By Dan Woog
Troy Smith grew up gay and half-black in a small Pennsylvania town. A highly recruited tennis player, he attended a conservative Catholic college whose president was President George W. Bush’s director of Faith-Based Initiatives.
A recipe for disaster, right?
Wrong. A feast of all the good things in life is more like it. After coming out in college, Troy blossomed. He had a successful tennis career. He was elected Homecoming King. And he forged a strong friendship with Saint Vincent College president James Towey.
Welcome to the face of young gay athletes, circa 2010.
Life was not always easy for Smith. As a youth, he could hide his sexuality but not his biracial identity. He heard more racial slurs from hateful classmates than he cares to remember. He heard anti-gay taunts too, but they were not directed at him. He did not come out until college.
Smith chose Saint Vincent not because of its religious background – he’s not even Catholic – but because of its academic rigor and proximity to home. Even before enrolling, however, he realized there would be challenges on campus.
“I’m a risk-taker,” Smith says. “I knew I’d come out at some point – and I knew it would be hard. I definitely chose a tough path.”
At first he played life straight. He did not want to be known as gay before people got to know him as a person – particularly, the tennis players with whom he would share the next four years.
The first friends he told were those with whom he lived. They said they did not agree with the gay “lifestyle” – but that their friendship would not change.
After his first semester – when Smith made the dean’s list, with a 3.85 GPA – he felt comfortable coming out to his tennis teammates. He told the captain, who said he already knew. His other teammates were equally blase. They respected him as a tennis player and a human being; even on a conservative Catholic campus, that’s all that mattered.
Coach Enrico Campi also knew Smith was gay. The two never discussed it – but that did not prevent them from having a close, trusting relationship. Campi named Smith a captain during his sophomore year, a rare honor. “He could see that I was a leader,” Smith says. Leadership was far more important than sexuality.
Perhaps more intriguing was Smith’s friendship with Towey. The college president welcomed the varsity athlete into his office – and the Towey family often played tennis with Smith.
As with his coach, Smith never had an explicit conversation about sexuality with the president. Then again, he never felt the need to. The ease of their relationship let him know that Towey felt being gay was OK.
Smith did discuss his sexuality with the vice president of student affairs. He developed a strong bond with Mary Collins. She reassured him there was nothing wrong with being gay. “Stay true to yourself,” she counseled – and he did.
That ease with himself – and his willingness to talk to anyone, anywhere, without judgment or typecasting – no doubt contributed to his election as Homecoming King. Smith was crowned at halftime of the football game – before what he calls the largest crowd in Saint Vincent history.
The applause was thunderous. He received a hug from the president, high-fives from some football players. And the world continued to turn.
Two of Smith’s best friends were football captains. He went out with them socially all the time. They tried to hook Smith up with their gay friends – and, when trying to make themselves attractive to women, asked Smith for advice.
Smith graduated with a degree in political science – and a priceless education in the importance of living life with integrity. When he received his diploma from Towey, the president told him: “You really are a star, Troy.”
Smith is proud of his academic and athletic achievements, he told the gay sports website OutSports. But he is just as proud of what he calls “the message made by my career at Saint Vincent: No matter where you are, you can fit in no matter who you are.”
He entered college – a conservative Catholic college – expecting to be an outcast. He left it filled with hope and courage (and a job as executive producer of the Pittsburgh Mr. Gay competition).
“I don’t stereotype or live my life with negativity,” Smith says. “I’ll go up and talk to people who call me ‘that fag.’
“I don’t think people who are racist or prejudiced or homophobic really know what life’s about. They don’t know we don’t choose who we are. They don’t understand that diversity is one of the joys of life. It’s a key to our great nation – and our world.”