Austin Hendrix is a 21-year-old senior at Eastern Michigan University. He runs cross-country for the school, and he’s pretty good at it. But it took him two years after showing up on campus and forming bonds with his teammates to come out. Which seems all for naught: It’s really been a non-issue. Isn’t that wonderful?
After coming out in high school (in Sylvania, Ohio; population 20,000), and having word reach his (accepting) parents, Hendrix went back in for two years when he arrived at Eastern Michigan. Eventually (and perhaps you can relate), it became too much, and he finally escaped from the closet once more and told his teammates. “You’re supposed to fit this model – if you’re a gay male, you’re (considered) feminine, you can’t be athletic,” he says. “You start thinking, ‘Maybe I’m the only one. I don’t have anyone to look up to, maybe there’s something wrong with me.’ It does make it difficult. And you’re surrounded by all straight men or women so you don’t have anyone to really go to or confide in. It would just really help to know you’re not alone. I think that’s what it comes down to.”
Two years ago, as he and his best friend on the team talked about accepting people despite their differences, Hendrix finally shared his secret. Though surprised, the teammate said it didn’t change anything. That unconditional support gave Hendrix the courage to tell a few other teammates. And then a few more until the whole squad knew. His straight roommate, James Hughes, thinks he found out on a run, but isn’t quite sure of the details anymore because it was such a nonevent. “It surprised me when I first learned it,” Hughes said. “I never expected it, I didn’t see it coming. And then, instantly, all I could think about was, ‘I hope I never said anything to offend him.’”
All those months – years, really – of anxiety and trepidation, and no one cared. The ridicule and hatred Hendrix feared never materialized. The tight-knit squad didn’t disintegrate. Turns out, acceptance comes a lot easier when teammates already know who you are. When you’re the guy who helped keep the pace during that 10-mile, lung-busting run, the guy who’s shared those long bus rides to meets, the guy who has the same winged ‘E’ tattoo, the guy whose points helped your team win the conference title.
“You really know somebody when you’re out there running with them over an hour a day, two hours a day at times. You get to know every little thing about them,” Hughes said. “If someday they come out and say, ‘OK, I’m gay,’ it’s like OK. It doesn’t change anything. I think all athletes can relate to that. They’re practicing, they’re on the court, they’re on the field. It shouldn’t change anything if they’re really friends and good teammates.” Finally liberated from the weight of all those secrets, Hendrix found every aspect of his life improved.
Hendrix never did sit down with his running coach John Goodridge. And it’s not that his teammates were keeping the secret from Goodridge; it just didn’t matter, and it never trickled up to the guy running the team. Which is why Goodridge only found out he had a gay runner on his team a few weeks ago.
Hendrix said he would have gone to Goodridge had he had any serious problems. But he didn’t, so why bring it up? After all, straight athletes don’t announce their sexual orientation to their coaches. “Austin is Austin. He’s one of the most dedicated, coachable athletes that I’ve worked with, and it’s just been a thrill to see him develop,” Goodridge said. “This is not an issue for this team. If it was, I’d have known about it.”
Now Hendrix is the co-president of Eastern Michigan’s Student Alliance for Gay Athletes and Allies, a sort of GSA for athletes, and similar to what Maryland’s three-time All-American wrestler Hudson Taylor (now a coach at Columbia) is doing with Athlete Ally.
I love this story. An out athlete, whose sexuality just doesn’t matter, and whose teammates are meeting what’s for some of them the first openly gay person they’ve ever known. But we all know so many other kids don’t have it this easy. Which is why it’s amazing to see Hendrix not only excelling as an out runner, but leading an effort to help other gay athletes have a safe space when they’re ready to reveal all.