When Marc Small was asked to give an impromptu speech at his football team’s year-end banquet in January, he thanked the team for helping him grow, “because I was doing something really hard and I just didn’t give up, which gives you a lot of confidence.”
For Marc, a 17-year-old high school senior, the growth happened on and off the field. While the running back earned the nickname “Mr. Inspirational” from teammates for his persistence and hard work as an athlete, Marc surpassed it when he decided to publicly come out as bisexual, first in an essay in June followed by a documentary for LGBTQ Nation in the fall.
The notion of “finding oneself” as high school graduation approaches is as cliché as the image of the all-American varsity football player. But with just a handful of out LGBTQ athletes among the thousands of male professional athletes, Marc’s decision to be out in football is still an exception, even at the high school level and especially where he lives.
Among the nearly 5,000 athletes who play in the major professional men’s leagues, only four athletes who have come out publicly as gay have gone on to play in a regular-season game, as previously reported by LGBTQ Nation. Carl Nassib, a defensive end for the Las Vegas Raiders, came out as gay in June. In October, the team’s coach Jon Gruden resigned after homophobic and racist emails were leaked.
Considerably more out athletes play in women’s professional sports, but the inclusion of transgender women in women’s sports at all levels has become the latest front in the culture wars. In January, nearly 20 LGBTQ organizations called on the NCAA to retain nondiscrimination protections that had been removed from the association’s new constitution, leaving trans athletes vulnerable to “discriminatory laws that are being enacted in states across the country.”
Marc lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado, a city that is well-acquainted with the culture war over LGBTQ rights. The city is home to Focus on the Family, an organization that has been a face of the religious right’s anti-LGBTQ activism for decades.
Since Marc gave LGBTQ Nation readers a look at his life, however, the reactions from his family, teammates, and coaches have been overwhelmingly positive. Now, in the last months of his senior year — with his final football season complete — Marc is participating in his school’s musical and waiting to hear back about college applications. Marc doesn’t plan to play football in college, but he’s not walking away entirely: He hopes to coach or become an athletic trainer.
LGBTQ Nation reconnected with Marc and his mom, Sara, to talk about the video, why male sports are slow to embrace LGBTQ people, and his advice for LGBTQ high school athletes thinking about coming out.
What were people’s reactions to the video?
Marc: All the reactions were really positive. All of the family that I shared it with said that they were really happy for me and really proud of what I was doing. And my friends thought that it was super cool.
Sara, Marc’s mother, via email: I had a very positive response from my family and friends who read Marc’s article and who I shared his video with — they all appreciated his honesty and admired his poise and eloquence in how he presented himself — I don’t believe Marc posted the video online so I chose to only share it with selected people as well — it’s nice to see him be more comfortable in his own skin and discover more layers of himself.
How do you feel today about guiding Marc through the coming out experience?
Sara: I believe he took the path he felt the most comfortable with — he is not a boisterous or extravagant kind of person — he often sits on the sidelines and waits for opportunities to present themselves. By writing the article and having it published he was able to feel comfortable beginning a conversation with myself, his Dad and his family. I’ve continued to encourage open conversation and am guided off of what he feels comfortable sharing with friends and family in the future, since it’s his story to tell.
It sounds like on a personal level, it was well-received. Did you learn anything about prejudice, equality, or your identity since doing the video?
Marc: Underclassmen disrespect me more than other upperclassmen. They find that I’m an easier target because I’m bi, which is frustrating because I’ve proved my worth to the team, and then to have some 15-year-old throwing shade at you is just so ridiculous.
Did your coaches acknowledge it?
Marc: The head coach and assistant head coach acknowledged it. The assistant head coach is probably the one that I’m closest with, and he just came up to me after practice and he was like, “Hey, I saw your video. I’m really proud of you. If you ever need anything, don’t be afraid to reach out,” which was really nice.
How did that make you feel?
Marc: It just made me feel seen because with coaches there always is this level of disconnect because you’re a player. You kind of always have to put on a face in front of coaches and so it was nice to feel like I wouldn’t have to do that.
As you look toward college next fall, how do you feel about the state of collegiate athletics for LGBTQ athletes? Far more athletes have been coming out and are out in college sports.
Marc: Since the summer I’ve followed a lot more LGBT athletes. And I think having a lot of people come out at the college level is really good because you’re always kind of told that you find yourself in college or just around that age. And so I think that it is really cool that a lot of people at the college level are finding out their identity and then coming out because it’s still sports. There’s a lot of preconceptions. I think it’s really cool and I always love when one of those types of articles pops up on my feed.
How do you think young athletes are pushing amateur and professional sports to include all athletes?
Marc: At my school, in certain sports, especially girls’ soccer and lacrosse and field hockey, there are a lot more girls that are out. I think it’s just like a generational thing. I remember being in elementary school and my female friends liked sports. And so I think that that’s just evolved into kind of this natural progression of anyone can do sports. It’s not rocket science to figure out how. As the world becomes a little more accepting and it becomes a lot more normalized, the stereotype of the unathletic gay kid — I think we’re kind of pushing past that. There are gay kids who can do sports; they can play football, they can play lacrosse, soccer, and so on.
Tell me more about some of your conversations with other athletes, leaders and students in your community about being bi and after the video. Did you have any conversations with your teammates that come to mind? Or anyone else in the community?
Marc: So with teammates, just very casual because we don’t take a lot of things seriously. It’s just like, “Hey, Marc,” I’m like, “Yeah?” They’re like, “When did you realize you like dudes?” I’m like, “I don’t know, sixth grade,” and just like that kind of stuff. And they’re like, “Oh, OK.” And I’m like, “That was a weird question, but I’m glad that you got this great revelation.” And sometimes they just like asking questions about the community. Like, “How do you refer to nonbinary people?” And just stuff like that, where I try my best to answer. I guess when I’m the only person they know that’s super out, I get to become their Google for it. A lot of conversations like that.
What advice do you have for other young LGBTQ athletes who want to come out to their teams?
Marc: If you want to come out to your teammates, I came out to a handful before — just the ones that I felt the most comfortable with, who I felt like would be respectful. And understand that it will be difficult and you might have some uncomfortable conversations, but ultimately being yourself and living your truth is not a bad thing to do. And so if you want things to change you have to be the change, as cliché as it sounds. Something has to ripple the water.
One of the things that you talked about was how you were inspired by Las Vegas Raiders player Carl Nassib. How are you feeling about the coming out for him and then also the resignation of his coach, Jon Gruden?
Marc: I actually did not know that his coach got fired. Yeah. I somehow missed out. Is that recent?
Racist and homophobic emails were leaked and he resigned, and it’s one of those moments where it’s the old guard versus the new generation where Carl Nassib represents a new generation of athletes, whereas his coach is writing these horrific emails.
Marc: I think people often try to justify it with, “Oh, well, you know, that was just back in the day.” OK. But there’s Betty White, who was an amazing activist way before John Gruden was shouting off. She lost her show because she fought for the right to have African-American dancers on her show at a time where that was not allowed.
Speaking generationally, Gen Z is thought of as the queerest generation to date. Do you think that as Gen Z comes of age, they’ll have higher expectations around LGBTQ inclusion in professional sports?
Marc: First, I’m just gonna make one side comment. I disagree with the gayest generation statement because I know about the ancient Greeks. That’s my two cents on that one.
But on a serious note, I think that as a generation sports is a very big part of culture, a very big part of growing up. I went up to the middle school the other day and they’re still playing eighth grade ball on the field, 48 receivers, still the same stuff. And so I think sports will be the last area where there’s going to be more demand for representation. I know that in media — especially the big name movies — there is kind of this ticking clock of when are you gonna do it? When are you going to give us representation that isn’t like a stereotype or blink-and-you-miss-it, but, like, the representation.
Recently the movie Encanto came out and I saw Antonio and he has the exact same hair that I had when mine was longer. And it was one of those things where I realized I haven’t seen someone who looks that much like me in a movie and I’m 17. And so the demand for representation in media, I get it, and in my own writing I try to represent as best as I can. I’m learning how best to do that. And so in sports, I think it’s just going to be one of the last to change just by its very nature. There have been some college athletes who have been out who haven’t made it to the pro level and caused some controversy, some stir, but I think that until we get even further in normalizing LGBTQ culture I think that just there won’t be that demand.
Do you have any other thoughts or anything you want readers to know about your story, the reaction to the video, or anything else happening in sports?
Marc: Live your truth. Go out, do sports. You’re not going be the best at it. I’m not, and Coach still likes me.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and accuracy.
Alex Berg is a host, producer and writer in New York City.