removing his mask

College football star Byron Perkins made history when he came out, now he’s free of restrictions

This profile is part of Queerty’s 2023 Out For Good series, recognizing public figures who’ve had the courage to come out and make a difference in the past year.

Name: Byron Perkins, 23

Bio: A top football player at De La Salle High School in Chicago, Perkins led his team to a 6-4 record during his senior year, including a berth in the Illinois state playoffs. He came down with three interceptions and a fumble recovery, and also posted a 47-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.

While Perkins started his collegiate career at Purdue University in Indiana, he transferred from the Big Ten powerhouse to Hampton University, an HBCU playing in the Big South Conference. He’s enjoyed three seasons with the Pirates, and his best campaign came last year, when he was credited with 22 total tackles and an interception.

But the biggest highlight of Perkins’ junior campaign came away from the field. With a simple Instagram post, the defensive back decided to remove his mask, and reveal his true self to the world.

Coming Out: When Perkins hit “share” on Instagram and publicly came out as gay, he wasn’t doing it for anybody other than himself. His secret was eating at him, and he needed to make a change.

“I have come to understand that life is precious and I could be gone at any moment, therefore, I will no longer be living a lie,” he wrote. “No one should have to live a life crippled by what society thinks.”

Perkins added he was “destroying his mask,” and would no longer be restricted.

With that announcement, Perkins made history as the first out gay active player at an HBCU. It didn’t take very long for him to recognize his impact.

“Especially at an HBCU, young Black gay men need an outlet,” Perkins told Outsports. “They need a support system. There hasn’t been an out gay football athlete at an HBCU. I want to end the stigma of what people think. I want people to know they can be themselves.”

Over the last year, Perkins has elaborated on the liberation he’s experienced since coming out. In a recent ESPN interview, he said being in the closet was bringing him down on and off the gridiron.

“I felt as if I was constricting myself,” he said. “I felt as if I wasn’t able to be free and because I wasn’t able to be free, it was condemning who I wanted to be. It was condemning the football player. It was condemning even the person. Ultimately, I had to make the decision as to whether or not I was going to keep embodying my mask, or whether or not I was going to embody myself. 

“So I made the ultimate decision of making sure I embody myself, instead of trying to live up to the expectations of what society and what other people have of me. I decided to focus on what I wanted out of my own life.”

Now free to be authentic, Perkins is seemingly enjoying his notoriety. He’s also appeared on the Tamron Hall Show, and starred in a CBS Sports documentary, Beyond the Limits.

“I don’t deserve to suffer anymore,” he said. “I don’t deserve to chain myself to the ideas of society, and consider myself invaluable, because someone else said so. No.”

One of the perks of living openly is the ability to date, and show off your relationship to the world. Over the summer, Perkins introduced us to his boyfriend, James “JD” Dunn. Perkins is now a fixture on Dunn’s grid.

It’s apparent that Dunn is a supportive partner. He often shows up in the comments of Perkins’ photos, offering messages of encouragement. “The man on top of the mountain didn’t fall there! Let’s go!,” he wrote beneath one of them.

In his senior season, Perkins is at the top of his personal mountain. He’s already come down with an interception through Hampton’s first three games.

Living life without a mask opens up a world of possibility.

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