When Darren Young said the words "I'm gay" during an impromptu interview with TMZ last year, he made history as the first WWE superstar to kick down the closet door while actively wrestling.
His reveal delivered a power-punch to assumptions that the world of submissions, death locks, and sleeper holds was a heterosexual guys-only club. But in the minutes following the interview, the six-foot-one, 239-pound athlete didn't feel like a champion.
"After I made my announcement I was a nervous wreck," he tells The Advocate. "I was sick as a dog because I didn't know how people were going to perceive me."
To his surprise and relief, the WWE was "nothing but supportive" and the response from the sport's fan base was overwhelmingly positive. In fact, it became clear shortly thereafter that his decision to come out was also a life-changing affirmation for others.
"Right after I came out, this kid from L.A. approached me at Summer Slam... with tears in his eyes," recalls Young. "At first he was at a loss for words. He was really emotional, but then he said how much he respected my decision to come out. I knew what those tears were about. I knew when he approached me. I just said thank you and told him I appreciated it, but then we took a picture and I just thought, Wow, this is unbelievable."
"Now that's something that happens all the time, and I'm glad I'm able to reach people and have this platform the WWE has provided me to say it's OK to be you, and if you need to be a part of a family you can be a part of my family," he adds.
Today, Young is a speaker for the WWE's anti-bullying campaign Be a Star (Show Tolerance And Respect). The joint initiative with The Creative Coalition encourages students around the world to show their support of LGBT youth and speak out against bullying.
Young knows firsthand the effects bullying can have on a young person struggling to fit in.
"As a kid I had a speech impediment -- a stuttering problem -- through elementary school and early junior high," he says. "Plus I was an overweight kid growing up, because I had two grandparents who lived next door to each other and I lived around the corner from them, so I would have triple meals every day -- and I blew up. Other kids made fun of me."
"But I overcame it," he continues. "I got the help I needed with the speech impediment. I got a speech therapist. I started working out, playing sports, and the weight came off. Now I'm so happy I can have an impact on others as a WWE superstar, a motivator ... and tell kids 'Don't be a bully, be a star.'"
In addition to the positive impact the 30-year-old wrestler is making through his work with the Be a Star initiative and the inspiration he provides for LGBT people everywhere by simply being an out athlete, Young says the best part of life since he did a flying clothesline out of the closet is simply being himself.
"I'm now able to walk outside with my boyfriend Nicky, hold hands, and embrace our love for each other," he says. "That's something I wasn't able to do before without living in fear of being judged. I don't have to do that anymore. I'm finally able to be truthful and honest. It's a great feeling and now I'm happy."
Young suffered an ACL tear to his left knee in April that required surgery to repair, and while it didn't slow down his mission to body-slam bullying, it has kept him from seeing any in-ring action. But the WWE's gay gladiator assures fans he's almost ready to return.
"I'm so excited to be getting back in the ring," he says. "I've been rehabbing once a day like hell and I'm sure all athletes, all entertainers [who've been injured] would agree with me: When it's time to come back, it's time to make a big impact, and I'm going to."