Years (and years) ago, I hooked up with a Major League Baseball player while on vacation in Miami. We definitely connected. He liked me, not because I was some stud, but because I knew more about baseball than he did, and he thought I was “hilarious.” We drank heavily that night. He was married, and when I asked him about that, he shot me a look and said, “Let’s not talk about that.”
I followed his career, and also tried to follow the logic about his sexuality. I've since been fascinated by professional sports stars who have come out of the closet, and admired their bravery. I knew there was no way my Major Leaguer could come out, but I often wondered about the pain he suffered living a life on the down-low. I’ve never told anyone his name, and I don’t intend to ever do that. At the same time, I hope that he found happiness — and love for himself.
And as a side note, years ago, while she worked for the Hyatt Corporation, my sister, who is the picture of beauty, shared an elevator with Whitney Houston, while my sister escorted her to her room. When my sister called me to say that Whitney had made a pass at her, I remember we both laughed about it.
But being in the closet, especially when you’re famous, is not a laughing matter, and seems to come with some great risks. With the release of her memoir, A Song for You: My Life With Whitney Houston, Robyn Crawford revealed a longtime lesbian romantic relationship with the superstar who was famously married to Bobby Brown. Granted, Houston had lots of issues in her life, but perhaps principal among them was her painstaking attempt to keep her sexuality hidden. Her death was one of the most tragic and shocking in Hollywood history.
And with the release of the new Netflix documentary, Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez, we gained insight into the horrific behavior of a young NFL superstar. While he had suffered brain damage and had an unsettled childhood and a briefly tumultuous adulthood, Hernandez was also apparently dealing with the struggle of coping with and hiding his sexuality. His arrest and conviction for murder, and subsequent death by suicide, was the most stunning incident to hit the NFL since O.J. Simpson.
Houston and Hernandez were both complicated, high-achieving individuals with many demons — obviously Hernandez’s tribulations were much worse. However, it raises the question, is there a price to be paid for feverishly trying to stay in the closet? Aggressively denying your sexuality is not just about being scarred emotionally, but does it push someone into really dangerous behaviors like hard drugs, rage, and hurting others and/or yourself?
Any of us who have been in the closet understand the emotional turmoil that is endured in trying to suffocate your sexuality. It can overwhelm the best of us, and its strain can cause terrible hardships. For celebrities and athletes, there is the added stress of the media glare, the ever-present phone cameras and social media, and of course their fan bases — and their careers, and all the people who financially depend on their success.
During Houston’s heyday, it was not a common occurrence for celebrities and pop-stars to come out of the closet. The media and the general public were not as understanding and empathetic as they are today. Because she was a global superstar, there had to be the frightening specter that if she came out, Houston’s fans would flee and the money would dry up.
When Ellen DeGeneres came out in 1997, there was seemingly more backlash than applause. And the revelation definitely affected Ellen’s career for a time. Her admission also was watched closely by other celebrities who may have toyed with the idea of being honest and open, but who immediately put that on the backburner after gauging the response to Ellen.
Houston had to feel that the same fate Ellen endured would befall her. The years before her death she struggled mightily, while the media poked and prodded. They fueled stories that highlighted her agony. And, at the same time, she may have loathed herself because of her sexuality. It all, sorrowfully, became too much for her. She turned to drugs and alcohol for comfort, for an escape. Ironically and ominously, Houston probably did not experience the greatest love of all.
For Hernandez, his world was less about love and all about masculinity, manliness, and machoism. In his mind, to be gay, or bi, would be the very antithesis of virility, and to love another man would be verboten. It was telling in the documentary when Hernandez’s attorney, who is gay, revealed that Hernandez asked him if he thought people were born gay. A straight man, contemplating his future in isolation and imprisonment, doesn’t ask a pertinent question like that at a time like that. And, it was also revealing that when he entered jail after being arrested, he seemed to adapt easily (though he expressed disgust towards feminine and gender-nonconforming prisoners). Being outside of the glare, the pressure, the locker room and the public eye may have seemed like a relief.
Hernandez's time in the spotlight was in the era of phone cameras, social media, and a press striving for clicks and shares. It was said in the documentary that cell phones scared Hernandez. Perhaps one reason was because they could unknowingly snap him in a compromising position? We’ll never know if that’s the case, but constant requests of celebrities for selfies, catching them in private moments, and the devices’ ability to spread information fast, far, and furiously, makes them an unwanted intrusive instrument for anyone famous.
All of this of course doesn’t excuse Hernandez’s abhorrent and cruel behavior, and on the flip side, he may have felt that because he was Hernandez, there was no reason to feel remorse or guilt when he acted out and violently hurt (and killed) others. Possibly and bizarrely could he have felt more culpability about his sexuality? The severe anger a way to nullify the severe denial?
Former NFL lineman Ryan O’Callaghan was prominently featured in the documentary. During his six-year career, he played for the New England Patriots and the Kansas City Chiefs, and in June 2017, he came out as gay. During the documentary and in his book, My Life on the Line: How the NFL Damn Near Killed Me and Ended Up Saving My Life, he shared his struggle with self-acceptance, convincing himself that no one would consent to him as a gay man, reconciling that he would end his life when his football career had ended.
I had the opportunity to speak to O’Callaghan about his own battles — and the struggle of others — with shielding his sexuality, and began by asking him if he thought the destructive conduct, like the cases of Houston and Hernandez, was a warning sign of someone fervently in denial?
“Resorting to drugs, alcohol, or violence are definitely outlets many, including myself, turn to when the emotional pain of who you are really becomes overwhelming,” he lamented. “I had a major opioid problem and was spending upwards of $400 a day on drugs. I look back and am amazed that I never overdosed.”
The last year of his career with the Chiefs, O’Callaghan said things started to spiral out of control. “I was a mess, and I truly did not love myself. The drugs were taking a toll, and I was terribly overweight. It was a dangerous combination. At the time, I thought the fatter I got the easier it would be to explain away why I didn’t have a girlfriend — no woman wants a big fat guy. Things were going downhill fast, and if it wasn’t for one of the Chief trainers noticing my deterioration, I’m not sure I’d be alive today.”
O’Callaghan agreed that he was a perfect example of how someone in the public eye copes with locking themselves in the closet. “Quite a few athletes and others have reached out to me,” he confided. “I’m not going to go into any specific details, but during most of the conversations I’ve had, there is a direct correlation between remaining in the closet and exhibiting dangerous behavior. It really can be so detrimental to someone’s physical and emotional well-being.”
Without specifics, O’Callaghan said that generally an athlete who is closeted can have drug or alcohol problems and other troubles that might be provoked because they’re too scared to come out. “Also, most of them are married and some have children, so that is an added burden that they may have placed upon themselves in order to shield who they are.”
When it comes to coming out, according to O’Callaghan, many just see the negative side of the process. “Most people look negatively at coming out,” he described. “For instance, many feel as if their lives will be ruined because their marriages will end, friends and family may not accept them, and their careers will be endangered since fans and teammates will reject them. When you’re in the limelight, beloved by thousands if not millions, and there’s millions of dollars at stake, many feel the risks are too great to expose their true selves. Finally, they are of the mindset that they’ll just play the sport for a few more years, and then after they retire will make the decision about coming out.”
For O’Callaghan, it’s all about trying to make the person understand the positive side of being who you really are. “I tell them about my own experience, and how happy and content I have been since I came out,” he enlightened. “I also point out that so many musicians, actors, and athletes have come out in recent years, and they’ve continued to be successful. Somebody like Gus Kenworthy who came out and continues to do well on the slopes. But in the end, you can’t force anyone to do it.”
Unlike Houston and Hernandez, O’Callaghan is now able to have a love for himself, and a full life after opening up. In addition to his book, O’Callaghan now runs his own foundation that helps support talented LGBTQ youth through scholarships. And he is a leading advocate for improved LGBTQ relations among the major sports leagues.
We discussed his happiness and the unhappiness of so many others. We can’t begin to know the anguish of Whitney Houston and Aaron Hernandez, and we’ll never know what might have been if they had shed their demons and, in the process, began perhaps to love themselves. When you think of the peril of hundreds if not thousands of athletes and celebrities, or anyone for that matter, who continue to hide themselves, you have to wonder at what cost?
I told O’Callaghan that there very well may be prominent — and ordinary and just as important — people reading this who are suffering right now. I asked him, what would he would say to them?
“It’s so important to evaluate the situation. I know it sounds cliché, but it’s never as bad as you think it’s going to be. Don’t constantly dwell on the negatives. That’s what I did. Allow yourself to stop and think about the positive outcomes that might come with being true to yourself.
"Along those lines, if you are suffering with drugs, alcohol, or contemplating harm to yourself or others as a result of hiding, consider the fact that you may not only be relieving yourself of the liability of your sexuality, but also of the negative behaviors you use to cover the pain. Again, it sounds cliché, but it does get better. Just look at me.”