NOTE: On March 6th, Matt Dooley, a senior at the University of Notre Dame and a member of the ND tennis team, came out publicly in an essay published on Outsports.com. Instead of writing to Mom this week, I decided to write to Matt instead.
You don’t know me from a hole in the wall, and the first time I heard about you was in an article published on Huffington Post earlier this month.
Despite the fact that we have never met, I feel like I do know you. You grew up in a traditional, Catholic home, just like I did. You realized you were gay in middle school but felt compelled to hide it for many years, just like me. You were driven by internalized homophobia and shame to attempt suicide, and although I did not attempt it, the thought was never far from my mind.
In your essay published on Outsports.com, you write beautifully about the darkness and pain of coming to terms with something about yourself that you wished desperately not to be true. You described Notre Dame as “a pressure cooker for someone struggling with his sexual orientation,” a place where you grew to believe that your true, immutable self was “wrong, undeserving of respect.”
I recognized those feelings from my own experiences in Catholic schools, from first grade through fifth, and then again in high school and at John Carroll University in Cleveland. The Catholic Church I grew up in bestowed a strong foundation in life, encouraged me to be gracious, kind, giving, and loving, and was intimately bound up in the life of my extended family. Yet it also taught me that I was a sinner because of an intrinsic, irreversible part of who I am, and hearing that message in church and in school caused me a great deal of pain.
You are 22, and at 46 I am old enough to be your father. I teach high school students who are just four or five years younger than you, and I marvel at how different their experience is from my own high school experience. I know that many more young people today are comfortable with their sexual orientation than I was, or my friends were, when we were in high school. Although not naïve, I am consistently started with the amount of normalcy that seems to come with being gay today, and on the one hand I feel an abiding sense of hope for you and your generation.
That is why I find the fact that I identify so clearly with you remarkably disturbing. Your essay was a reminder that all is not okay, and that as a society we still have a long way to go. We still live in a society that, all too often, finds fault with those who identify as anything outside the heterosexual norm. So many in the Catholic Church still, despite the Pope’s recent overtures to the contrary, preach and practice intolerance. Young gay men and women still contemplate, and unfortunately attempt, suicide. I am desperate for more change.
Your experience does, however, reinforce the hope that I feel for the future. Just like you, I was most terrified to admit I was gay, and horrified that I would have to share this news with family and friends. Your family, and your friends, responded like my own: with open arms, acceptance, and unconditional love. You are out at school and on your team, and finding support and encouragement from an unlikely place: conservative, Catholic ND (I know its particular conservatism well, by the way; my dad and brother are alums, and I visited South Bend often).
Deciding to be out, not just to your teammates but in the national press as well, is incredibly brave. I am thrilled that most of the feedback you have gotten is positive; this is a harbinger of better times to come for LGBT folks. It is also a testament to who you are as an honest, authentic, courageous individual that those closest to you would respond with love and support. I remember how important it was to hear the words that your teammate Greg said when you came out to him: “This doesn’t change anything.” It may not change anything for others, but we know that just hearing those words helps us feel more comfortable in our own skin, decreases our shame, and enables us to be more authentic each day.
I take great comfort in the fact that I can be open and out in my everyday life. Not only do my colleagues and supervisors at the public high school where I teach know I’m gay, but the students do as well. I married the love of my life in a public ceremony in front of a huge gathering of family and friends. My husband and I are present and involved at the elementary school our two children attend (we adopted, but there are so many avenues for you to pursue if and when you are ready for kids).
My hope for us and our world is simple: that those we come in contact with—be it a kid reading about you in the press or a future patient at your medical practice, some kid in one of my classes or a parent at my kids’ school—get to know us for all of who we are, and think to themselves: “Wow. What a great guy.”
And that’s that.
Best wishes for a full and fantastic future,