Nineteen-year-old Jake Bain, a freshman running back for Indiana State University, is known for his speed and agility. He’s also gay. He’s known for that too, thanks largely to the members of the Westboro Baptist Church who went to his high school games to protest him and his involvement in the sport. That didn’t deter Bain, who first came out publicly while playing for John Burroughs High School in St. Louis.
Though Bain is not entirely alone, being queer in sports is still largely an anomaly. Take the NFL, for instance, which in its nearly 100-year history has had only 11 known gay or bisexual players — none of whom were out while playing. David Kopay was the first pro football player to come out over four decades ago, following his retirement. Then Michael Sam became the first openly gay player to be drafted by an NFL team in 2014 before he was subsequently cut in the pre-season. Then in 2017 came My-King Johnson, who made history as the first active, openly gay scholarship player in major college football history.
So why is this recent graduate making national headlines, profiled by the New York Times and appearing on Ellen? To start: there are currently no out athletes in the National Football League. This to say that Bain’s 2017 coming-out during his senior year, which made headlines even then, is yet another inroad in what is still an uphill battle toward seeing more out male athletes playing at the professional level — which Bain hopes to achieve.
“My oldest brother is openly gay and I have an openly gay uncle so I knew that my family was always going to be supportive of me,” Bain tells Out. “Even to this day I still get messages of people and read comments on posts about me, saying some terrible things and that’s just something that comes with the territory of being so open and public about my sexuality.”
It’s easy and to look at the coming out of a cisgender gay man in 2019 and perhaps shrug. The Times’ Matthew Schneier meditated on this very subject with a different-but-similar story on Wednesday with the article, “Colorado’s Got a New Governor. Who Cares?”
“On Tuesday, the first openly gay man elected governor in American history was sworn in, his partner at his side," Schneier wrote. "It was a vision of progress captured in its unfurling: a milestone celebrated by those who saw themselves represented, even as it was also accepted by others as a matter of unremarkable course.”
But there is a unique, entrenched homophobia that festers in the American midwest. Missouri, for instance, currently has no explicit, comprehensive statewide non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people — something that many hope will change this year. “I definitely experienced a lot of times where I would be in the locker room and kids would be using the word ‘faggot’ or saying ‘that’s so gay’ before I was out and not comfortable enough in my own skin,” says Bain. “But it definitely impacted me a lot and made me question if I was ever going to be able to come out in such an environment.”
There was also, as he recalls, “homophobia everywhere,” saying that everything that he had ever heard or seen about the LGTBQ+ community was “pretty much in a negative light.”
Bain says, “people use [homophobic language] all the time on social media and it gets treated as a joke and it gets made to seem like it’s all fun and games but it can wear on something like myself a lot. It’s not that it made me not want to be gay, but rather, that I didn’t want to have to deal with the backlash of it.”
There’s also the Michael Sam of it all — a man that was positioned to be the first out active NFL player before being stripped of that chance. Sam later said his coming out played a “huge part” in not getting signed to any teams. Being that Sam attended the University of Missouri, Bain got an up-close view of the rise and fall of Sam’s career.
“When you’re a little kid and you see that someone can go from being so highly touted and the second he comes out no one wants him anymore — it was definitely scary for me and it still is scary for me to know there isn’t much visibility with the LGBTQ community in the sports world.”
And thus comes a question many out public figures face: how much, if at all, of an activist do they wish to be? “I definitely feel that weight a little bit,” Bain says. “But what’s been the driving force for me to keep doing what I’m doing is the hope that in 20 years, kids don’t have to worry about coming out; that being openly gay in the sports world is something that is commonly accepted. I know that growing up if I had been able to see more out gay football players, that definitely would have helped me.”