From closeted to ‘Fearless’ in college sports

“This book shows the images of young people who are role models for the rest of us: athletes who are not afraid to be who they are despite the difficulties in being openly LGBT in sports.”

Life is good these days for Matt Dooley, who just completed his first year at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston. This summer he’s busy researching multiple sclerosis.

His step is a little lighter, his outlook on life brighter, in part because he’s had a tremendous burden lifted off his shoulders.

Not long ago, the New Braunfels High School graduate was playing varsity tennis for Notre Dame University, where he struggled with an internal crisis–the crippling fear of family and friends discovering his secret.

The mounting stress, shame, and self-hatred drove him to attempt suicide in September 2011.

“That day I wanted nothing more than to escape the anguish of coming out to my family, my friends, and, in a way, myself. Death was better than accepting–or revealing–that I was gay,” he recollected in an essay last year for OutSports.com.

Dooley’s essay and portrait are included in Fearless: Portraits of LGBT Student Athletes, a photography book and memoir by American artist Jeff Sheng. It features the portraits of 202 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender high-school and college athletes in the United States and Canada taken by the author from 2003-2015.

Recalling his personal experience as a closeted student athlete, Sheng uses his story as a foundation for a wider exploration of lost acceptance in sports over the last decade. The book also includes intimate writings from some of the athletes about their own coming-out experiences. Published by Somebody Books, it can be purchased for $39.50 at www.FearlessBookstore.com.

“This book shows the images of young people who are role models for the rest of us: athletes who are not afraid to be who they are despite the difficulties in being openly LGBT in sports,” Sheng said in an email. “The book is also a testament of the possibility of change over time; that when I started the project 13 years ago, I could never have imagined that the Fearless project would eventually include portraits of over 200 ‘out’ student athletes.

“My hope is that this book helps push us towards an ideal future where everyone can participate in sports without fear of being discriminated against because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Dooley, 23, is happy to be included.

“When [Sheng] called me, I was honored to take part in it,” he said. “I guess he thought I was someone others could look up to.”

Looking back at his fear of coming out, Dooley blames the imagined abandonment from those close to him, as well as a lack of self worth and the instilled notion since middle school that being gay is bad, for the many restless days and sleepless nights, and an eventual overdose of pills.

Since he came out a few years ago to his family, friends, and tennis teammates, Dooley is a lot more comfortable in his skin. “Life doesn’t necessarily change, yet in some aspects it does,” he said. “A lot of my friendships have gotten stronger and people know you better.”

For now, Dooley is following in his family’s medical footsteps. His father is a doctor of infectious disease, and his mom retired from a career as a nurse practitioner after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Although neurology is not his primary area of interest, he wrote a grant proposal for MS research because of his mother’s illness and was awarded.

“My dad told me it’s the best profession in the world, so I began to take a serious look at it,” he said. “I like internal medicine; it’s very cerebral. In college, I broke my finger and shattered it. They put screws in it, so there’s surgery as an option. I’m fascinated by what I’m doing every day I go to class or work.”

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