Hurdles Star Trey Cunningham Comes Out as Gay

Trey Cunningham found those first few phone calls excruciating. He has spent his life learning to keep his cool while out on the track, under intense pressure, in the glare of the crowd. But as he waited in the quiet for his family and his friends to pick up, waited to tell them he is gay, he found himself dripping with sweat. It was, he said, the “scariest thing I’ve ever done.”

He went through with it, at age 20, for much the same reason he is discussing it publicly now, five years later. There is a technique that Cunningham has long used in his training. “We say our goals out loud,” he said. “If there’s something we want to achieve, we say it. Putting something in words makes it real.”

That Cunningham — one of the leading high hurdlers in the world — is ready, and willing, to do that does not make him unique. He is not the first elite athlete, or even the first top American runner, to discuss their sexuality.

As one of the few active male athletes who have been comfortable enough to come out, Cunningham is, though, still a rarity. “There are lots of people who are in this weird space,” he said. “They’re not out. But it is kind of understood.”

For the last five years, that has been Cunningham’s reality, too. He had never really thought much about his sexuality in high school; he was too busy, he said, “hanging out with friends, having fun,” nursing dreams of playing for the Boston Celtics and then, almost to his surprise, discovering that he enjoyed “flinging myself at solid objects at high speed.”

It was in college when he started to “explore the idea,” but there was no sudden realization, no lightbulb moment. “It took me a while to know it felt right,” he said.

He attributes that to his upbringing. Cunningham grew up in Winfield, Ala., a place he described as “rural, quite conservative, quite religious: the sort of place where you did not want to be the gay kid at school. So I had certain expectations of what my life would look like, and it took me a little while to get my head around it looking different to that.”

The same, he said, was true for his parents. That was the most difficult call of all, when he decided the time was right to make it, and there was, as he said, some “pushback” on the news.

“What was true for me was also true for my parents,” he said. “They had certain expectations for their little boy, for what his life would be like, and that’s OK. I gave them a five-year grace period. I had to take my time. They could take theirs, too.”

That equanimity is fairly typical of Cunningham. Though he missed out on a place at this summer’s Paris Olympics at the U.S. trials last month, placing ninth in the 110-meter hurdles in a “stacked” field — “If you do well in the U.S. trials, you know you have a good shot at a medal,” he said — he is still ranked 11th in the world. In 2022, he won the silver medal in the event at the world championships in Eugene, Ore.

Despite that success, he describes himself, both by his standard and that of elite athletes, as a relaxed character. That is not guesswork, he says; he has scientific proof. His master’s thesis at Florida State University involved evaluating student athletes to establish which personality traits had the strongest correlation with burnout. He applied the psychometric test to himself and discovered he was “almost too chill.”

Whatever worries he harbored while he made those phone calls, though, proved to be misplaced. His parents were the exception. The rule was either understanding or — in the nicest possible way — something a little closer to a shrug.

He got the sense that at least some of his friends had been “waiting for me,” so confirmation did not make any difference to those relationships, he said. “I was really lucky to have a group of people who did not care,” he said.

The reaction within athletics has been similar. Though Olympic-level sports is, naturally, a cutthroat, competitive environment, he has found his sport to be instinctively supportive. Cunningham has thought a lot, over the last few years, about why that might be, and has reached the conclusion that track and field has a sort of dual identity.

It is, in one sense, the purest form of athletic endeavor, the truest measure of who is the fastest and the strongest, who can jump the highest or throw the farthest. But track is also, in many ways, a “sport for misfits,” he said.

His favorite examples are the shot-putters. “They are the strongest people in the stadium,” he said. “But they also have the most delicate footwork.” It is a discipline for that niche subset of the population who have bodybuilder arms and ballerina feet. “Track and field has something for everyone,” Cunningham said.

It also has an unapologetic single-mindedness. “The only thing that matters is whether you’re running fast today or not,” he said.

Still, few male athletes have felt comfortable discussing their sexuality openly. It is, after all, an intensely personal thing.

Nor does he particularly believe that it is something anyone should feel they have to do. He would like track and field, and culture more generally, to get to a place where “people do not have to ‘come out,’” he said, where people can “just get on with being them.”

But he knows doing so carries practical and potentially financial considerations: His profession could easily require Cunningham to compete in places where his sexuality, widely known, could place him in danger. He would, he said, have to consult his management before traveling to a meet in a country like Qatar, where homosexuality is a crime, for example.

He believes, though, that while he is neither the first nor the only active athlete of his standing to discuss his sexuality in public, doing so has value. He does not feel he has been inhibited in his performances over the last few years, when his sexuality remained a closely held secret. He does not give the impression that any great weight is being lifted by discussing it now.

Whatever stress and tension existed abated five years ago, when he made those phone calls to his friends and family. Everyone who he feels needs to know has known for some time, he said.

But that old training mantra has stayed with him. Cunningham is a writer, by inclination; he finds that putting his thoughts on paper helps him to work his way through them. But he knows that there are times when it pays to say something out loud. It helps to make things real.

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