dad is from southern black folks. So for me, trying to fit into any space has always been somewhat difficult regardless of my queerness. I was equally uncomfortable around everyone just the same.
Akil Patterson: You have moved out of the sports space since college and have turned your attention to music. What are your thoughts on Frank Ocean coming out? Will Sheridan: To tell you the truth, I never really though of Frank as a gay rapper or even a gay hip hop artist, for that matter. His brand was already tied to ODD Future and that is a hip hop klan. He was already under that group, and had been on albums for Jay-Z and Kanye before he even came out. I mean, I loved his album when it dropped but then he spoiled it because he wanted to come out while the album was released. I really think that he ruined his chance to be a prince in this game.
Akil Patterson: What about you personally should your fans know? Will Sheridan: The next level of my life is that I am going to start touring and making a brand for myself. I am at the peak of my career, but I will not limit myself to just being a sports guy. I want to be a guy that talks about culture and building something amazing.
Akil Patterson: As I hear you talk more, I think that your outlook has combined both your athletic experience and your passion to be an artist. Will Sheridan: It’s funny. A lot of people say that sports builds character. I am a firm believer that sports exposes character. I think that sports brought out of me who I was inside. I worked hard. I wanted it, so I went after it. I really think that I was socially institutionalized to be an alpha male star athlete in sports. All those healthy things mixed into one has helped create the person that I am today.
Akil Patterson: Will, I want to thank you for an amazing time and the chance to talk to you tonight. I look forward to the future things to come. One last question: if you could tell an 18-year-old person the most important part of your story, what would it be? Will Sheridan: You know I don’t think I can tell them the most important part of my story just yet because this journey is far from that end. It’s really just getting started.