I regret never officially coming out to my college gymnastics coach while competing at Penn State.
Randy Jepson truly felt like a second dad. He had a way about him that made me want to earn his respect and show him my best self on and off the mat. He was a class act, an amazing motivational speaker, awesome leader and devote Christian. Before every competition, he would circle us up and say a prayer, asking God mostly to keep us safe.
Being Jewish, I was a little uncomfortable in the beginning because he would end with, “in Jesus Christ’s name, amen.” After a while, I began to like this ritual as it brought the team together and gave us motivation before competition, but I never would bow my head out of respect for my own personal beliefs. Even though Randy led the team based on integrity and respect, I was afraid that his religion would dictate how he would feel about me if he found out I was gay. I didn’t want to risk losing him as a mentor.
It wasn’t until 2015, five years after I graduated, when I decided to finally come out to Randy. Penn State was hosting the Big Ten championships and many of my teammates and I came down for a gymnastics reunion. Much had changed since college and I felt like a different person. I was hired by Cirque du Soleil and moved to Montreal to start my career as a circus artist. It was liberating to be a part of an acrobatic world that was so artistic and celebrated diversity.
I was also engaged to be married to Erik Zakrzewski and as we walked in to meet Randy, I was apprehensive. I had deja vu of the first time that I set foot at Rec Hall as a competitor in my freshman year in 2007. I was first up on the floor exercise and all eyes were on me. The announcer called my name and my heart was beating so hard I thought it would explode out of my chest.
As I stepped out onto the floor it was an out of body experience and I was on autopilot. To my surprise, I hit my routine and I heard my teammates and the crowd roar with enthusiasm. I ran right to Randy and he showed me a proud smile on his face filled with admiration. He stuck out his hand and gave me a firm handshake officially welcoming me to the team.
Like in that moment eight years earlier, when I finally introduced Randy to my finance, he took a look at me and then Erik, smiled with admiration on his face, and shook Erik’s hand welcoming him to the Penn State family. All my fears were for naught.
At the age of 5 my parents put me in gymnastics and I was instantly hooked. I loved the discipline of it, the quest to conquer a new skill and the feeling of doing something extraordinary that most people weren’t capable of doing.
In elementary school I never could relate to the other boys, as they seemed rough and immature to me and were obsessed with football or video games. I was more of the quiet, gentle and artsy type who liked to keep to himself, playing on the swing set, climbing the tallest tree, and polishing my rock collection. Being involved in social and group settings were overwhelming to me and I always felt like I was being left behind.
On top of that, I had a language and learning disability that made it extremely hard to bond and communicate with others. Gymnastics provided me the chance to focus on myself, learn at my own pace, and be who I was without having to conform to everyone else. It made me feel special to be good at something and gymnastics quickly became my identity.
I craved the challenge of getting my body stronger and more skilled and enjoyed being around other “gym rats” with a common goal. Going to the mall, school dances or parties didn’t interest me. I had bigger plans. I was going to fulfill my life long dream of being a NCAA Division 1 gymnast. Both my older brothers played Division 1 baseball — Jason at the University of Pennsylvania and Aaron at Penn State — and even though I chose a different sport, I wanted to follow in their footsteps.
When I was recruited to do gymnastics at Penn State I knew that all my hard work, time commitment and sacrifice paid off. I was going to be a Nittany Lion and nothing was going to interfere with me continuing my passion. Not because I was different, and especially, not because I was gay.
I had come out to my family my senior year of high school as sexually confused. I remember sobbing on my brother Aaron’s bed, telling him that I found myself attracted to other guys, but not knowing quite what that meant. I didn’t feel gay, nor did I identify with what little I thought I knew about gay culture. I was disciplined, straight-edged, athletic, and even though sensitive by nature, had a masculine presence. I was confused and didn’t want to put a label to how I was feeling just yet.
Aaron reassured me that he would always be my older brother and would be there for me as I figured things out. Over the next couple of weeks I built up the courage to tell Jason and then my parents that I was questioning my sexuality. They had similar reactions to Aaron and showered me with both love and support. I feel extremely lucky to have a family that was so accepting from the very beginning and allowed me to explore this part of my life with only guidance and no judgment. I know this is rare.
Even though my family accepted me for who I was, I was afraid to tell my teammates and coach about my sexuality. Being gay and a serious athlete at Penn State didn’t line up in my mind. There were certain standards and expectations that came along with being on the Penn State gymnastics team.
Deviating from the norm did not seem like an option, and the last thing that I would ever want to do was disappoint my team, my coach or my university. Being gay was just a part of me, but being a gymnast was my sole identity and I was not going to jeopardize my relationship with my teammates or my coach, as they were my family.
There were other reasons why it was difficult for me to come out to my teammates, and I just wanted them to think of me as one of the guys. Standing at 6-2 and being the tallest gymnast in the NCAA, I was already a giant compared to most gymnasts and in competition stuck out like a sore thumb. One of my teammates who was 5-3 even called me “the human wall.” I didn’t need another thing to set me a part and potentially isolate me from my gymnastic brothers.
I also needed to come to terms with and explore my sexual identity without other people’s judgment or opinion of the matter. I had no basis of what it meant to be gay and no role models to lead the way. It seemed like unknown territory and I wanted to make sure who I was before I let others know.
So, like any millennial trying to keep a secret, I turned to the Internet for help. I tried to scope out other gay athletes at Penn State by checking their “interested in” status on Facebook. I had no luck. I even signed up for the seven-day trial for J Date just to find out there were only nine gay Jewish men ages 18-25 in a 20-mile radius, none of whom had a remotely similar background as myself. Even though I still had gymnastics, I was lonely and at a loss.
Eventually, at the beginning of our first season, I caved in and over dinner told one of my closest friends on the team, Allen, that I was bisexual. I was so nervous what his response would be and I was even more afraid that he thought I might be hitting on him. As I waited anxiously for his reaction, he just smiled at me and said that he had a gay uncle who lived in Philadelphia. Allen shared stories about his uncle and his partner and how they threw the most fun and flamboyant parties.
He was so supportive and reassured me he would respect my wishes and not tell anyone on the team. Confiding in Allen was a huge step for me and gradually over time I told more and more people. I eventually was comfortably out to all my teammates and loved my time at Penn State, with the highlight being when we won the national championship in 2007.
After graduation, I was living in NYC when I met the love of my life, Erik.
We found each other on Match.com and were a perfect match. He was a non-college athlete who worked in academia at Columbia University. He was exactly my height, handsome, shared my love for Broadway shows and lit up when he talked about his travel experiences. Erik became my everything and in 2014 I asked him to marry me. I knew then that I owed it to him to be completely open and proud of our relationship and that included bringing Erik to Penn State for the reunion to meet Randy.
Now at 29, I am finishing up my Doctorate in physical therapy. I am fully comfortable with who I am and feel free from the burden of hiding my true self.
Having the support of my friends, family and husband has allowed me to serve as an advocate for young adults struggling with their own sexual identity. Especially during a time where our current President claims to “support” the LGBT community, but appoints anti-LGBT members to be apart of his cabinet. It is necessary to stand up and fight for LGBT rights.
President Trump’s mixed messages do not make me feel safe and everything that I have accomplished in my personal and professional life seems compromised.
This is why I have created the “Love is Love” advocacy video. I wanted to give LGBT youth and athletes hope that we will fight for a country that loves and accepts them for who they are:
I want it to be easier for athletes to come out and discover their own identity knowing that they belong. I hope through my collegiate experience as an athlete and this video, others are inspired to tell their stories and share their voice about being gay and how this political climate has affected them. Through our shared experiences let’s show everyone that our human stories are all connected.
Matthew Greenfield, 29, is a 2010 graduate of Penn State University where he majored in Neuroscience Psychology as a member of the men’s gymnastics team. After graduation, he went on to perform as an acrobat for Cirque du Soleil’s “O, Sept Doigt de la Main’s Traces,” Cirque Mechanic’s “Boom Town,” along with other world renowned productions. He is finishing up his Doctorate in physical therapy at Columbia University and will be graduating this May.
He can be reached: Instagram: matthew.greenfield87; Twitter: mdgloveislove17; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Matthew is also doing another advocacy video, this time for Women’s Rights. You can check out his Indiegogo campaign.
Story editor: Jim Buzinski
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