I have been the head swimming coach at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh for 14 years, and despite being openly gay and active in our community for three decades, I seldom focus on the fact that I am a gay man coaching men and women in a college setting.
The beauty of hindsight allows us to emphasize different parts of our lives as we age. I would have said at 25 that being a gay college swimming coach was stressful or daunting, but experience has taught me otherwise.
In coaching a large college team of about 90 total participants, we spend a great deal of time and energy working on not only getting them to be the best athletes possible, but also better people.
As most coaches can attest, the physical aspects of sports are only one part of a coach’s responsibility. Helping them manage stress, working with them as they navigate the myriad changes they face as young adults, and developing the skills that can serve them later in life are also huge components in coaching.
In a mental health check-in with my team last year, I mentioned that after almost 30 years of coaching, and coming out in the middle of Ohio during the early 1990’s I have seen and dealt with just about every possible scenario they could throw at me. Unfortunately, 2020 made a bit of a liar out of me. I never imagined I would be coaching through a pandemic.
To save you the litany of stories from my college years (leaving school for a year, transferring colleges, figuring out crushes, family dynamics and navigating friendships with little guidance), I will fast-forward to my official coming out during the 1992-93 swimming season during my senior year at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.
I had a personally terrible NCAA’s that spring — a meet in which I was supposed to win the 200 breaststroke but finished 13th. Though we were still victorious as a team, I returned to campus with monumental disappointment.
So much of my stress and depression in college stemmed from the pressing fears of being gay and the equally powerful need to come out. That spring I was no longer able to suppress it any longer.
I was done with class that evening and headed back to the apartment. I knew at that moment that I was done with everything. Such failure, such fatigue in continuing to just survive my day-to-day existence. It was time. I don’t remember why I knew it was time, but it was. I had gotten some sleeping pills, ones that would do the job and hid them in my room earlier in the day, just in case the feeling I had been struggling with had a chance to win. I took the entire bottle and walked out of the apartment to wander around; numb, confused, searching, for what I wasn’t sure.
I needed out, out of it all; out of my sadness and lies. I was exhausted and couldn’t see a point where that would change. I would be exhausted forever, failing to find happiness forever. My housemate had caught me on his way out and walked with me when I told him how unhappy I was and what a disappointment my life was turning out to be. What a void I had been feeling for some time. I also told him that I appreciated the company but I would rather be alone.
I walked down the hill from the pool and into the woods, saying goodbye to everything. Gambier is a small town in the middle of nowhere, so all I had to do was disappear into the woods and lay down. That’s it. I give up. I can’t win. Just a few more yards and no one will be able to find me. Just go to sleep and it will all go away. No more lies, no more struggle, no more despair. No more.
The paramedics found me about 20 yards off a small road just before the woods really got deep. In and out of consciousness, they pumped my stomach and cut off my clothes. I heard the paramedic say, “We have a 23-year-old man who has taken an overdose.” And then there was silence.
I am one of the lucky ones. As a young gay person who did not see himself represented in the world at large or connected to it, I ended up in a place where I couldn’t reach out to family or friends to close the distance in my life. There were also no resources readily available to show options or give support at this time.
Besides the feeling of guilt that distanced me from loved ones and friends, there were the frustrations from youth. The verbal reinforcements from friends and family that being gay was wrong at every level. There was never a single comment from a peer, teacher or family member to make me believe the contrary.
Being open about coming out, about depression, about so many other aspects in our life, is never easy at first, but it is necessary to unburden ourselves from the fear and frustrations we build inside of us. In the end, these events made me closer to my teammates and friends, and they have been a continual support and lifelong family in every sense.
After two years in graduate school in Illinois, and getting a taste of a wonderful, varied support group of LGBTQ friends and my first boyfriend at 25, I started coaching at a college in Northern Virginia. As a reaction to my experiences and realizing by sharing my past maybe I could help others in their own development, I vowed to live as an openly gay college coach. Initially I was unsure how to go about this process. As a newbie gay man in his first head coaching job, it seemed prudent to focus on my coaching skills, not my sexual orientation.
As my team began to know me better as a person and mentor, I came out to them. It was fairly easy and organic. Settling into the second semester of coaching, and after an extremely successful conference and NCAA championships, I started the process of coming out to the other coaches in our department — the baseball, basketball and soccer coaches and the SID, all great friends to this day.
My only glitch that spring was with my athletic director. He was pretty old school and by May, he was about the only person I had not come out to in the department. A disgruntled swimmer wrote in my evaluations that he did not think it was appropriate for my homosexual boyfriend to attend our meets. Despite a lecture from the AD about how he should have known in case any of the parents had issues with my sexuality, ultimately everything this year worked out. The experience did reaffirm my belief as to why being open is important. Keeping truth from others — any truth that can be used against you — feels like giving others too much power.
As far as future jobs, I’ve applied to four and received offers from three and each time I interviewed I asked about department dynamics and if my sexuality was going to be a problem before they offered me the job. Not that I think it should be a deciding factor, but after fighting this fight for decades, I like to be more selective about the environment in which I place myself.
I’ve also been lucky enough to help numerous athletes come out in college on my teams, as well as students from swimming classes and friends of my athletes. I hope to continue to be a resource for those who need support in this evolving but immensely personal and initially daunting process.
As a reminder of the power of kindness and how valued the words and deeds you put out into the world are, I received this Facebook message in January:
Dear Coach Kinney, my name is **** and I was a student at Mary Washington College like 500+ years ago (1995-99). While I wasn’t part of the swimming program, I did take 2 swimming courses with you. I’m sure you don’t remember me but I wanted to reach out. You literally saved/changed my life and don’t even know it.
I was super depressed/suicidal during this time and you always took the time to listen/show compassion. I appreciated that more than you could ever know. I was also not comfortable being gay openly but you modeled that it’s ok/safe to be yourself and screw what anyone else thinks. It’s been decades but I wanted you to know what an impact you had on my life in such a huge way. Thank you for being who you are and showing care when you didn’t have to.
It’s interesting how in my youth I believed that being gay was a burden, a hurdle to living a successful life, where now I see it as probably one of my strongest traits. It has allowed me to see things from a different perspective while figuring out ways to stand up for myself. I know it’s daunting, but it’s not one of those events in life where it happens one day and it’s done. It happens again and again, which is hard and time-consuming and exhausting and worthwhile. I use the cliché with my team that if being good was easy, everyone would do it. I feel the same way about life.
The hard things are usually the ones most worth the effort. That’s also why it is so important to continue the effort for yourself and others. Look at the changes that have happened in the past 10 years, let alone from decades ago. Education, experience, and open dialogue really are potent tools to start change.
I would also encourage you to make yourself a part of something. Join in. Have a community to help you, and help them in return. Find a healthy outlet — like swimming, sports leagues, writing or becoming active in community service. And please, do yourself a favor and pass along the same advice, kindness, and chance to someone else that might be struggling.
Remember, somewhere along your path, people helped you. A teacher, coach, friend, family member or stranger, somebody reached out and did something — large or small — that gave you encouragement to move forward. Do the same for others. It’s quite an accomplishment and impact to make a difference for someone else.
Finally, don’t be so hard on yourself for mistakes and missteps. Even now, I struggle and fail, but I’m more understanding and kinder on myself. I’m able to spend more time enjoying life and trying to help others, and less time being self-critical and fearful. Most of life can be as hard or as easy as we make it. Our perspective and how we connect and promote our humanity are what matters at the end of the day.
Your life is not a cage, it’s a creation. If you’re not satisfied in it, create something different.
Matthew Alan Kinney, 51, graduated from Kenyon College in 1993. After swimming three years and helping win three NCAA titles with the Lords, he attended Western Illinois as a graduate assistant and Sports Management major. Matthew was the head swimming coach and assistant professor at the University of Mary Washington from 1995-2007. Since 2007, he has been the head swimming and diving coach at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Matthew also runs a charitable giving organization www.40plus1.com, which encourages/highlights involvement in community service organizations. You can reach him via email ([email protected]) or on Facebook or Instagram.
Story editor: Jim Buzinski
If you are an out LGBTQ person in sports and want to tell your story, email Jim ([email protected])
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If you are considering suicide, LGBTQ youth (ages 24 and younger) can reach the Trevor Project Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386. Adults can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 24 hours a day, and it’s available to people of all ages and identities. Trans or gender-nonconforming people can reach Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860.