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February 20, 2011

Chasing Equality with Awesome Austin

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As the campaign to prevent gay teen suicides says, “It gets better.” Eastern Michigan runner Austin Hendrixcan certainly attest to that.

By Jason Idalski

As far as genetics goes, Hendrix was dealt a pretty good hand athletically. His father played six sports in high school and college basketball. His mother was a runner. He went to high school in the Toledo area and tried out for the track team.

Things were seemingly going well, but Hendrix was dealing with the realization that he was attracted to guys and not girls. He made the conscious decision not to tell anyone, even dating girls in high school in attempt to convince himself he would become straight.

As Hendrix recently wrote on, “My personal life was a mess and my internal struggle grew worse. The emotions and feelings I was experiencing had become overwhelming and unbearable. Although I was still not accepting of myself being gay, I had acknowledged that I was.”

But it got better.

Hendrix came out to a few close friends near the end of his high school career and was met with support. Awkwardly, word got back to his mother, and Hendrix regretted not being the one to tell her. His senior year of high school was filled with success in running, and he decided to come to EMU because of its tradition of excellence in cross-country and track.

However, while many find the experience of college and living on their own liberating, Hendrix took back one of the freedoms he had in Ohio. Fearing rejection, not wanting to be a distraction, not wanting to be pigeonholed, he hid his sexuality in order to be a better teammate.

But it didn’t work. If anything, it made him worse. That struggle, while dealing with injuries, led to a miserable start to his collegiate sports career.

But it got better.

Hendrix, now a junior, decided to come out to his teammates, and the reaction was basically a yawn. Nothing changed …except it made for a stronger bond between them.

“I feel like I was really fortunate coming here and having a diverse culture, overall acceptance; I know a lot of schools don’t even have an LGBT resource center,” Hendrix told iSPY. While it wasn’t a factor in his college choice, “it ended up working out really well.”

EMU won the Mid-American Conference cross-country championship this year and Hendrix finished literally seconds away from being named second team All-MAC.

And, due to his desire to help others, he is now co-president (with former soccer goalie Maggie Manville) of SAGA, Student Alliance for Gay Athletes and allies.

“The whole goal of SAGA isn’t to out people or necessarily just focus on the LGBT athlete itself, but reducing homophobia in the athletic environment altogether,” Hendrix said. Recently, the group gave a proposal to EMU Athletic Director Derrick Gragg to put coaches through diversity training. Another goal is to get athletes to sign a pledge saying that they’ll be accepting of minorities and LGBT athletes.

And speaking of the “It Gets Better” campaign, Hendrix has become one of the people to add his story. The video is on YouTube (Hendrix’s cat makes a cameo), and, while it may not get the same number of views as Ellen DeGeneres or Suze Orman did, the presence of an out, well-spoken, understated college athlete telling his story can’t hurt.

At the rate he’s progressing, both on and off the field, he’s earning the nickname he got a few years ago while running with the high school varsity team in his first week of practice as a freshman: Awesome Austin.

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