Out of the closet, into the spotlight

A small-town high school football captain comes out and the whole world tunes in.

Published April 27, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

This is the story of Corey Johnson, a high school football captain who came out of the closet. More precisely, this is the story of Corey Johnson's story and the attention it received -- how a single conversation about his sexuality led to a front-page story in the New York Times and interest from Vanity Fair and a Hollywood agent.

Johnson, a senior at Masconomet High in Topsfield, Mass., has been public about his sexual orientation for more than a year. In early April 1999, after much deliberation, he elected to tell his teammates. They did not run screaming from the locker room, nor did they haze him, on or off the field. The team did not self-destruct in an implosion of homophobia and finished this season pretty decently (7-4).

One difference between this season and last: Post victory, Johnson's teammates serenaded their captain with an a cappella version of "YMCA" by the Village People. ("Young men, are you listening to me?")

Though Johnson's secret was soon anything but (the phrase "Football Fag," which was scrawled on a campus wall, seems to have been the extent of the outrage), his story was not made public until this year. And though the Times' Robert Lipsyte is scheduled to run a piece on Johnson this weekend, and Vanity Fair approached the boy earlier, his tale did not appear in a mainstream magazine or newspaper, but rather in the campus journal SchoolSports.

The Boston publication bills itself as "a national network celebrating local high school sports." It publishes regional versions (10 in all) as well as a Web site. According to Chad Konecky, who wrote the Johnson saga for SchoolSports, the scoop was the result of serendipity -- as well as the paper's reputation-free reputation.

"The development department [at SchoolSports] tries to pump up the paper's tagline: 'Celebrating high school sports,'" says Konecky. "To a certain extent that means you do a lot of feel-good, fuzzy, fawning pieces. But on the upside of that, you do a lot of feel-good pieces and everyone loves them and no one has an unkind word for your content."

It was a woman from that development department who first met Johnson. Both were attending a school conference; Johnson, in association with GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network), was giving a seminar for athletic directors on how to cope with gay athletes. He liked her pitch, and wanted to tell his story in a publication that was available to his peers. He especially wanted to reach other kids who were in the grips of dealing with their homosexuality.

According to Konecky, Johnson (who did not wish to be interviewed for this piece) turned down a Vanity Fair profile for reasons of timing and the publication's limited appeal to teenagers. H.R. "Buzz" Bissinger, author of the high school football classic "Friday Night Lights," had approached Johnson on behalf of the magazine with the idea of following him and the team this season. "[Johnson] felt like it would become a national story and distract him from the game," says Konecky. "He felt like he had traded one label for another: The captain of the football team was now 'The Gay Corey Johnson.'"

Konecky, who does a fine job of chronicling the young man's decision to come out, says Johnson is well aware of the implications of being a poster child (or role model) for anything.

"I was struck by the fact that he saw where this could go," says Konecky, "and that years from now people would meet him at a cocktail party and say, 'Hey, you're the gay football captain.'" Aside from public speaking for GLSEN, Johnson has written articles for
the Advocate and other gay papers. (Konecky's story was picked up by ESPN.com, where it reached an even wider audience.)

All of this attention has caused Johnson, who turns 18 April 28, to lower his profile. With the help of family friends he has found advice on handling the media; hes also spoken with Los Angeles publicity agent Stephen Rivers, whose firm handles, among others, Kevin Costner.

"He doesn't have handlers or representation," Rivers insists. "Some people are giving him advice."

The story's appeal is obvious. The teen TV drama "Dawson's Creek" featured a subplot about a gay high school football player this season, and since the 1997 film "In & Out," coming-out stories have bloomed like perennials at the multiplex. And in the age of Matthew Shepard and Teena Brandon, tales of youthful tolerance are in short supply. As Johnson told Konecky, "I felt I owed it to myself and other people to be honest about who I am."

Has Konecky, a veteran reporter and broadcaster on the high school sports scene, been tempted to cash in on Johnson's story? "I thought about it for a minute," he admits. "I was so moved by the kid's courage that I never thought of trying to be commercial about it. I just thought I'd like to be this kid's friend."

Though Johnson's hometown of Middleton, Mass., is clearly a rather progressive community, the saga of Johnson's outing seems strangely seamless. (Konecky quotes Johnson telling his teammates, "I didn't come on to you last year in the locker room and I'm not going to come on to you this year. Who says you guys are good enough, anyway?") In the insult-laden world of team sports, it seems impossible that opposing teams didn't make fun of him.

"There was certainly some friction," says Konecky. "At an all-star game some kids asked some of Corey's teammates about having a gay captain -- 'Is that weird?' And they said, 'No, he's our friend.'" And when oaths were muttered on the field, Konecky says, "It became the mission of his teammates to set things straight on the next snap."

This may have something to due with the fact that Johnson is, among other things, a formidable linebacker. "He's one of the toughest kids we ever had in the program," Masconomet head coach Jim Pugh told Konecky. "He's one of our hardest hitters. I think he's dispelled a lot of misconceptions. Let him have a clean shot at you, then see what you think."

Adding to his Hollywood-ready appeal, Johnson also coaches basketball and Little League and would like to coach high school sports when he's older. In the meanwhile, he plans to keep telling his story to increasingly larger audiences. The kids he's spoken to so far seem more than ready to hear it.

"There's a tremendous sense among today's teens that there's not a lot of time to deal with the important issues," says Konecky. "At the end of the day, sexuality is not something they will go to the mat to defend or ridicule."

By Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

MORE FROM Sean Elder

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

The New York Times