In a society which is becoming increasingly accepting of LGBT people, the two arenas where coming out as gay is still a major hurdle are sports and religion. For gay male athletes, the more macho the sport, the more difficult the coming out can be. And for those who are people of faith, the more doctrinaire a religion is, the challenge to be out also gets increasingly harder.
So, when an athlete comes out, especially one who is Catholic and attends a Catholic college, there’s hope that even these two last arenas where the closet is strong may finally be liberated.
Kyle Kurdziolek, a sophomore at St. Francis University, Joliet, Illinois, and a linebacker on the school’s football team, recently told his personal story to Outsports.com, a website where other Catholic college athletes have shared their coming out experiences. He is the first scholarship athlete to come out.
Kurdziolek grew up in rural Illinois, and noted that “It wasn’t very accepting in my area.” He said that he often heard other parents at football events say that if their son was gay, they’d force him to be straight. Still, his own Catholic family was headed by parents who taught him to be respectful of a gay neighbor who lived nearby.
One remarkable detail of his story is that Kurdziolek acknowledges that while he was extremely worried about revealing his orientation in high school, he found the Catholic college campus to be a welcoming place to LGBT students. (The school is on New Ways Ministry’s list of LGBT-friendly Catholic colleges and universities.) Although he enrolled in 2014, he waited until 2016 to reveal his orientation to teammates, friends, and coaches, wanting to prove himself as a football player first. In his first season of play, he achieved 33 tackles.
Once he felt accepted as a student and an athlete, Kurdziolek felt he could be totally honest, saying:
“Everything in life was going good. It felt like there was one piece missing, and that one piece, personally for me, it was me coming out.”
He received support from family, friends, and teammates. Perhaps most interesting is that a fellow Catholic teammate who was not accepting of gay issues still accepted Kurdziolek. The Outsports article states:
“St. Francis running back Jordon Smith considers Kurdziolek a close friend, but he grew up Catholic and believes those philosophies. ‘I’m going to support my friend no matter what,’ Smith said. ‘I’m not really for the whole gay rights thing, but I’m working on evolving. I’m trying to accept it more.’
Smith’s response proves what many in the Catholic LGBT movement have witnessed for decades: the power of personal relationship in overcoming strongly held negative ideas about LGBT topics.
Kurdziolek’s coaches were also strongly supportive, responding in ways that show the best of Catholic educational philosophy. Josh Mander, assistant coach, told Outsports:
” I told him, ‘I love you no matter what. It doesn’t matter. I tried to just be comforting and let him know that he had my support.”
Head coach Joe Curry was similarly strong in support:
“I was happy that he told me. I always tell the guys, ‘We want to build a relationship with you and not just be a coach.’ … I don’t treat Kyle any different. He is part of the program … and I’m extremely happy for him.”
One teammate’s sign of support was particularly important to Kurdziolek:
“Kurdziolek turned 21 on Nov. 25, the day after Thanksgiving, and to celebrate the milestone, he planned a trip to Chicago’s gay neighborhood, Boystown. Kurdziolek made the trip with a few non-football friends and offensive lineman Tyler James.
” ‘I had a blast,’ said James, who had never been to a gay bar before Kurdziolek’s birthday. ‘I did something that I wouldn’t have done normally because of my friend Kyle, and I got to experience this whole new, cool atmosphere.’
“Because of Thanksgiving, many of Kurdziolek’s teammates were with their families and unable to attend, making James’ attendance meaningful.
” ‘Having him come along, it just made me feel confident about myself and the people I have around me that love me for me,’ Kurdziolek said.”
Coming out stories are wonderful tales of liberation, but, equally important, they serve as guides to others who are struggling with revealing who they are. Kurdziolek noted that the example of Michael Sam, a college athlete who went on to the National Football League, and who came out before he was drafted by a team, was a major exemplar for him. St. Francis assistant coach Mander also remarked on the power of role-models:
“A gay man playing college football, something that you don’t hear or see ever, it’s one of those taboo things within the football world. You wouldn’t expect a gay player to be here, but … maybe we start something that shows kids that it’s fine. You’re OK to be out and be a member of a football team.”
Kyle Kurdziolek is now certainly one of those role models for young football players and Catholics. And St. Francis University is a role model for Catholic colleges who are looking for ways to support LGBT students.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry, February 11, 2017