Tennis has a long, tangled history pertaining to the subject of sexuality in sport. This Thursday, a panel-styled event at Housing Works Bookstore in New York’s SoHo area will pull back the curtain on what it means to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) in the pro game.
The event, Open Playbook: Being Queer and Out in Pro Tennis, is among the outliers of its kind. It's the brainchild of journalist and presenter Nick McCarvel, who partners on it with Brian Vahaly, the first ATP World Tour player – retired or active – to come out publicly as gay.
???????? BEYOND thrilled to announce this event!— Nick McCarvel (@NickMcCarvel) August 6, 2018
Aug 23 7pm @HousingWorksBks in SoHo.
Hear Brian Vahaly's story, +more TBA panelists *AND* there will be tennis drag queens ????
Let's talk about queer culture & tennis in one night. And support good causes!
TIX https://t.co/681CQGaS2h pic.twitter.com/AO7Ix4nnJY
Says McCarvel of the impending event, “People have said to me ‘Why?’ or ‘What’s the purpose?’ and I say, ‘Why not?’ That’s what I ask.”
The ATP and WTA tours have seen starkly different personalities as it relates to LGBTQ identity. Whether they wanted to do so when they came out or not, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Amelie Mauresmo and others illuminated lesbian identity for the world to see in their time.
Ahead of the Thursday event, Vahaly considers his role in blazing a trail for those active on tour now – and the up-and-comers behind him.
Q: How did this event, or your participation in it, come about?
Nick reached out to me a couple weeks ago and asked if this was something I would be interested in participating in, given the 50th anniversary of the US Open. I think I have a unique story to tell as an LGBTQ person, given my success on the tour, so I was excited to join. No Top 200 male professional player has felt comfortable talking about it, and I believe these discussions will help provide a better environment for future LGBTQ players.
Q: What’s your goal for this Thursday’s live event in New York?
I would like to see the level of acceptance and support for the LGBTQ community continue. It’s very encouraging to hear players like Andy Murray, Roger Federer and Kevin Anderson step up and show their support, which is exactly what this community needs.
Federer on why there have been no active openly gay ATP players, and if the ATP is a safe place to come out. pic.twitter.com/uiMwUQ7BHB— The Body Serve (@TheBodyServe) August 13, 2018
Q: Federer, Anderson and others have voiced support quite recently for a potential out colleague to be alongside them on the courts and in the locker room. Was there a sort of similar sentiment among any top players when you were on tour?
It just wasn’t talked about, and there was just too much consistent making fun of gay people as a source of humor and entertainment. That was the prevalent vocabulary in those days. Not that people meant it seriously, but it was an accepted form of humor. For someone holding onto a secret, those words can be more damaging.
Q: What did the words of Federer, Anderson, et al., mean to you, even as a retired ATP peer?
Knowing how the top players have their words dissected across the world, and yet they’re still willing to take a stand, is quite powerful. It moves the conversation forward and just makes your heart smile that they’re able to do that. I played doubles with Anderson when he was just coming on tour. To see him be so accepting of this event while broadcasting his support to his friends, family and fans is very encouraging. To get the social acceptance of your peers, when it’s of no benefit to them, feels like such authentic support.
Words that come to mind when I think about people who are Out: courageous, strong, progressive, fearless and leaders. Very proud of my friend Nick for embodying these attributes and I hope you will support his cause if you are in NY on August 23rd. ???????? https://t.co/BA48Vs1itk— Kevin Anderson (@KAndersonATP) August 6, 2018
Q: In your time on tour, what was the cost of coming out as an active player? And what might be the cost today?
The concern back then was about the implications of sponsorships, friendships and more specifically, your experience inside the locker room. You spend a lot of time with other players, and there was a real concern that you would be ostracized for being gay. In the late ‘90s, early 2000s, the vast majority around the world was not in support of LGBTQ acceptance.
I started training at 3 years old to become a professional tennis player, and already felt so much pressure playing at Wimbledon, the US Open, playing against Andre Agassi or another Top 10 player, that it felt like a distraction that I was not ready for at that time. I worked as hard as I could to become the highest ranked player I could be, and to amplify that [aspect of my life] would be another variable and risk I was not able to take at that time.
Across the world now, there’s broader acceptance. There are athletes succeeding and receiving more sponsorship dollars to benefit brands. One can feel comfortable just being themselves without the heavy burden of also being an advocate. The risks were too much for who I was as a 26- or 27-year-old man. Now you’re seeing Gus Kenworthy, Robbie Rogers, Jason Collins and others who are being more and more successful in coming out. It’s an advantage. That’s so different from 10 to 15 years ago.
I hate that I couldn’t have been a leader at that time, but unfortunately I didn’t have it in me. Frankly, you must have that discussion with yourself before you have it with millions of people.
Q: Navratilova and many others thought there would be an out gay man on the ATP World Tour by now. Why do you think he has yet to present himself?
The reality is – and to me, this is why I don’t pressure anyone to come out – that there are so many variables in play here: a religious background, a family who may or may not accept homosexuality or even your own understanding of yourself. Overall, I still believe there are irrational fears that you will be left out by your peers on the tennis court if you were to come out. This is why the comments by Murray and Federer are so powerful.
Q: Is it that tennis is a solitary sport, not with the team-athletics atmosphere at work but rather independent contractors, or why do you think current pros have hesitated to emerge as out gay/bisexual men?
Tennis is a very individual sport, and you’re isolated for two to three hours at a time. Controlling your emotions is something you’re trained to do, learning how to put your emotions in a box. I’m not saying that was healthy, or that there weren’t repercussions to that. It was my reaction at that time. If a player is out there and wants to come out, they may feel isolated or alone. Part of this conversation, to me, is providing the right groundwork so they will feel comfortable to do it, assuming they are comfortable enough with themselves to do it.
Q: After a point, the likes of Navratilova and King hung part of their legacies on their LGBT identity. What would it take for a man to do that?
It would take guts and leadership, but ultimately conversations like the ones we are having on Thursday will hopefully allow it to be easier. I would hope we come to a day when we remember great players by their devotion and success on the court, as opposed to who they love off the court.
Q: Why did you decide to come out and speak up when you originally did last year?
Having children changed my life. I fight for these boys more than myself at this point, and it’s a lot easier for me to step up and have a voice. If you asked me this three to four years ago, I would attribute it to not being my place or not being prepared to have that conversation. I respect when some people, whatever stage or period in life they’re in, do not have the personality or desire to take a stand.
I always just want to feel we’re creating the right atmosphere for success and mutual respect. I want current and future LGBTQ players to know that there are open and willing arms to accept them in the sports world.
Q: When was your earliest inkling that you were gay?
My high school days. I had questions but quickly shut those down. I had a strong vision of who I wanted to be and what I wanted to achieve. I was very driven as a child. There was a certain career I wanted to build, a certain woman to marry, a certain faith to maintain. I was building toward something. The sad part is you get older and realize you were building something that was fake and really not you. In my mid-to-late 20s, I had to ask myself some hard questions about the life I was building and if it was really going to make me happy. From my religious and sports backgrounds, it was difficult to be honest with myself.
Looking back, it’s shocking, but at the time I put thoughts into a box and came up with excuses about what they meant. I built a personality on asking other people questions and revealing as little as possible about myself. What’s even more sad is that I was doing all of this subconsciously.
In tennis you’re trained to contain thoughts and emotions. It’s not that it wasn’t there. The “right” thing for me to do was not acknowledge.
Q: So that was high school. And when did you come out? Knowing that coming out can mean different things to different people, but when did you tell close friends and family?
I came out at 29. [Editor’s note: Vahaly is now 39.] That was when I started talking to my closest friends and family. It feels like a continual process even in the last few years. People still try to set me up with women.
Q: Talk to your younger self, that former Top 100 player who has yet to come out but is playing ATP events this summer. What would you say to him?
It’s going to be okay. It doesn’t mean there won’t be some friendships that change, and that life won’t look a bit different, but there’s nothing better than being true to who you are. You sort of want to give your old self a bear hug and say it’s going to be okay, and that you’ll have more support than you think. And nobody cares as much as you think they do.
Q: What words might you have for your much younger self—or for LGBTQ players coming up through the junior ranks nows. What would you tell them?
For me, I lacked a support system and any role models that would help me better understand myself. Coming out is such a unique experience, and you’ve got to know yourself. I don’t think anyone’s going to want to come out if it’s going to negatively impact a career they’ve worked so hard for.
Right now I feel the responsibility to set the foundation to make it as easy as possible for these young juniors to come out when they are ready. My advice to the kid who’s out there at this age: Get to know yourself and love yourself. This piece of you that feels so isolating is actually one of the most wonderful, beautiful parts of yourself. Get comfortable with yourself and let me do what I can to limit any downside risk or concerns. When you’re ready, I promise there will be tremendous opportunity to be the best version of yourself, and that for me is success both on and off the court.
Follow Jon on Twitter @jonscott9.