After coming out as gay, Minnesota United's Collin Martin shares reaction
ST. PAUL — Collin Martin knew he was gay in elementary school.
But through high school in Bethesda, Md., and into his collegiate soccer career at Wake Forest, he thought: "I would potentially still have to marry a girl, which was really tough."
When Martin signed his first professional contract with D.C. United in 2013, he told himself: "I need to really explore this." He then began to share his sexuality with friends and siblings, followed by a few D.C. United teammates and his parents two years ago.
On June 29, Martin told the world, and the Minnesota United midfielder became the only publicly gay male professional athlete in the five major U.S. sports.
"The reaction was overwhelmingly positive, to be honest with you," Martin, 23, told the Pioneer Press in an interview two months after his announcement. "I didn't hear any super negative things from anyone in particular, so that was nice."
Martin, a reserve who has played in one-third of Minnesota's games this year, will have a couple dozen friends and family members on hand for the Loons' game against D.C. United at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 12, at Audi Field in Washington.
Since his announcement, Martin has sat on panels discussing gay issues, hosted an LGBTQ fundraiser for Minnesota gubernatorial candidate Tim Walz, and conducted more than 40 interviews, with outlets ranging from the New York Times to Channel 4 in England and O Globo in Brazil.
Martin received well-wishes from talk-show host James Corden and "Modern Family" actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson, among other celebrities, while sentiments from colleagues in Major League Soccer resonated deeper with him. He heard positive feedback from stars Jozy Altidore, Sacha Klejstan, Landon Donovan, Dax McCarty and others.
Hundreds of fans reached out with their personal messages on Twitter and Instagram, where Martin broke the news the day of the Loons "Pride Night" game June 29 against FC Dallas. While he was bombarded with messages after a recent appearance on German TV, he tries to respond to the more-heartfelt notes.
But no other athletes have reached out to share their stories with him or seek his advice, Martin said.
Fear leads to silence
Cyd Zeigler has written about gay culture in sports at the website outsports.com for 19 years, and he's been answering questions about why there aren't more known gay male athletes in major leagues.
"It's a question that's very simple, and the answer is fear," Zeigler said.
Zeigler, the author of "Fair Play: How LGBT Athletes Are Claiming Their Rightful Place in Sports," said outsports.com has told about 1,000 personal coming-out stories, ranging from a high school junior varsity golfer in Texas to Michael Sam, the Missouri Tigers defensive lineman who made waves by coming out months before the 2014 NFL draft.
"Of those 1,000 athletes, the number of them whose team had a problem with them you could count on one hand," Zeigler said. "The numbers that had a problem with their parents, you would need a lot more than one hand. We've found that a lot more of the struggle is about family than it is about sports."
Martin found support from his parents, Roberta and Gerald. "We told him simply that we loved him," Gerard told the Pioneer Press in June.
After the announcement, Martin heard from a former teammate at Wake Forest, who said: "If I said anything ever that might have hurt you in any way or hurt your progress as an individual, I'm sorry. But I'm also so proud of you."
Zeigler said the role of agents can be a big impediment in a player's decision to come out.
"When I was working with Michael Sam's team ahead of him coming out, I know his agents sought the advice of many other agents ... and every single agent they spoke to said, 'Don't do it. Don't let him come out,'" Zeigler said. "It was Michael's desire to come out, so they helped him come out.
"I think that in professional sports, agents — outside of family issues — are the No. 1 stumbling block."
A few days before his announcement, Martin shared his plan with his agent, Dan Segal. "He was very matter of fact," Martin said. "It was business. He wanted to know how he could help. He didn't ask anything about 'why now?' (It was:) 'What do we have to do to support you?'"
Not much negative
The biggest negative reaction Martin has heard came from a friend's team in the lower-level United Soccer League. One player on the undisclosed team sent a hateful message, which included a slur, on a group thread, Martin said.
"It was like this guy (Martin) came out and you (another player) can come out, too," Martin relayed. "It was in a bad taste, messing with him."
Martin said an assistant coach on that team quickly intervened with a reprimand.
"I don't think there is any need to focus on any bad things because I haven't heard much," Martin said.
As Martin worked up the courage to come out, he was keen to watch reactions to other coming-out stories. When Sam came out in February 2014, his story was covered in an exclusive interview on ESPN's SportsCenter and aired on the TVs in the D.C. United locker room.
"All my teammates were like, 'No one cares. Why is he on SportsCenter? And, 'Get this guy off the TV,'" Martin recalled. "That kind of hurt me because I was like this is clearly still a big deal. Like, why do you even care that he's on TV? It doesn't matter to you. It doesn't affect you.
"For a while, it really distorted my idea of how you share things personally about yourself, not only from a social setting but with your team," Martin said. "I've always been very open and I try to share. I wear my heart — my feelings — I tell anyone everything."
But Martin said the reaction to Michael Sam's news didn't hold back his coming-out story. "I think it's been a natural progression either way," he said.
Martin began to tell some D.C. United teammates, including his best friend Jalen Robinson, and Martin believes coach Ben Olsen knew of his sexuality. Martin said he felt support from the club during his time there from 2013-16.
Martin, however, still "manicured" how he shared himself on social media, but when he came out, his tweet "announcing that I am an openly gay player" received 19,000 retweets and 100,000 "likes" as of Tuesday.
When it came to why this was the right time to come out, Martin mentions three major factors:
— His trade to Minnesota in January 2017, a few months before the Loons started their first MLS season.
"I was done lying at that point, so the new chapter from leaving D.C. to Minnesota really helped," he said. "You don't have to start a lie, because in D.C., when you lie, you lie, you lie or you fabricate a certain life and then you start to break down that lie, it really takes a while. But when you don't have a lie in place at all to start, it's really easy for you to start a new path."
— His relationship with then-boyfriend Jim Walton helped Martin introduce himself to new teammates in Minnesota. During the 2017 training camp with the Loons, he would say he had a "boyfriend."
"That was how I introduced him to my teammates, which was huge for me," Martin said. "If I didn't have a boyfriend I probably wouldn't have made that step and probably would have kept it to myself that I was seeing guys."
Martin brought Walton to team events during the 2017 season, and they were welcomed by players and club staff.
— Last season, Martin participated in "Playing for Pride," a fundraiser started by fellow former Wake Forest player Austin da Luz, who plays for North Carolina FC in USL. It was an activist response to North Carolina's House Bill 2, a.k.a. "the bathroom bill," which in 2016 removed protections for transgender people using public restrooms based on their gender identity. (It was repealed in 2017.)
Martin saw high-profile MLS players step up to be a part of "Playing for Pride" in its first year in 2017.
"That was the big inspiration for me in the first place," Martin said. "... For me, it was important to show why I was Playing for Pride."
More than two months have passed since Martin's announcement, but that time frame doesn't mesh with the club's knowledge of Martin's lifestyle.
While Zeigler notes another claim associated with a player's coming out being the impending "distraction" the news will cause the team, Loons coach Adrian Heath said that hasn't been the case with Martin.
"It's strange because from the outside, people ask that question and think 'Have you noticed anything?' and we all knew before, so it hasn't been a big change around for us," Heath said. "From talking to Collin, the biggest thing is the response that he's had. I thought it would be big (but) I didn't think it would be anything like it has been. People from all over the world getting in touch. It's been a positive for us. ...
"He seems — I wouldn't say he looks happier — but he's probably a lot more relieved that it's out there in the open and he can just carry on."