By Dan Woog
When University of Nebraska assistant football coach Ron Brown made anti-gay comments recently – among other things, he threatened the Omaha city council with eternal damnation if it passed a bill prohibiting businesses from firing workers because they’re gay – many people were outraged.
Akil Patterson was too. But he understood better than many others where Brown was coming from. Patterson is a former Division I football player. Like Brown, he’s African American.
But Patterson’s life path has been very different. A gay man, Patterson is dedicating his life to making sure that young athletes do not get bullied or harassed for any reason. Particularly for being gay.
Patterson began his collegiate football career at the University of Maryland. He “adored” the school. Yet he did not feel the same warmth toward the people he was around – primarily football players and coaches. “It was a dark period,” he recalls. “I was always on the defensive.”
Deeply closeted – feeling estranged from other gay men and women, and with no black gay role models – he became a binge drinker. He transferred to California University of Pennsylvania, where he continued to party but earned a degree.
He played briefly with the United Indoor Football League’s semipro Billings Outlaws in Montana. He’d already started to come to terms with himself, thanks to an eye-opening trip to Europe. Yet not until he returned to his real love – he’d been a state high school wrestling champion – did he feel confident enough to come out, and truly begin to live.
“I’ve made a lot of mistakes,” Patterson says. “That weighs heavily on your soul. I want to be at peace, be around people who uplift me.”
He found that place, surprisingly, back in College Park, Md. Now an assistant wrestling coach there, he’s surrounded by people – coaches and athletes – who understand and embrace him. They’re like a family to him. Around them, Patterson talks about his life and his relationships. It’s an openness he never felt before. That openness has enabled him to reach out to others, through something he calls The Patterson Project.
“It’s a mission of love,” he says. Through it – by blogging, speaking and serving as a role model – Patterson educates whoever will listen, from elementary school youth through college students, about the importance of being true to yourself.
“The Patterson Project offers a different spin on the life of LGBT athletes, because it doesn’t just focus on sexuality,” he says. He emphasizes the mental, physical, social and psychological aspects of living life with integrity. He learned many of those skills while working in youth detention centers and courts. With his imposing size (he’s 6-foot-3-inches) and athletic accomplishments (he’s still a highly ranked Greco-Roman grappler), Patterson has vowed to counter the destructive influences of people like Ron Brown.
As a big, strong athlete, he knows he does not fit the stereotype of a gay man. He could easily “pass” as a straight jock – he did for years, all through college. But Patterson says that would not serve anyone well. Not him, and not young athletes who need role models.
“It’s like years ago, during a previous era, when light-skinned black people could pass as white,” he explains. “But that wouldn’t achieve equality. If gay people want to be equal, we have to show who we are. We’re coaches, teachers, lawyers, doctors. We’re people.”
In his second stint at Maryland, he says, he’s now seen as “a person.” In part, that’s because 2012 is a different time than just 10 years ago. In part, it’s a reflection of the difference between the wrestling and football cultures.
Though wrestling demands mental and physical toughness, Patterson calls it a “humbling” sport. “You’re not going to make a million dollars” as a wrestler or coach, he says.
Because they compete individually, Patterson says, wrestlers – like gymnasts and swimmers – must have incredible fortitude to succeed. Wrestling helped give him the confidence and fortitude to come out.
But all gay athletes, whether participating in an individual or team sport, must contend with something others don’t: the conflict between their identity as an athlete, and as an LGBT person.
Patterson walks the walk of an athlete. He talks the talk. He’s grown up in the black community, and understands the culture that allows Ron Brown to say it would be an “honor” to be fired for his stance.
That’s why it’s so important for Akil Patterson to speak not about religion or politics, but about humanity, whenever he talks about his life journey as a black gay athlete.
Or simply, his life journey as a human being.