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Recent accounts of high-profile gay and lesbian professional athletes, such as Jason Collins' coming out as the first active gay player in the NBA, Brittney Griner's remarkable debut in the WNBA, and Robby Rogers' return as an out gay man to Major League Soccer, have obscured the remarkable story of Jallen Messersmith. The 6'8", 215 pound, former Mormon basketball player for a Catholic college in Kansas came out with little of the drama (and fanfare) of the professional athletes, but his story is for that very reason especially compelling.
Messersmith is the subject of a fascinating and beautifully crafted Outsports profile by Outsports.com founder and glbtq contributor Jim Buzinski.
Apparently the first gay men's college basketball player to come out while still playing, Messersmith decided to share his story precisely because there are so few out college basketball players. "I always wanted to put it out there and I had a great experience with it and I wanted to show people it could be fine," he told Buzinski.
Although he was accepted quickly and embraced fully by his team and coaches at Benedictine College, Messersmith suffered a great deal growing up.
He was raised in a loving and accepting household, but as a child he was nevertheless acutely aware of the denunciations of homosexuality that came from the Mormon Church. In addition, he was constantly bullied by other kids, especially from ages 8 to 13.
Having inherited his father's athletic ability, Messersmith found his refuge in basketball. "The people making fun of me pushed me into basketball further and made me want to be the best at basketball and get somewhere with myself," he told Buzinski. "After my sophomore year, I didn't care what people thought. I grew stronger because of it and it rolls off my back now."
He chose Benedictine over other colleges who also offered him scholarships to play college basketball in part to stay close to his supportive family.
The death of a teammate in a car accident during his freshman year in 2011 prompted Messersmith to some soul searching. "When that happened, I looked at myself and asked 'What am I? What am I doing?' At that point, I had accepted that I was gay. Seeing him die young and in such a sudden manner, I didn't want something that was such a big part of what I am to be hidden. I wanted it to be something I was out about, I was proud of being and that people accepted me more. I did not want that to be hidden for the rest of my life."
He proceeded to come out first to the parents, then to his coaches, and then to his teammates. The process was not without a great deal of anxiety on his part, but he was amazed at how completely he was embraced by his coaches and teammates.
As an out and proud athlete, Messersmith has flourished at Benedictine. Not only has be been a leader on the team, but he has felt fully accepted by his teammates, who grill him about his dates and rib him when he spends extra time in the locker room making sure he looks good for a post-game assignation.
As told by Buzinski, Messersmith's story is fascinating because it mirrors so well the changes in American society that have penetrated into the locker rooms even of religious colleges in the heartland. The account of a young man who is "happy being just one of the guys" may tell us more about the future of glbtq athletes in America than the dramatic stories of superstars in professional sports.
Kudos to both Messersmith and Buzinski.