Everyman's Story

Sep 1, 2015 at 11:20 am
Everyman's Story

Every gay man has his coming out story. The best experiences are quick and easy, leaving the parents smiling and proud of their son’s newly declared identity. The worst are prolonged and difficult with the parents sorrowfully searching for conversion therapy camps and questioning what they did wrong to have their son turn out this way. Then there are the array of stories somewhere on the spectrum between best and worst. The ones where it took someone nearly a quarter of their life to come out. Or the ones where the parents didn’t take it nearly as well as was hoped. Bobby Petrino Jr., the son of University of Louisville head football coach Bobby Petrino, has a story right there in the middle. But getting to the point of accepting himself as gay – which he cites as the most difficult part – and getting to the point of being able to tell others took an entire adolescence, as it does for so many.

Petrino, now 25, was born in Idaho but moved across eight different states due to his father’s football coaching career. No matter where he was, however, he was the quintessential athlete. Throughout his childhood, Petrino demonstrated serious talent and interest in gymnastics, football, basketball and baseball. “We moved everywhere growing up,” Petrino describes. “But sports were always my whole life.” Due to his generally perceived “straight” (keep in mind, this was 2000!) behavior, a certain accusation came as a genuine shock when Petrino received a three-way phone call attack one night during the summer between the fifth and sixth grade.

A friend called him and, unbeknownst to Petrino, had another person on the line waiting to hear his response to the statement, “He thinks you’re gay.” Uncertain of how to process that, he paused on the telephone line, saying nothing. But in his head, he was for the first time acknowledging a truth that would define a significant part of his identity for the rest of his life. “I was just like, ‘Am I gay? Maybe I am,’” Petrino remembers thinking. “It was at this point that I really tried to suppress it.” Growing up in a sports-centered family where gay slurs were tossed around just as they were in millions of homes around the country, Petrino had little to look to for his burgeoning sexuality and, consequently, did the only thing he thought he could: hide it.

“I hung out with only guys,” he claims of his teen years. “I was very much a bro or jock in high school.” To resist any homosexual tendencies and in an effort to “straighten” himself out, Petrino dated girls well into his sophomore year in high school. In fact, as a freshman and sophomore at Trinity High School, he had a single consistent girlfriend, though he’s quick to point out their physical intimacy never went beyond kissing. Midway through his sophomore year, his family moved from Louisville to Atlanta so his father could coach for the Atlanta Falcons, the city’s NFL team. Petrino couldn’t find it within himself to continue dating girls, and he recalls using his ex-girlfriend from Louisville as an excuse.

“I would just play the card, ‘I’m in love with a girl from Louisville still,’” he remembers of when he moved to Atlanta. “So I avoided having to have a relationship with other girls.” Petrino made it through high school without incident, but on the inside, he was waging an internal war all too many young gay men do during this time of their lives. “I was trying to make myself straight,” he reveals. “I thought I could, in a way, conquer it, you know? Like not be gay. Obviously that’s impossible to do, but I tried.”

Petrino and his family were only in Atlanta for a short time; thus, the family moved again, this time to Fayetteville, Arkansas, where Petrino Sr. had landed a job as head coach of the football team at the University of Arkansas. Petrino Jr. finished high school in Arkansas and graduated from Fayetteville High School in 2009.

But all the while, he was still working to find a way to somehow overcome his sexuality. His efforts led him all the way to the college selection process, where he made his matriculation decision based on how to best conceal his being gay. Petrino signed a contract to play football at the United States Air Force Academy. Of this choice, he remembers, “I made my decision because I thought it would be the best way to hide my sexuality.” Alas, the prize of the Air Force Academy in no way outweighed the price. “I got there and I hated it,” Petrino recounts. “But more than that, I was in basic training, and all you do is think. You just sit there for six weeks and think.”

Unable to escape his mental prison, Petrino transferred out of the academy and into the University of Arkansas in his semi-hometown of Fayetteville. He then spent a year and a half in an exceptionally unhealthy mental state. Usually outgoing and jovial, Petrino was now withdrawn, unable to escape the truth that was eating him alive from the inside out. He spent this time lonely and depressed, yearning to be alone so that he may find some kind of reconciliation within himself to make his life at least somewhat livable.

His search led him to transfer colleges again and attend Sullivan University in Louisville. He remembers it enticing him: “I could get away from my family and just be on my own.” He still had positive memories of Louisville from his early years of high school and accordingly, thought it would be a place that may provide some sort of release. But a year into his program at Sullivan, he was still in anguish, unable to lead a life that was pleasurable or fulfilling. He knew something had to change.

“One night I got to a point where I was like, ‘I can’t live like this,’” he recalls. “I was thinking, ‘Either I’m going to accept this, or I’m going to kill myself.’ That night, I was bawling my eyes out, and I called my friend and told her I was gay. And from that moment on, I knew I wasn’t going to live a lie anymore.”

Although he had taken a serious step toward inner peace, Petrino knew it would be an arduous and emotional process. “There’s phases of coming out,” he explains. “First you have to be okay with yourself; then, you have to be okay telling other people.” Consequently, his first steps toward living his freshly asserted identity were taken on his own and at his own pace. He had his first gay sexual experience. “It was pretty amazing,” Petrino remembers. “I had to hold that in for so long, and then I finally got to experience it at 21. I remember the next day at school I was all smiley and happy.”

At last liberated, at least for himself, Petrino relished his new opportunity to explore. While he was in Arkansas for one of his father’s football games, he met a guy who would become his first boyfriend. It was a long-distance relationship for a while as Petrino was finishing at Sullivan University and his boyfriend lived in Arkansas. They would see each other whenever Petrino came to town for his father’s football games, and he remembers bringing his boyfriend around the house often as his “best friend.”

Obviously, he was more than Petrino’s best friend. He, too, was mostly in the closet and helped Petrino through his coming out process. “I just felt when I was with him that I had someone else who loved me for who I was,” Petrino recounts. “Because no one else really knew who I was. It was a great feeling because it made me think ‘I don’t really care what anyone else thinks about this.’” Imbued with renewed confidence and armed with a man who loved him, Petrino took the scariest step in coming out: He told his family.

I didn’t have to lie about who I was anymore, and that was the best feeling in the world.”
His little sister, his true best friend, was the first to know. “I could hardly get it out because I was bawling the entire time,” he remembers of telling her. “And she was just telling me how much she loved me. With her I never thought it would be a problem. It was more about being okay with myself telling her. I knew she wouldn’t care.” He then told his older sister and finally his mother. His mother had grown up with a gay older brother so was hardly surprised by her son’s revelation.

“She said she already knew. My boyfriend was like my ‘best friend’ at the time, and he had been coming around as my ‘best friend’ for a while. And she kind of knew the warning signs to look for because of her brother.” As Petrino is generally closer with the ladies of the family than with the men, he allowed his mother to tell his father and brother. Consequently, he and his father never really had the conversation. Petrino does recall of when his father acknowledged that he knew, “He gave me a really big hug and told me he loved me no matter what. He’s never treated me different. If anything, our relationship is better ... He’s engaged [my boyfriends] and always been really nice.”

Although his final emergence was fairly painless, his family underwent a significant change of ideology once Petrino Jr. came out. “For them, things changed a lot,” he describes of the time. “They went from thinking being gay was a lifestyle choice to realizing it’s not a choice. And it brought us closer together.” Indeed, with everything out in the open, Petrino no longer had to hide who he was – quite the opposite. He was now free to be himself and have his boyfriend over for family dinners and take him on family vacations.

At long last, he was entirely free. He was able to tell the truth to himself and to others. “It felt like I had just removed a 50-pound weight I was carrying around with me for my entire life,” he expresses of his coming out. “I was filled with such a relief that I could be who I truly was and say what I was truly feeling. I didn’t have to lie about who I was anymore, and that was the best feeling in the world.”

Petrino admits a certain amount of surprise to have not seen any backlash after his coming out. Growing up, he was always perceived as straight and was never subjected to any sort of bullying. “Anytime when you’re around football, you joke about being gay,” he remembers of his sports-centered childhood. “And I felt that, and it affected me a lot. I overcompensated to get past it and be [perceived] as straight as possible.”

But when he finally did let go and come out, he knew a lot of people from his past would be somewhat blindsided. “No one else ever questioned [my sexuality] at the time,” he relates. “Everyone besides my family who found out was really shocked. They never saw it coming.” Although it was a surprise to his friends, no one ever had anything negative to say. “Everyone’s been great about it,” he contends. “But I don’t really care if they have an opinion. I’d just feel bad for them.”

While he is glad to finally be out and proud of it, he laments how long it took and how the shape of society often prolongs the process for young gay men, as it did for him. “There’s so many people to look up to now,” he describes of gay public figures. “And who did we have growing up? Nobody. I really thought I was the only gay person in the world. I just hoped there was somebody out there like me.” Once he embraced his sexuality, however, he realized there was no other way he possibly could have lived his life. Looking back on his childhood, he can’t believe how far he’s come. “Growing up, I never thought I’d come out. I thought I’d be 40 years old with a wife and kids and maybe be able to accept it then.”

Fortunately, the acceptance came much earlier than 40, and he is now able to openly live his life as a gay man, but that also means living with the struggles of any romantically involved individual. After graduating with his associate’s degree in culinary arts from Sullivan in 2011, Petrino moved back to Arkansas to work on his bachelor’s degree and be with his boyfriend. Simultaneously, his family was going through a tumultuous time due to a situation involving Petrino’s father at the University of Arkansas, and the couple split in an ugly breakup. For several reasons, not the least of which being the disintegration of his relationship, Petrino transferred to the University of Louisville in 2013 to complete his degree in accounting.

Sadly, due to mismatched credits, he essentially lost a year of school when he transferred but will be graduating with his degree in December 2015. In addition to a new school, Petrino found an entirely new lifestyle when he moved back to Louisville. “I wasn’t really used to having gay friends,” he explains. “I always had my boyfriend and my straight friends. But now being back here, I’ve made so many friends, and I’m pretty active in the gay scene.”

Prior to transferring, he admits he was somewhat uncomfortable with some aspects of gay culture, such as going to drag shows or hanging out with especially flamboyant men. But making more friends and sharing new experiences has led to a complete erasure of that discomfort and a much more open mind. “None of that matters to me anymore,” he asserts. “It’s all about who someone is as a person – not what’s on the outside. And that’s the biggest thing I’ve learned living here.”

Now, an active gay member of the Louisville community, Petrino feels that he can walk down the street with ease and doesn’t let his thoughts of his sexuality inhibit him anymore. “My sexuality plays a small role outwardly, but internally it’s a big part of me,” he describes.

“It’s not something I hide but I also don’t declare it.” This is not to say Petrino isn’t proud of his sexuality; rather, it’s simply not an issue for him anymore, which is partially thanks to the ongoing national changes.

The Supreme Court ruling, for example, illustrated to him the fact that he has a community to be a part of and moreover a country that is ready for him. “Even though I am not at a point in my life where I am considering marriage, the marriage equality decision is paramount,” he states. “I’m happy to know that when I do want to get married, I have the right to marry someone I love regardless of their sex.”

Further affirmation and inspiration came earlier this summer when Petrino attended his first pride festival. But he didn’t just attend – he marched in the parade. “It was so cool,” he recounts of the festival. “You see all these families and these little kids supporting it, and then you have the naked people over on the other side. It’s great.” What really made an impact on him though and what made him reflect the most on his own life was the presence of children, especially children who may grow up to be gay.

“I think the most important thing for little kids these days is that they have people to look up to,” he ponders. “Gay is not such a taboo thing anymore. It’s a normal thing. There’s still a ways to go, but it’s getting there. I mean now, kids don’t have to feel bad about themselves or hate themselves for half their life.” Indeed, part of the reason it took Petrino so long to accept who he was was because he had no point of reference for his identity – no one to look up to and no one to let him know it’s okay to be himself.

Looking at the future, Petrino will seek to make a difference in the lives of young children as an elementary school teacher. Once he completes his bachelor’s degree later this year, he plans to attain his master’s in education. “I’m really good with kids,” he says with a smile. He also has recently developed a love for traveling and looks forward to being able to explore the world on summer breaks from school.

In the meantime though, Petrino is happy to live in a city where he is accepted, welcomed and loved. He’s happy to spend his days going to UofL and working out and his nights playing with his dog, Lana, and sipping bourbon at Big Bar with friends. And all the while, he doesn’t have to worry about who he is. He can be anything he wants to be and live the life he wants to live, exploring everything and hiding nothing. He’s unsure exactly of what the future holds, but one thing is certain: He will be proud of himself.

Photography by ANTONIO PANTOJA