For more than a year now, sports fans and LGBT activists have been waiting with baited breath for the first active NFL player to come out of the closet. And although that wait will continue on, fans got a taste of what that monumental moment will feel like this week when Conner Mertens became the first active college football player to come out as bisexual.
According to Out Sports, Mertens, a red-shirt freshmen and kicker for Oregon’s Willamette University, came out to his coach and teammates, and then to the world earlier this month. Mertens spoke with the site about growing up gay and closeted in a conservative town, explaining that he suffered from depression over hiding his sexuality.
“For me growing up, I always felt the biggest thing that caused my depression was the feeling of being alone,” he said. “I hate the stereotypes that go along with liking the same sex. You don’t have to follow the stereotype to be this way. I made the decision that if I could help anyone else avoid feeling the way I felt, I would.”
Mertens explained that homophobia was a major issue for him in his hometown of Kennewick, Wash., and that he watched several schoolmates who were labeled as gay be bullied and ostracized. And although Meertens was never a victim of bullying, he explained that his secret was eating him up inside.
“I had a smile on my face all the time as a kid, but I was dying on the inside. In my hometown, you have to fit in or you’ll be exiled. If somebody had come out that I looked up to in the town, I would have been a lot happier,” he said.
Not wanting any other LGBT youths from his are to suffer in silence the way he did, Mertens told his coach that he’s bisexual and has a boyfriend, to which his coach responded with remarkable acceptance.
“Coach didn’t blink an eye,” he said. “He talked about how they don’t build football players at Willamette, they build men, and that he was proud that I could tell him this about myself.”
Mertens also came out to the world in a public letter that he posted on Twitter.
I don’t ask for a lot of favors-but I’m cashing one in right now. Please take a minute to read this for me. pic.twitter.com/571c5v9NeO
— Merts (@ConnerMertens) January 28, 2014
Since then, Mertens has received support from former NFL player and LGBT ally Chris Kluwe, and he says his family has also been accepting of his sexuality.
“It sounds corny, but I legitimately feel there’s a weight off my shoulders,” he recently told the press, via ESPN. “It’s tiring to pretend your something else for 24-7, for 18 or 19 years of your life. So finally to be able to joke about it, to be honest about it, not have to put on this mask, I’m finally able to take a deep breath.”
We applaud Mertens for taking such a monumental step out of the closet and acting as a guiding light of hope for other LGBT youth to stand in their truth and find acceptance among the people around them. –nicholas robinson