By Dan Woog
Like most Iowa boys, Jarod Bormann grew up on a wrestling mat. That’s the unofficial state sport – the University of Iowa has won 23 national championships, with Iowa State University adding eight more – so even though Jarod had a tough time at first, he stuck with it.
By 2002 – his senior year of high school – he placed fourth in the state 1A tournament, at 150 pounds.
Coaches from some small schools recruited him. But on campus visits, he realized those colleges were just larger versions of high school. He wanted something different.
So Bormann headed off to Iowa State. He was not good enough to wrestle there. But the 31,000-student school in Ames – 2 hours from home – was exactly what he was searching for.
“I met all kinds of different people there,” Bormann says. “I loved it. I no longer felt secluded. I experienced a lot of things I never had before.”
As part of his growth, he reconnected with his biological father.
Bormann’s parents divorced when he was 3. In seventh grade, as part of a court-ordered visitation hearing, Bormann learned his biological dad was gay.
That was an intense moment. “Middle school is a tough time for everyone,” Bormann notes. “Then, when the therapist said, ‘Your dad is gay’ and added, ‘We don’t know if it’s hereditary,’ I kind of stopped listening to the rest. I’d always found girls attractive, but I wondered if that meant I was gay too.”
Bormann never was angry that his father is gay, he says. He just wanted to have a normal life with his friends, without worrying about visitation with his grandparents. (His father lives in Florida.)
But in college – spurred by his wife – Bormann and his dad rebuilt their relationship.
“When I visited him, and saw him with his partner and the way they interacted, I realized they’re just like any other couple,” Bormann says. They talked about shared interests – technology, videography – and Bormann realized “who I came from.” He is now, he says, “much happier as a person.”
Bormann’s respect for his father has influenced him as a high school and middle school English teacher, in tiny Elkader, Iowa. It’s also influenced him as a wrestling coach. Central Community School no longer has a high school squad – the numbers are too low – so Bormann coaches middle school and youth teams.
Whenever he can, Bormann talks with his team about respect.
He does not necessarily cast it in specifically gay terms, but his intent is clear.
“You have to respect anyone who is willing to go toe to toe with you on the mat,” Bormann explains. “It doesn’t matter who that person is, or what he does off the mat. If he’s there, you have to respect him.”
Bormann knows of no openly gay wrestlers. He thinks that, in such a “testosterone-driven” sport, coming out would be very hard. (Last year, in the state high school tournament, a heavily favored wrestler forfeited rather than compete against a girl.)
And, he admits, “there’s a stigma that wrestling is a ‘gay sport’ – you know, ‘two dudes in tights rolling around with each other.'”
Once, he heard a student in a hallway call it exactly that. Bormann told the boy to knock it off. That night at practice, the coach told his athletes, “Anyone who says this is a ‘gay sport’ doesn’t have what it takes to wrestle. They don’t have the dedication, work and passion that you do. So that’s why they try to put it down.” He emphasized that “gay” should never be used as a slur.
By talking openly with his wrestlers, he says, “I hope they respect me more.”
His openness extends to the media. In November, Des Moines television station KDSM aired a series on LGBT youth. Bormann was cited as “an incredible ally, and a role model for educators everywhere.”
“Students who are born that way, and who put themselves out there, are very mature,” Bormann says. “As an adult, I should be mature enough to support them.”
Bormann said that he has three children. His youngest is 4. “If one of them realizes he is born gay – and he’s brave enough to talk about it – I’d want any adult to stand up for him.”
The response was overwhelmingly positive. Former athletes and the parents of current students emailed him. Some thanked him in person. One said, “I’m proud my kids go to Central.”
Bormann did not hear one negative comment – from a parent, a student or an athlete.
On and off the mat, that silence speaks volumes.