- HIGHSCHOOL - Coming Out - Part 2

Wednesday, July 16
Coming Out - Part 2

Corey Johnson
Ann Johnson provided unqualified support for her son Corey as he struggled with his decision to tell his teammates.

This is the second of a two-part story on Corey Johnson, a senior football player at Masconomet High in Topsfield, Mass., who announced to his family, school and community that he is gay.

Stereotypically speaking, things just didn't add up for Corey Johnson. At Masconomet High (Topsfield, Mass.), he was the guy everybody liked. A gridiron hero with a great heart. He was mainstream suburbia - homogenized, not homosexual. He was on his way to a career average of six tackles a game as the hardest hitter in a football program that would go 25-8 with Johnson starting at linebacker. But Johnson's secret was eating him alive. Finally, the first in a series of touchstone moments set him on the road to freedom.

Jan. 25, 1998 - A teen attendee at Corey's Super Bowl party launches into a derogatory tirade about gays, saying, "People like that need help." The effect is devastating. "That's the first time that it struck me that's who I was," says Johnson. "I got up and I walked to the bathroom, shut the door and cried. That's when everything started happening."

Feb. 1998 - Corey tells his guidance counselor, Connie Mosher, and late his biology teacher, Tammy Due, he is bisexual and receives unequivocal support. "It was my way of releasing while still hedging about who I was," says Johnson of the term he first chose to describe his sexual orientation.

April 1998 - After skipping a day of school, Corey attends lacrosse practice as an observer, per team rules. Head coach and history teacher Andy Bigelow presses him about whether he had something to tell him. He assures Corey he need not be afraid. There, on the muddy sideline of a drizzly preseason lax practice, Corey Johnson tells another human being for the first time he is gay.

Johnson carefully guarded his secret all summer following his sophomore year, keeping himself occupied with off-season workouts. By the end of his junior season, he had shared his secret with a handful of faculty members. Elected co-captain at the team breakup banquet that December, he returned to school from Christmas vacation and decided to tell his parents, Ann and Rod.

Jan. 4, 1999 - "I walked in the house and asked my mom if we could talk about something and if we could go for a ride in the car," recounts Johnson. "We just don't go for rides in the car in my family. I was shaking. I said, 'Mom, every morning before you drop me off at school, you tell me you love me. And every night before I go to bed, you tell me love me. I don't want that to change, but I have something very important to tell you: I'm gay.'"

The words couldn't spill out of Ann's mouth quickly enough.

"As Corey told me he was gay, he was crying," says Ann. "I said to him, 'Please don't cry. You should never cry about who you are.' Sure, it was a little bit of a shock. But later, I felt like I really did my job as a parent. He came to me with the biggest thing in his life and he trusted I was going be there for him and it never would have entered my mind not to.

"Later, when he told me he wanted to come out to the team, I was concerned, but I said to myself, 'I can't deny him that because that would be telling him that I'm ashamed of who he is and I'm not.'"

Ann's reaction meant the world toCorey.

"It felt great and we sat in a parking lot and we talked and we cried," he recalls. "I felt like an anvil was just lifted off my entire body. She's told me ever since I could speak that if there was anything I ever needed to talk about, no matter what it is, I could come to her. She meant it."

Johnson came out to his father three days later. Rod was very supportive. He then told his 10-year-old sister, Melissa, who was "fine with it."

March 25, 1999 - Corey attends the annual Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) conference in Boston and decides upon his return home to come out to his team.

April 7, 1999 - Corey walks into Pugh's office and explains his wish to come out to the team and student body as gay. Pugh's response: "That's fine. I have no issue with that. I want to support you."

Minutes later, Corey tells then-senior right tackle Sean Stowe, captain of the wrestling team and his best friend. "His countenance and disposition changed, then he started crying," recalls Johnson. "I asked him what was wrong and he said, 'I'm sorry you couldn't share this with me.'"

Today, the pair remain best friends.

April 8, 1999 - With the support and approval of the school administration (and thanks to considerable behind-the-scenes help from GLSEN and its network following Johnson's March 25 decision), Pugh arranges for the teen to meet with fellow juniors who are also on the football team. At the head of a table for 20 in Pugh's classroom, Corey comes out.

"I think everyone thought I was going to say, 'Okay, stop drinking and smoking. Let's be a clean team,'" says Johnson. "I was trembling. I felt like I was going to vomit. I said, 'Guys, I have something very important to tell you and I hope you can be supportive. I want to let you know that I'm coming out as a gay student. I hope this won't change anything. And as for all those irrational fears that are racing through your mind: I didn't touch you last year in the locker room and I'm not going to do it this year. I didn't come on to you last year in the locker room and I'm not going to do it this year. Who says you guys are good enough anyway?' They laughed. I told them they didn't have to wage wars for me, just be my friend."

Within minutes, most of the school knew. "Football Fag" was scrawled on the back of an obscure school door and went undiscovered for some time. A community member publicly argued to have Johnson's captaincy re-voted, insisting the teen's revelation would "corrupt the unit" and fracture the team. Pugh blew the whistle on that nonsense.

"We simply said this is not open for discussion," says Pugh. "We don't need to have a workshop or a tolerance assembly. Just leave it alone. The bottom line is this school and this community are about doing what's best for the students. The whole idea of stripping his captaincy is more divisive than Corey coming out could ever be."

"Every athlete feeds off their coach, so whatever (the coach's) reaction is, they'll follow," says Johnson's fellow co-captain, Dave Merrill. "I had to adapt faster (than other guys) because I was the one who walked out there with him for the coin toss. It was different at first. I wondered if people would think I'm gay. But I don't care. They can think what they want. I am who I am and so is Corey. You can't help but accept it."

In the end and in almost every way, Johnson's season was more about football than anything else. He politely said no when best-selling scholastic football author H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger, who wrote "Friday Night Lights," asked to chronicle his season. He turned down Vanity Fair magazine's offer to produce a 12,000-word feature. Even local newspaper beat writers didn't know. He just played football. And he was feared for his ferocity, not his sexuality.

"I remember being a good football player was a large part of my persona," says Johnson, who plans to spend a year interning with a gay activist organization before attending college in the fall of 2001. "Athletics will always be a large part of my life. I umpire (Little League) baseball, I referee (Recreation League) basketball. I want to coach high school when I get older. But I've moved on from it being my identity. Even now, I'm defined as 'the gay football captain.' I'm a lot more than that. It's a platform I can use to help many, many kids that are struggling with this issue, to bring awareness, to diminish stereotypes.

"I now perceive the world completely differently. I could not imagine me not being gay."

Contact Corey Johnson at

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Coming Out - Part 1