Aberdeen wrestler comes out as gay
ABERDEEN, S.D. (AP) — Justice Horn is living his truth.
Horn is a wrestler — a pretty good one, with a promising future after transferring to Northern State prior to last season. He struggled in his first season at the Division II level. He’s a heavyweight. He’s a child of athletes. He’s a leader in the classroom and on campus.
And he’s a gay man.
Horn, 20, has lived otherwise — that is to say, silent about what he knew to be true. But he’s learned it’s not worth it. He wants to be honest about who he is.
Horn, a confident man with a dazzling smile, has come out to the people in his life in different phases.
“I was battling with stuff and had to come to terms with who I am,” Horn said in a June phone conversation. “I was getting closer to God with who I am, realizing I can’t live this life a lie. I was opening up to myself that this is who I am, and I have so many things to be grateful for and blessings in my life.”
Horn, who has a more youthful voice than his age or body would suggest, reached out to media from home in Missouri two days after his 20th birthday with the desire to share his story with the world at large. This is part of a young man’s journey through periods of shadow and into the fullness of his light.
In 2014, the Blue Springs, Missouri, high-school football player and wrestler watched a fellow athlete — Michael Sam, the Missouri Tigers football player and soon-to-be NFL draftee — come out to the world as gay.
“I’m honest, that gave me the faith that there is representation, especially with me being in football,” Horn told the Aberdeen American News . “I can do this.”
He’d known for a few years that he was gay and, as much as they were able to be, his family had been supportive. But Horn wanted to live out loud.
He started with his high school football team. Coming out was about as easy as you’d expect — which is to say not very — but it was something the young athlete felt he needed to do for him.
“There were nerves obviously, but what really put me over the edge to where I needed to do it is I need to live a fearless life and stop hiding,” Horn said. “I need to live life. Wherever things go, they go.”
It might seem like coming out to the jocks is a rough place to start things, but these were Horn’s brothers. He said he was met with nothing but support.
News traveled fast around the school and soon everybody knew, Horn remembers. His wrestling team — or whatever part of it wasn’t on the football team as well — was quick to find out, too.
“I was a good athlete, and a lot of people knew my last name,” he said. “It wasn’t a problem. Really, I was close with my high school wrestling team. Those were my brothers, and they treated me like I was a brother.”
Then came college. Horn first attended West Virginia Tech before transferring to Northern in the fall of 2017.
Once again, Horn had to make a choice about how much he told people.
“I was contacted by a lot of teams, and (my sexuality) isn’t something I shared with anyone,” he said. “But having faith in the process, trusting and judging a coach by their character — when coach Rocky (Burkett at Northern State) reached out to me, it was a good two-and-a-half-hour talk, and I could tell this was a good character. It was a coach I wanted to play for. He had a love for the sport of wrestling like I did.”
Horn loved Burkett’s focus on academics as well as athletics. Like the wrestler, the coach is serious about helping in the community and to build the sport. That resonated with Horn, who called athletics, academics and community the three aspects he thinks college athletes should care about.
But secrecy, even born of quiet omission, leads to dishonesty, and that wasn’t something Horn wanted to be a part of his life.
“About a month in, we were training (at Northern State) and what really pushed me was I was going back on what I wanted,” Horn said. “I was now an NCAA college wrestler and I was like, ‘Hey, do I want to be my genuine self or hide this and focus on wrestling?’ I tried that for about two months, and it really did wear and tear on me.
“I felt so close to (the team) and wanted to be teammates. If I want these to be my brothers, I need to be my genuine self and tell them. They created that environment, and we’re really brothers at NSU.”
Horn had put himself in a situation where he had to come out again, this time to a new group of extreme alpha-males. He felt like he should start with his coach, but he wasn’t sure how to move forward.
“There was a lot of fear and, actually, it was a good thing that at NSU we have a good counseling service,” Horn said. “I was really struggling that day.”
As if preordained, the counselor with whom Horn met was a former wrestler himself.
“I told him, and he could tell I was struggling,” Horn said. “I told him, ‘Hey, I really want your advice, should I tell my coach? Is it a big deal? Should it be separate?’ But he helped me tell my coach.”
Horn called Burkett from the counselor’s office and set up a meeting. Then, as he recalled it, he walked straight from the counseling center to Burkett’s office in the Barnett Center.
“I told him this is who I am,” Horn said.
Horn had judged Burkett rightly as a man of character.
“To me it was, ‘OK, cool man,’” Burkett said. “He wanted to talk with the team, let them know, so that day after practice he addressed the team. It was cool. It was good. To me, it’s just Justice. He’s another guy in here doing whatever he’s supposed to do and working.
“Whatever a kid’s race, sexual preference, whatever — are you going to come in and be a good teammate? Do your job? That’s what we want. I don’t care about any of the other stuff.”
As Burkett said, next was the team. It’s one thing to open up to a single person, but something else entirely to do it in front of a big group.
The season hadn’t started yet, but practice and workouts were well underway that October day.
“We went through a regular practice, some drills, some good wrestling getting ready for the season,” Horn remembered of the day leading up to the moment. ”(Burkett) brought everyone into the circle and said ‘Justice has something to tell you.’”
The wrestling room in the Barnett Center is a naturally and fluorescent-lit sanctuary located at ground level but with the feel of being perhaps underground by nature of the narrow, near-ceiling-height windows, which invoke a sort of cave-like feel to the uniquely aromatic facility. It was there that Horn would return to the fullness of light in which he wanted to live his life.
“I said, ‘I really want to be a part of this team,’” Horn remembered. ”‘You guys, I just want you to know who I am.’ And I told them I was gay. I got met with support. Some of them patted me on the back. It was a really positive experience — head nods, pats on the back, ‘Good job, Justice.’ They made jokes about it — that’s why you weren’t talking to the girls that liked you, that sort of thing. I really do enjoy them. They were open.”
For the team, Horn’s honesty may have even been a strengthening moment.
“Overall we were all a little surprised,” said Blake Perryman, a senior and leader on last season’s wrestling team. “But I think at the same time, we were kind of relieved to know a guy on our team could come to us, being the family that we are, share that with us and let us be involved in his life that much. I think it was a cool experience knowing that he trusted us enough for us to know that about him.”
There’s been a little bit of awkwardness, perhaps. There’s the locker room. Wrestling is a very physical sport. But a mature group of men doesn’t concern itself with such things. As Horn said, it’s the last thing on his mind when he’s practicing, preparing for or wrestling in a match. It should be the same for anyone.
In truth, Horn, a powerful personality who emceed various events at Northern State including the Thunder Awards, knows it’s much harder for some kids than it has been for him. He’s been lucky. And he’s aware that for some others in his situation, the experience isn’t so positive.
But even he’s struggled, and he understands much of what others go through. And that’s why he wants to stand up and be counted and recognized for his experience. He wants to be a light to those who are living in darkness.
Horn knows that a story in the newspaper could open him up to more scrutiny or negative attention. It’s worth it.
“To be honest, I think he’s brave,” Burkett said. “When he called me about (wanting to come out in the media), I was like, ‘Hey man, I’m not trying to discourage you, but you know what you’re opening yourself up to because you know there are people out there that aren’t as accepting.’”
But Burkett is trusting the wrestling world will able to mimic his own team.
“I look at Justice as what he brings to our team as a person,” the coach said. “That’s what I value. Who he is as a student-athlete. He does everything right. We’re lucky to have him on the team.”
Horn’s message to those in his position is simple.
“I would honestly say that it truly does get better,” Horn said. “When you are out about it, it is better. The fact is that I think college athletics is for people that love the sport, and I think that comes with anyone of any creed. If you want to play collegiately, if you have the hard work, talent, skill, it doesn’t matter who you are. You can play on the college level.”
Information from: Aberdeen American News, http://www.aberdeennews.com