University of Missouri football player and defensive end Michael Sam announced to his teammates that he was homosexual, to the National Football League, and to the world on February 9, 2014.
Two days later Akil Patterson, a former University of Maryland athlete and a wrestling coach, visited Millersville University at Caputo Hall to discuss how life goes as an openly gay athlete. Like Sam, he made a difficult journey toward admitting his true identity to his parents, his colleagues, and the world – being “a gay, large black man.”
Initially, Patterson was largely confused about what being a gay male entailed. The only knowledge he knew was through the media, who portrayed them as HIV-positive, flamboyant people. He knew who he was, and would always say, “that was not me.”
Yet Patterson did not know who he was. His environment lacked other men like him – large and black – who were coming out of the closet to the public. Consequently, there was no discussion he could engage in, and he felt alone. The emotion overwhelmed him even more as a rising football player and division one athlete at the University of Maryland. If he felt worried to admit his orientation to himself, it was even tougher toward his peers.
“My identity came into conflict with my personal beliefs, my values, and my teammates,” Patterson said.
As his popularity on the field rose, so did the attention on him. This is where his identity started to rear its ugly head – because it was not Akil Patterson.
“I wanted to talk to someone,” said Patterson, though it could not be just anyone. His established identity on and off the field was that of a fighter. Similar to Michael Sam, he held a chip on his shoulder, as if he was carrying the world on his shoulders. There was no problem with his attitude until a National Football League scout called him highly talented, but extremely erratic.
Patterson admitted that he did not want to lose everything; he did not want to lose himself. He enrolled in a LGBT class the next semester, hoping to receive some comfort in affirming his true identity as a gay man. Although his football coach had another plan in mind.
Often, coaches check their athletes’ schedule to ensure they are taking the necessary courses. It so happened Patterson’s roster was looked at by his coach, which led to a meeting between the two. Patterson’s football coach questioned as to why he was taking this specific class. On the spot, Patterson told him it was the only class he could take. The coach immediately remedied the problem and replaced the LGBT course with another.
His last hope to discover his identity faded right there and then. His only escape was to follow the leader and all would be okay. There could not be any harm in acting like a typical, heterosexual man.
That was quite the opposite of what happened. Patterson engaged in a long, winding road of heavy partying, drinking, and hooking up with females. In other words, he was “acting like a man.”
Onwards, all seemed lost for him. No one accepted the true Akil Patterson.
He was ousted in Maryland by his teammates after his roommate discovered homosexual pornography on his computer. He moved on to California University of Pennsylvania, though he left shortly as his destructive path continued there as well. Even home seemed like a foreign territory, as his mother would not even accept him as being bisexual.
“I was living out of control,” said Patterson.
In an attempt to escape the troubles brewing in the States, he traveled to Europe, and ended up in London for vacation. His life changed for the better when he entered a club to continue his drinking and partying habits. The name of the club was – ironically – G-A-Y, spelled out. Patterson discovered a gay club. There, within one night, his confidence shot through the roof around people of the same sexual orientation. He entered a competition the club was holding and won 500 pounds, which is $1,000 in United States dollars.
Upon arriving back home, Patterson “felt free” and comfortable after the trip. He immediately went home, told his mother he was gay, and returned to California University of PA.
Although his spirit was free, Patterson still had no support. There were no big, black men whom he could look up to for guidance.
Except for him.
Join Akil Patterson and his cause to end homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, and LGBT bullying in sports through his organization, Athlete Ally. He can be reached through e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and can be followed on Twitter @akilpatterson.
“We’d be better off if we learned to respect each other more,” Patterson said.