By Matthew Breen
In April gymnast Graham Ackerman won the national championship in the floor exercise event at the 2005 NCAA Men's Gymnastics Championship at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., making him a three-time national champ and one of only a handful of openly gay top-ranked college athletes. In 2004 he had nabbed the national titles in two events'floor and vault'a stunning double win for the University of California, Berkeley, political science and European affairs double major. Ackerman, who was raised in Seattle and is 22, seems like a perfect poster boy to encourage athletes to come out of the closet'in addition to his achievements in the gym, he's a good student and he's very attractive'but he's a bit of a reluctant role model, and being a trailblazer wasn't on his mind when he told his teammates that he is gay.
Did you see any irony in the fact that you were presented your championship award by a West Point cadet, given that as an out gay man you wouldn't be able to attend the school or join the military?
I don't really remember. It's all kind of a blur once you're competing. Any competition is really hard for me to remember.
When did you come out? What led you to decide to tell your team?
I came out my sophomore year. I'd been out to a few friends in high school before that, but up until I was 19 it was something I tried not to think about, but to concentrate on school and gymnastics. But it kind of got to the point where I realized that I needed to be honest with myself and I wanted to be honest with my friends too. I came out to my team first. That was the hardest. They all took it well. I credit the team captains who took the team together and said, 'Graham is part of the team, and this is who he is.' I was really blown away.
I imagine you're one of the most visible college competitors because of the media attention for being openly gay. Have any opposing teams or competitors said anything derogatory?
No, no one has had a problem with it. It's a little weird because I didn't know who knew and who didn't. It fazed me a little bit the first year. I was a little uneasy. I wasn't comfortable being out yet.
What do you make of the assumption that there are many gay gymnasts?
It's just a stereotype of the sport. Because of the stereotype, I think a lot of straight gymnasts are guarded. It's been good for my team to be exposed to someone who is gay, because they've had to adjust. It's been a learning experience for so many of us: for teammates, myself, my coaches, my parents. The assumption that gymnasts are effeminate might come from the fact that there are a lot more famous female gymnasts than male gymnasts out there. Everyone knows Nadia [Comaneci] and Olga Korbut and Mary Lou Retton, but if you ask the average person to name the last five [male] gymnastics all-around champions, no one can do that.
For more from Ackerman, including his thoughts on encouraging other athletes to come out, being a role model, and dating while competing, pick up the August issue of Out.