No big deal: Eastern Michigan runner Austin Hendrix is gay, and 'there's no story in the story'
The words matter.
At first, Austin Hendrix wasn’t so sure. The Eastern Michigan cross-country runner treated his decision to share his experience as a gay college athlete with a shrug of the shoulders.
In December, an editor at Outsports.com, a website devoted to gay sports fans and athletes, asked him to write an article. So he did. Runner’s World magazine asked for a follow up. He obliged. The Associated Press wanted to piggyback with a lengthy profile in April. He talked.
As the attention multiplied, his perspective never wavered. The college senior regarded the whole storyline as a non-issue.
“It was something that, I don’t know,” he said, his words trailing off. “I wasn’t reluctant to share it, but it was just weird to me. I didn’t think it was anything special.”
Neither did his teammates. The Eagles, winners of four Mid-American Conference titles since 2005, treated him the same way they always did when he told them he was gay. “It’s kind of neat that there’s no story in the story,” EMU cross-country coach John Goodridge said.
If the story were only about Hendrix or his reception among teammates, they’d both be right. But when the Eagles walk off the track, they’re no longer alone.
And Hendrix, now 22, did not draw border lines around himself as a teenager and spend weekends walled off in the family’s Sylvania, Ohio, home on guard against nothing.
A reaction like the one he feared, by definition, required two forces. One providing a catalyst and one providing resistance. So his story? It’s not only about him. It’s also about the rest of us.
Among the 11 comments on the Outsports.com story:
“I wish I had your opportunities when I was attending university.” - Kevin
“The best thing a human being can do for others is to open his or her experiences so that other individuals will have a path.” - Karen Bemfprd (sic) Smith.
“Wow. Good job. Thank you for being so courageous.” - C.
Not long ago, it wasn’t so easy.
If Sylvania provided a great place to raise a family, as Hendrix’s mom, Sue, remembers, the town of 19,000 on the Michigan-Ohio border was a lonely outpost for her son. At Northview High School, he remembers that classmates bullied the lone out-in-the-open student with such intensity that he transferred.
Entrenched in the closet, Hendrix met no such hostility. He poured his efforts into following in his family’s athletic lineage, excelling first in soccer and then cross country.
His dad, Dave, who grew up down the road in Bowling Green, lettered in six different high school sports and played basketball at Wittenberg University. His mom was “quite the runner herself,” he said.
Off the track, Hendrix dated girls. He went to church every Sunday morning and youth group every Wednesday night. He tried to wish his sexuality away, confiding only in a journal he kept at home.
“It was hardest to admit it to myself,” he said. “You think, ‘well, maybe that’s not really me, and maybe I’m not really gay and I’m actually straight.’”
Even if its source was unknown, the inner turmoil did not escape unnoticed.
“I definitely sensed him being alone, and just not happy with himself and really struggling,” his sister, Ashley, said. “He was just trying to be what he thought everyone needed him to be. I don’t think I was surprised when he told me.”
That process began at age 16, when rumors reached the oldest of his three sisters at school, who in turn asked Sue, who scoffed at the possibility. Then she read his journal, and confronted her son. The tears spilled.
Supportive, she was also concerned. Her first thoughts were that Austin would never have the same advantages as others, never know the joy of raising his own family, that he’ll be hated his whole life.
“I felt bad because I cried a lot,” she said, “but that was just out of fear.”
If revealing himself to his mom was a cathartic moment, the conversation with his dad loomed as something more ominous. Dave was the conservative and religious family leader.
Austin had to get this right; the words mattered. So instead of blurting it out, he wrote his dad a carefully constructed letter. Said that it wasn’t the worst thing he could be. That he didn’t kill anybody. That we’re all children of God.
His dad wrote back. Said that his initial reaction was disbelief. That Austin wasn’t like any of the other gay people he had met. That he loved his son.
Among the 181 comments on the Runner’s World magazine story:
“I thought this was runner’s world. not socialist agenda world!!!” - Luke Roberts.
“Runners world: I’m a heterosexual runner and I run a 10k in 38:07 and I have two kids, a wife and a 50 hour a week job. Newsworthy? - Blake Emerson.
“Bye Bye Runner’s World Magazine. Cancel my subscription. I don’t read your magazine to be pushed to accept questionable behaviors.” - Matthew Geurts.
Once Hendrix told his parents, he assumed the coming-out process would become easier. It didn’t quite work out that way. Fear of repercussions at school was a constant shadow. After weighing the idea with his family, he decided to stay in the closet for the duration of high school.
He also had an eye cast on his college running future.
“If I went in as the gay kid, people would have been like, ‘Oh, I have to act differently around him,’” he said. “I didn’t want that. I wanted to be known as a good runner who is part of a team.”
Forty-five minutes north of his home, the Eastern Michigan track program offered him a chance to be a good runner on a good team. He made an immediate impression on teammates.
“I don’t know if anyone has seen him have a bad workout,” EMU junior Wes Stoody said. “He kills himself in workouts.”
Hendrix was equally hard on himself off the track. Far from opening up in college, he joined a conservative Christian group on campus and burrowed deeper into the closet.
He maintained the best of intentions, but two years into college, he still hadn’t come out at Eastern. He just hadn’t found the right time, he told himself.
One night at his apartment in the spring of 2009, he and Stoody found themselves in an impromptu conversation about not judging other people. And suddenly in that moment with his good friend, the words arrived, and it was time.
Instead of rejection, he found support. With Stoody providing a voice of encouragement that balanced his reluctance, Hendrix soon told more teammates. Instead of splintering a team, he brought the Eagles closer together.
“There’s a different level of trust,” Hendrix said. “It’s been good. The curiosity has been really fun to deal with. So many questions come my way, and it’s great. I don’t feel like I’m hiding a huge part of my life. My relationships with certain individuals have gotten better.”
Count Stoody among them.
“None of us were super-close friends before he came out,” he said. “We are far beyond that now.”
Their friendship might have grown anyway, but Hendrix’s revelation accelerated the timeline. They’ve gotten to know each others’ families, and are certain they’ll be lifelong friends.
After a recent graduation party this spring, Stoody wrote Hendrix’s family a letter. In it, he wrote that he appreciated all they had done for him, that he’s grateful to have such a good friend.
Among the 26 comments on the Associated Press story that ran on the Detroit Free Press website:
“So a man comes out, and states that he has a sexual disorder, and we are all supposed to think that this is something to be excited about? I mean come on.” - truefix.
“This story made me proud of this young man, proud of his teammates, and proud of my Alma Mater. Go Austin Go Eagles.” - fortheclueless.
“How about covering sports, instead of morale (sic) decadence. It’s like covering a baseball player for doing illegal drugs.” - 1AZMichiganFan.
At first, Hendrix did not see the issue. After all, Outsports.com noted last week that 27 sports figures have already come out in 2011, and his experience is no different than many others.
“I think maybe Austin feels that way because, in his mind, he’s fine,” said Jim Buzinski, editor of Outsports. “But the fact of the matter is there are still relatively few athletes out at any level.”
The noise his team and close-knit circle helped change Hendrix’s mind. It hardly caught him off-guard. In a sense, it had been the reaction he awaited all along. But anticipation is one thing, reading the disparaging remarks is another.
“Austin was pretty calm,” Stoody said. “Half of the comments were positive, and I think he focused on that. But the other ones, we were infuriated on his behalf.”
Vitriol from faceless strangers was the implicit price for his visibility. The more unexpected -- and more rewarding -- voices came from those unafraid of attaching names to their thoughts, or in some cases, darkest secrets.
Emails arrived by the dozens. The writers ranged from teenagers and senior citizens, and they all thanked him for putting himself on the line and sought his advice. Their stories reminded Hendrix of his own arduous coming-out process.
“They don’t even know me, and I don’t know them,” he said. “But just by them reading an article online, that’s helping, and that’s pretty cool.”
He answered every one of the hundred or so emails he received, but didn’t stop there. He joined the Student Alliance for Gay Athletes at Eastern Michigan and is currently the organization’s co-president.
In October, Hendrix made a video for the “It Gets Better” project, a series of testimonials that tries to show isolated kids a glimpse at a positive future in the wake of a wave of gay teen suicides.
In April, news outlets from Cape Cod to Honolulu picked up the Associated Press story and published it in newspapers and on websites.
When television trucks began arriving in Ypsilanti, Goodridge wondered if the attention might be overwhelming. As the spring season approached and the media cycle reached its crescendo, he talked with Hendrix about everything for the first and only time.
“Hey, bud, how you doing? Everything OK?”
“Yep, Coach, thanks for asking.”
On the morning of April 10, 2011, Sue Hendrix was in Fort Myers, Fla., visiting her mother when the phone rang. A friend had read about Austin in the newspaper and wanted to offer kind words. Then came the second call.
“I thought, ‘a lot more people read USA Today than I thought,” she said, knowing the Associated Press story had appeared in the newspaper’s pages. Then came the third call. Then the fourth.
At some point amid the flood of supportive phone calls, she asked a friend where they read the story. It wasn’t only in USA Today. She learned the story had also been picked up by the Toledo Blade, the family’s hometown paper.
“Oh, my gosh, I’ll have to call you back,” Sue told the caller. “I contacted Austin right away, and said, ‘Are you ready for this?”
Funny, after the breakthroughs of telling his family and then college teammates, then telling his story in publications nationwide, coming out to his hometown still stirred the most apprehension.
The Blade story caught the Hendrix family by surprise, but it turned into the final piece of a sequence that started five years earlier.
Neighbors and friends from the community came up to Sue and hugged her. Said it was awesome. Church members emailed Austin. Said they were proud of him.
“Everyone was behind him 100 percent,” Sue Hendrix said. “It was like, he’s ready to be who he is, and that just makes me happy.”
The harsh rebuke never materialized. Frank Corsoe, the sports editor at the Toledo Blade, said he didn’t receive much reaction from the story, positive or negative.
“One person asked me why this was a story in 2011,” he said.
On the newspaper’s website, readers did not leave a single comment. Yes, the words matter, Hendrix learned. Sometimes, though, it matters more when there are none at all.
Pete Bigelow recently left AnnArbor.com to work at Changing Gears. He can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @PeterCBigelow.