According to the Out Athlete Registry on Outsports.com, one of the leading websites on the gay community in sports, no professional male athlete in a major U.S. sport has come out publicly as gay during his career. Let that fact sink in. Athletics is a world in which numbers and statistics are the judgment factors, and yet being both gay and an athlete just does not seem to go hand-in-hand in the U.S. Which makes it all the more surprising when you meet Jay Hayes.
For the past few months Hayes has been spending a large portion of his free time looking at a computer screen, watching as the video he directed for the It Gets Better campaign form before his eyes.
Hayes is your typical collegiate athlete. He’s captain of the men’s volleyball team at New York University, which is one of the top team’s in Division III. His coach, Jose Pina, calls him a “great young man” who is “confident, well-spoken, loyal and … a gift to coach.” He’s short but muscular, which works well for his volleyball position, lobero. He has the beginnings of a beard and dresses casually in shorts and a t-shirt. He also happens to be gay.
“I am confident that there are many gay athletes in all levels of sports,” said Hayes. “I mean, just look at the number of athletes; there can’t be just a couple of us out there.”
As one of only a handful of out gay collegiate athletes, Hayes decided to help encourage closeted athletes to come out by directing a video (which was released today) for the It Gets Better campaign, featuring NYU athletes and his own experiences of being a gay athlete in high school and college.
Hayes understands what it feels like to be an athlete in the closet. Growing up in the Chicago suburb of Naperville, Illinois, Hayes was always passionate when it came to sports, playing football, basketball, baseball and soccer as a child. He and his friends idolized Chicago sports legends like Michael Jordan and Brian Urlacher.
But Hayes also felt that something was different about him from the rest of his male peers growing up. “I think it was in early high school when I realized I was gay, but I think around fourth grade I knew I was different, but I just didn’t have the vocabulary to describe what I was,” said Hayes.
As Hayes grew up he followed in his older sister’s footsteps by playing volleyball for his Catholic high school, Saint Francis College Prep. But he remained in the closet, fearing that he wouldn’t be accepted, especially in athletics.
“As a kid I didn’t think about being a gay athlete. Going to a Catholic school, being gay wasn’t something that was talked about. Once I grew up, I realized there was a divide between being gay and being an athlete, and that did bother and scare me,” said Hayes. “I had no idea how I was going to come out to them, and at one point I was like, ‘I’m never going to be able to come out.’”
By the time he reached NYU, Hayes said he was, “itching” to come out, but he didn’t tell anyone until his sophomore year, fearing the same rejection he saw at his Catholic high school. “I remember when I was in high school I saw the kids who were out get made fun of by the other kids and I always tried to defend them but I could never come out. I really felt helpless,” said Hayes.
At the beginning of his sophomore year, he finally told his friends and family back home. Throughout his coming-out process, the one group that remained in the dark was his team at NYU.
“For me sports was my way of being straight, because it was such a straight environment. It was a nice getaway from the reality of who I was. So that’s why coming out to my teammates was the hardest part of my coming out,” said Hayes.
Hayes’s teammates not only quelled his concerns, but they also took his announcement surprisingly casually, as if he was talking about the weather. “He just kind of straight up told us and everything was fine. Teammates are supposed to support each other, and it actually brought our team closer,” said teammate and fellow senior Pat Dodd.
Hayes helped NYU continue its tradition of being a volleyball powerhouse in Division III, with the Violets finishing in the top 10 in the nation multiple times in the last four years.
But, when Hayes was elected captain of the volleyball team this year, he wanted to do something for the gay community.
“I contacted Outsports.com, and told them my story, and they asked if I wanted to record an It Gets Better video with just me and my story. But it was awkward for me, and I didn’t feel comfortable,” said Hayes. “One day when I was working out I realized that we have such a good film school here, and we have such a close-knit community among the athletes, so why don’t we do a video with all the athletes here at NYU.”
Hayes contacted the NYU athletic department, and with the help of the other sports’ captains and a friend in NYU’s film school, Hayes was able to complete the video over the course of his final semester in college.
His video is now only the second in the It Gets Better campaign done by a major university’s athletic program, the other being from Northwestern University. The video, which will be released next week on gonyuathletics.com, is already receiving positive reviews from administrators and gay rights activists.
“I’ve gotten so many great reactions and feedback so far from everyone at NYU and everyone who’s seen it, and I really couldn’t have asked for more support,” said Hayes.
This Saturday Hayes will step out on the court at NYU’s Coles Sport Center, playing in what could be his final game as a Violet, when he and his teammates take on the Penn State-Behrend Lions in the first round of the United Volleyball Conference Championships. Winning the tournament would not only cap a successful season for the Violets but would also give them the opportunity to play in the first ever NCAA national championship volleyball tournament for Division III schools.
Hayes believes that the team can not only win the UVC championship but also “have a good shot at winning NCAAs if we make it.”
But whatever Hayes does on the court in his final games, it is what he did with a camera that people will remember him for.
Now that Hayes is releasing this video, he hopes that recent progress with other gay rights’ issues will help athletes feel comfortable coming out to their fans.
“Athletics is the next frontier for gay rights. When you look at the civil rights movement, it wouldn’t have been as successful if a person like Jackie Robinson hadn’t been there,” said Hayes. “I really hope that a gay athlete comes out soon. I think that professional sports these days are just a business and these players know that it could hurt the brand and the bottom line if they came out.”
Although Hayes understands athletes’ difficulties with telling the world that they are gay, after experiencing what it was like to be in the closet in the masculine world of sports, Hayes now thinks that gay athletes should start coming out to the public.
“Once we see a professional gay athlete come out and succeed, that will be monumental,” said Hayes.
Photos by Rachel Kaplan.