Editors Note 4/3/2020: This interview was done on February 11th, before we knew that our world was about to be turned upside down. Like many of us, Russ and his boyfriend Corey are also on lockdown and they are keeping us updated on their YouTube channel.
One thing is true about both the straight and queer communities: we are obsessed with “firsts” in any field. This is especially true when it comes to representation of marginalized groups. So when defensive end Ryan (“Russ”) Russell came out as bi last year in an ESPN letter he penned himself, he made worldwide headlines as the first openly LGBTI active player in the NFL. (And, until January, he was also the only out queer person in the four major leagues— until NHL’s Storm Sullivan came out as bi.)
But Russ is so much more than a breakthrough story. In my phone conversation with the football player who played with the Cowboys and Buccaneers, we discussed his deep love of writing, his obsession with Hemingway, and how he hopes telling his story will aid future generations of queer athletes (and others) in walking their truth. Read more below.
Russ, how did you come to identify as bi?
RYAN RUSSELL: Ooh. That was a journey that took some time.
It really began in college. I had a serious girlfriend all the way through middle school and high school, so I never really experimented or questioned my sexuality because I was very much in a puppy-love relationship. It was very real and those feelings were real; the attraction was real.
When I got to college 900 miles away, I realized there was also an attraction to the same sex. That’s when I was single, I was far from home. In my first year of football, I was redshirted which means I wasn’t actually playing on game day, so I had more time and freedom to experiment in my life and try things. And my sexuality was such a unique journey. It was kind of a feeling of, “Well once you find interest in a man, are you still attracted to women? …Do you like one more than the other? Does it matter?” All these questions. But college was where I got in touch with myself and in touch with my sexuality, where I could experiment.
How do you see yourself as an athlete, and how does being bi fold into that?
RR: Well, the media and the… I mean, even historical moments or the history of sports will say me being openly bisexual is a big thing, or it’s a new thing and I’m the first active openly bisexual, openly queer NFL player. And it all seems very big— it’s all these headlines, it all seems very much larger-than-life. I think there are times when people come to me and ask for help, and I’m overwhelmed by it. Because in sports, especially, it doesn’t matter— in a sense that when you dedicate your life to a team or a cause or a passion, that’s what matters. There are all types of athletes— there are male athletes, female athletes, non-binary athletes, queer athletes...
Sports are great because they unify families who may not normally all be under the same roof watching television together. It unifies fans who maybe have different political views or religious views who [still] root for the same team. It unifies players who are from very different parts of the world or social upbringings or backgrounds. So there are two sides to this coin where I feel that being openly bisexual might seem like this very new, very “in” thing. But to me, in the world of sports, I’m a professional athlete. That is what I present, that is my focus, my passion, and my goal. And in that alone, I feel like I can create space for other people. Like, “You know what— yes I can be queer, I can be bi, I can be gay— I can be any of these things and also be an athlete.” There’s no overshadowing the unity in that.
What has your experience been like being out as a bi football player and writer since you came out last August?
RR: I mean, honestly, I’m happier than I’ve ever been, just being free to hold my boyfriend’s hand— to just be myself and [have] people know my story and relate with it, or learn from it, or just go through the journey with me. It’s all very good and genuine and real. I feel like I’m making more real connections now with people than I even had connections with previously. It’s a very freeing experience for me.
Being an athlete— that realm doesn’t change. There’s a formula for being an athlete. It’s like Kobe— rest in peace— does not change his shooting routine no matter what’s going on. You just learn that there are teams, dedication, hard work, sacrifice— those things don’t change. Being in a locker room doesn’t change; the players just wanna know you’re going to show up to work, to show up for the greater cause of the team, you don’t feel like you’re bigger than the team, and that you understand you are a piece of a larger pot. That you uphold that combined tension.
And being a writer, it’s also been liberating and therapeutic; to reflect in my writing, and be honest in my writing, kind of come to the realizations I might not even have had previous to coming out. There were certain things I would write for myself, but I couldn’t share it because I wasn’t out yet. Now it’s kind of like the gloves are off, nothing’s off-limits. I can “go there,” I can dive into deeper parts of myself, my own psyche, my own history, [once] you’re at a place where you love yourself, accept yourself, and you’re honest with yourself.
I guess it sounds cliché, but really all aspects of your life enhance and become more genuine and real after coming out.
Is there anything about yourself that you would like people to know that maybe isn’t part of your public persona?
RR: Ooh! Hmmm. “That isn’t part of my public persona.” That in itself is interesting because I’m like, “What is my public persona?” [Laughs]
I think besides being bisexual, writing was my next big secret, ‘cause I wrote very emotional things. I talk about feelings, I talk about things that typically football players— stereotypically tough guys [in] manly-man sports— aren’t supposed to talk about or write about. So for a long time, that was my big secret.
I’m a music fanatic— I feel like my friends know that, but maybe other people don’t know I have the most eclectic taste in music. I will listen to classical in the morning, Kanye West in the afternoon, [and] Nina Simone in the evening. It’s very idiosyncratic.
I love film. I love cinematography. I love storytelling of all forms. Now they’re part of my public persona.
I’m a huge foodie. Maybe that isn’t highlighted much. I love reviewing restaurants, looking them up and seeing the aesthetic, looking at the menu and what the chef’s other restaurants are in the city and if I like those [places.] That’s one of the things I like about traveling. I kind of gauge a place by the food it provides.
Do you have a favorite food city, or a favorite place you love to hit in L.A.?
RR: That’s tough.
I love breakfast food. I’m obsessed with breakfast food. L.A. has some great, great places. But as far as a city that has just a level of breakfast food that changed my life, I think [it’s] Nashville. Just those big, country, Southern biscuits and gravy and butter. And [they’re] filling, too. Sometimes you get breakfast and eat a couple of eggs and bacon, and you’re hungry in an hour. Nashville, that food will put you back to sleep. I’ll actually be like, “Ooh, someone just roll me back into bed.”
You famously came out as bi in the excellent piece you wrote for ESPN. Other than your love of writing, is there a particular reason you chose to come out publicly this way instead of, say, during an interview?
RR: The great thing about writing is even within oneself, there is no prejudice between the writer and the paper and pen. There’s no homophobia, no racism, no religion, no politics. There are no preconceived notions you learned growing up from the environment you’re raised in. It’s just, I feel, the most honest form of communication for me. Sometimes when you speak and you’re heated and in the moment, you say things that aren’t really true, or maybe you say it in a way that isn’t communicated well to others. Writing gives you time to look back and read and focus and edit. It’s so beautiful to me.
Yes, I hoped life would be free and liberating and great [after coming out]— but also I didn’t want to forget the feelings that led up to that moment. I didn’t want to forget the struggle that set up that moment. I didn’t want to forget the loss of my best friend, Joe. Also in coming out, there were so many parts of my story that might not have been beautiful and pretty, but I felt like were important, and I wanted to have that [documented].
Also, football is the focus, so during the season, I very much wanted to respect the season and have the focus on football with media and inquiries. When I talk more about my story, yeah, I want them to have that, but it’s also like I had a literal piece of paper that said, “Okay, you can go here, these are my words. This is my writing, this is me. This is my soul.” I wanted that tangible, physical thing in the world.
What surprised you the most about the public reception after you came out?
RR: Honestly, everything. Everything seemed like a surprise. Coming out as I wrote my letter was very much a decision about me and my life and my love, in the shortness and frailty of life. I got to a place in my journey where I wanted to combine my love of football and my growing love of who I am. And I really didn’t think too far after that. [Laughs]
Of course, I thought about football in terms of the NFL, living an honest life and being able to write my book and publish and post fiction. But I really didn’t go into it with huge expectations. We [my boyfriend Corey O’Brien] were gonna drop a YouTube video about my coming out, and then I met David [McFarland, my publicist]. We came to the form of writing the letter [as] something that, I think, also highlighted another huge part of my self-love journey, my self-actualization, and my own acceptance of self. And then we had the ESPN segment with the interview, and… I don’t know. It just kind of became this huge thing. I want to be happy. I want to be free.
So everything after has been a pleasant surprise. The support has been amazing. I mean, Billie Jean King retweeted me and I was floored by that.
Congratulations to Ryan Russell for sharing his truth and living an authentic life! His desire to make this process easier for LGBTQ professional athletes in the future is inspiring. 🌈 #EqualityForAll https://t.co/PR9zFOJS89— Billie Jean King (@BillieJeanKing) August 29, 2019
Athletes from all levels— high school, college, professional— sent me messages and texts and tweets. That was amazing. To be able to speak and share my story and hopefully help young people— young, queer athletes, and just young people in general, however they identify, whatever they’re going through— to really embrace themselves and look in the mirror and love themselves. It’s been amazing writing and being able to share my story.
It sounds crazy to say [that] everything has been a surprise, but it has! Everything has been a pleasant, pleasant surprise. My friendships, my relationships, feel more real and feel more tangible and more genuine. It’s been amazing.
But I also wanted to say I know coming out is not that way for everybody. I know coming out for a lot of young people means sacrificing their homes, sacrificing their friendships, sacrificing maybe even their sport or their career— their sense of safety. And as much as my story has been, as of recent, celebrated, I don’t want to overlook or ignore the fact that coming out for a lot of people is very scary, hard, and challenging. I hope my story, and the things I’m doing now, speaking and being open about my journey, can help other relationships.
I got a message after coming out from a father telling me he read my coming-out letter on ESPN, and it made him have a conversation with his son that he never had. That touched me because I didn’t really grow up with a father… my stepfather passed when I was six. And to hear that my journey and my story is helping another boy heal his fatherly relationship? That was amazing. It was such a surprising, great by-product of someone just trying to live their truth and fulfill themselves and their own happiness. It gave me joy I wasn’t looking for. That made my year. It was great.
You’ve mentioned a love for the works of Ernest Hemingway. Do you have a favorite short story or novel of his, and if so, why is it your favorite?
RR: A favorite? Oh my goodness.
Well, first of all, there is a subtlety and an elegance in Hemingway that comes with adventurous stories and larger-than-life characters in the most eloquent ways that I’m just a huge fan of.
[Pause] I have to pick one? Can I pick, like, ten? [Laughs]
Maybe a top three. That might be easier.
RR: Well, The Sun Also Rises, is one of my favorites, not because of the quintessential Lost Generation, but it’s a story that can be told over and over again. Not just the suffering and disillusionment of the First World War, of things that we feel very far from, I feel like, in society. If we really read Hemingway’s words and see the situation and characters and what they’re battling, we may realize we’re closer to it than we think. I love it also because I feel like it’s one of the more controversial pieces he wrote— it’s not The Winner Takes Nothing, or it’s not… what’s something everyone loves… “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” So that is sticking out to me right now.
The Dangerous Summer might be [a favorite] also. It’s a lengthy read, so it’s also the first book where I felt committed to the story. I feel like a lot of people pick up a book and, if it’s over so many words, we kind of are done with it. Or we put it back on the shelf, or will be like, “I’ll find time for this later.” [Laughs] But it was a lengthy read, and it’s a story I resonate with, personally. I think that’s what all of these stories are about— the complexities of people, and the deep, personal look people gave; it’s very much putting oneself into a character that was transparent enough for everyone to see themselves in.
So maybe those two, if I have to pick right now off the top of my head.
I was talking with a couple of my friends about Hemingway and A Moveable Feast, one of my favorites, and we were floating the theory that maybe Hemingway was queer and had a huge crush on Fitzgerald, and that that’s why he was so obsessed with having that little road trip with him at the end of the book.
RR: Oh my God. I’m obsessed with that [theory.]
Yeah. Honestly the more we thought about it, the more things clicked into place— considering his background, his issues with performative masculinity, his deep obsession with wrestling and boxing… But that’s me being a nerd.
RR: No, I love that. I need more deep discussions in my life. I’d never even thought of that. [Laughs]
Hey: if you need a good reason to reread his works [to find support for that theory], there you go.
Russ, you got tapped to do a speech with the HRC a few months ago. What was that experience like for you?
RR: For most people in their life, their coming-out story is one done behind closed doors, that books are not written about, that a lot of young people go through but is not heard. The story is not really uplifting the way it should be. HRC was the opposite of that. The HRC was just a group of people celebrating people for being born the way they were, loving themselves, feeling courageous and bold enough, or even just at a point in their journey where they could be proud of who they were and proclaim themselves out loud.
The energy was crazy. It was so loving. You met people and instantly felt a connection. Speaking there, seeing my name come up as I walked on stage with people clapping for me— not because I made a play, not because I’d gotten drafted by the Cowboys or anything like that— but just because I was proud of who I was. I’d claimed that and owned up to that and walked in my truth. I did something that was very much not my intentions. No one coached [me with], “You’re coming out and HRC’s gonna honor you"… it’s not like that to have that moment… It’s definitely been a rippling effect in my life after coming out.
You are also known for being a man of faith. Did your faith buoy you before and after you came out?
RR: In the sense of what, exactly?
In the sense of solace or spiritual comfort.
RR: Yeah. My faith beyond bisexuality has been, for lack of a better word, challenged. I lost my best friend, Joseph Gilliam, in 2018. He was very much a man of faith; his granddad was in the church, so he was in the church every Sunday. He was actually one of the first people that got me to go to church while I was in college. I had my own personal battle with faith [and] organized religion in high school.
But I prayed for my best friend. I prayed for one of the best people I knew to get better and get well. And it’s hard to accept that the best thing for someone is to pass at the age of 27. I’ve had to accept that it’s the plan of a higher power. And my faith was shaken, for sure.
I’ve gotten to a point now where I’m rebuilding my faith of love, my faith of a sense of combined goodness in the world and the universe, where things work for good and people can genuinely be there for others, and love people they’ve never known or never met— or have just met— in an instant. My faith has grown in that aspect, maybe outside the walls of a building, outside of one symbol of religion or one text or one scripture.
Religion, to me, is a great teacher in stories and in books. These figures tell lessons and stories that get across the word of love and the word of humanity, and of kindness. I think that’s where I put my focus now. ‘Cause I’ve spoken so much more of literal things… So I focus on the method; I focus on the teaching. I focus on the love.
You’ve recently released a collection of your poems, Prison or Passion. What do you find most exciting about the medium of poetry? Since you like to type physically on a typewriter, what is it about that physical approach to writing that appeals to you?
RR: I started writing on a typewriter because now, in 2020— I love my MacBook and typing on it, I love that it fixes my spelling and I can look up things, synonyms, the sources, which are all great things, but everything is so connected with an influx of information— there’s so much input we’re getting: imagery, news, notifications.
And [with] the typewriter, there’s none of that. I’m not typing and a notification pops up in the corner that someone’s texting me or calling me, anything like that. It’s honestly the rhythm of it, the power of pushing in keys and hearing that sound, of feeling that force and knowing that words— the words you’re creating in your mind— are taking physical form in front of you. I think that’s very beautiful. I think that’s necessary. It makes writers appreciate it being real and seen.
As far as my book, the thing I love about a poetry collection is that people will read a piece that is very intimate to me and very specific in my life, and relate it to very personal, specific things in their life. I think it’s unifying through trauma, through love, through vulnerability and raw, human connection. No matter what our experiences were, we've all felt similar things at similar points and similar moments, and we can be there for each other through poetry.
Are there any upcoming projects you’re working on?
RR: Yes. I am currently working on my memoir, which is a daunting feat, but it’s something I’m very excited about. Just sharing the letter… I feel the connections, and I hope that it’s helping people. I’m hearing that it can. So we’re really putting it all out there. And people should know it’s not all about the celebration of after I came out. It’s not all about the poorer times and that I overcame things, that everyone can overcome things. There were some situations where I had no power over, that I found power in. I think that that could be a good message. I very much want to be the person to tell it.
Finally: Do you have any advice for those newly identifying as bi, and/or any advice you wish you could give the younger version of yourself before you came out?
RR: Honestly, it’s very simple for the younger version of myself. I would just tell him it gets better. That sexuality— like football, like race, like religion, all these things— is a big part of who you are, a beautiful part of who you are, but it is not all of who you are. You will be defined by the things you do and the way you love other people. You should not be afraid to stand in your truth, you should not fear being honest. You should not feel as though you can only be half of yourself or show half of yourself to the world to be accepted or to be loved, or to do what you love. I should say that after coming out, in all facets, across the board, it gets better.
And maybe a similar message for other people identifying or trying to identify, or just might have a question, or [who] might be in places where they don’t feel comfortable expressing that: Once you are ready— ‘cause it’s a very personal journey, I know it’s a safety [issue] for a lot of people— if this is about you not having a home, who are living in places where it is honestly not safe for you to come out. But when you do have that moment and you are in that place, when you have done that journey of self-love and realization and identity and are feeling that courage… life gets better.
Loving yourself is the best love you will get your entire life; waking up, looking in the mirror and loving yourself and going to sleep at night and holding yourself is loving yourself. Once you’re to that point and that moment, and you do come out, life across the board will get better. People like myself and so many others will be here to celebrate you, love you, accept you, and support you.
*** This interview has been edited and truncated for brevity and clarity.