Ryan O’Callaghan was a star high school and college football player. The hulking offensive tackle played several NFL seasons, with the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs.
He also had a secret that was so burdensome he planned to kill himself when his football career ended.
In high school, O’Callaghan transitioned from a shy kid to a star athlete — Mr. Popular. Even as his success on the football field grew, his plan remained the same, ending in death.
When injuries ended his NFL career, O’Callaghan became addicted to painkillers, spent his money recklessly and distanced himself from his family and friends. He had guns and had written a suicide note. He was nearing the end, his secret too much to bear.
A conversation with a team counselor put his suicide plans on hold.
Eventually, O’Callaghan revealed his secret: He is gay.
To the counselor and Chiefs General Manager Scott Pioli, this was no big deal. They didn’t understand why O’Callaghan was so upset. When O’Callaghan told Pioli he needed to meet with him and trudged into his office looking distraught, Pioli worried he had killed someone. Instead, O’Callaghan said he is gay. “So what?” they wondered.
Growing up in a conservative town in California, it was ingrained in O’Callaghan that being gay was not OK. Friends and family used homophobic slurs. He believed the people close to him could not accept his being gay, so he didn’t accept it either. His notion of gay men came from television shows and movies. He acted the opposite of what he saw on the screen.
He hid behind his football mask and jersey. No one would expect a 6-foot, 7-inch, 330-pound football player to be gay.
O’Callaghan shared his coming out story with Outsports this week. “In high school, football turned into a way to go to college,” he explained. “In college football was a great cover for being gay. And then I saw the NFL mainly as a way to keep hiding my sexuality and stay alive.”
His story and his anguish are not unusual. Gay, lesbian and bisexual high school students are more likely to face bullying, to miss school, experience depression and use drugs than their heterosexual peers. They are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide. A 2016 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that nearly a third of gay, lesbian and bisexual students had tried to kill themselves, compared with about 6 percent of their heterosexual peers. The risk is even higher for transgender youth.
As we celebrate Pride Month, O’Callaghan’s story of fear and pain reminds us that there is much work to be done to ensure that LGBT youth and adults know they are valued, know that they are not alone, know that there is help and hope, and know that they do not need to deny who they truly are.
There have been many steps forward. Marriage for all is the law of the land, though some states make it difficult for same-sex couples to wed. Same-sex couples can now adopt children in all 50 states. A growing number of states prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation.
But there have been many setbacks, too. Twenty-one states have enacted so-called religious freedom acts. Since the legalization of same-sex marriage nationwide, the push for states to enact similar laws has hastened, with 17 states, including Maine, considering them. (In the face of heated criticism in 2015, the Republican sponsor of the Maine bill withdrew the legislation.) Rather than protect religious rights, which already are enshrined in the First Amendment, these acts have become a vehicle to allow discrimination against LGBT people.
Lawmakers in Texas have been particularly cruel in their attempts to take rights away from LGBT residents. Lawmakers this year considered 24 bills to limit LGBT rights, including denying them marriage licenses and adoption services. Texas lawmakers will meet in a special session next month to consider restricting the bathroom access of transgender people.
As O’Callaghan’s story shows, some LGBT Americans already view themselves as less than human, and they view their lives as not worth living.
Cruel initiatives meant to dehumanize LGBT Americans, to intensify their self doubt and drive them back into the closet, are morally reprehensible — and they can have deadly consequences.
They should have no place in America.