'I was ready to be more authentic': US footballer Collin Martin tells his coming out story

LGBTQ+ athletes on how they came out to themselves (2:53)

Out sports stars from across the globe detail their experiences of coming out to themselves. (2:53)

Editor's Note: Collin Martin's answers below were gleaned from a wider-ranging interview conducted by ESPN in August 2021. He agreed to ESPN's use of comments from that conversation, many of which were unpublished till now, for this story.

San Diego Loyal footballer Collin Martin [he/him], 26, publicly came out as gay in 2018, while playing for Minnesota United FC in Major League Soccer. At the time, he was the only publicly out male professional athlete in a major American league.

On the 'coming out to myself' process:

As early as elementary school, I knew I liked guys. It's hard because when you're suppressing it so much, you become not super clear on how it's going to be a reality in your life. So throughout middle school and high school, I was dealing with my sexuality as, 'How am I going to make this work?' or more so, 'How am I going to marry a woman and have kids and not allow this to be my reality?' Not only was I struggling around teammates at that time, but I was going to church regularly and wondering how bad I was sinning everyday just being myself. There's multiple layers. It's not just sport. I was fortunate to have a very supportive family, but they didn't know I was gay. It was not until I left Wake Forest [University] that I really began to [come to terms with] with my sexuality, and that's when I played pro. So it's hard to balance your aspirations as a professional soccer player with really trying to figure out your life at the same time.

READ: 17 LGBTQ+ athletes share their coming out journeys

On his reasons for coming out to the media/public, rather than keeping his private life private:

Right as I was getting really comfortable at DC United -- I'd say a good amount of people knew -- and that following season I would have made it very clear to everybody, but I was traded to Minnesota. It was great timing, and as much as I was ready to be more authentic and be more open about who I was, I had still been lying for the three and a half seasons I was in DC. So when I moved to Minnesota I used that time to stop lying and just be really open and honest. At preseason I started telling some teammates at a dinner, and slowly the word travelled around the team, and it was pretty natural. By the end of my first season there, pretty much everyone knew. There was never a moment where I had to tell the whole team or sit anyone down. I had absolutely no issues, and I was completely supported by the club. And I think it's a testament to DC that the people there gave me so much support and guidance and love, and they were people and teammates that I really looked up to, so I thought, 'Well, if the people here are going to respect me there's no reason why the people in Minnesota wouldn't either.'

On whether coming out has impacted his career and opportunities:

I want [my clubs] to want me as a soccer player, and as a person. And knowing Landon [Donovan, SD Loyal manager] now, I know he would have asked my former teammates and former coaches, whether it's Ben [Olsen] in DC or players I played with in the league. I know for a fact he was asking them, 'How was this guy as a person?' If he didn't like what he heard he would have been like, 'You know what, we're not interested.'

But for me the biggest decision [when changing teams] was to be in a city I would be comfortable in. I had no qualms over whether Landon would be accepting of me, and it's one of those things you only know when you try it out, right? Fortunately I was right, and I have a very accepting coach, a coach that is understanding, and also a coach that is going to fight for his players. When he feels that something is not right he's going to stand up for you.

On the impact his coming out has made, to himself and others:

Leading up to that Pride month [in 2018], I was very much content with being supported and the people I saw every day -- my family, my friends, my teammates and the clubs I played on. But it got to the point where I had a friend that told me, 'You could make a lot bigger of an impact. It's great that you're supported and I think you should tell people this. There's not a lot of people like you, and in order to make it easier for the next generation and people that are looking up to you, you gotta to come out.'

And I know that sounds really simple, but you don't think that way when it's you. You don't think that you're going to have an impact on other people. Sometimes you need to be told, 'Hey this could be a big thing.' So I thank my friend for giving me that nod. The impact I feel like I've had with the youth of Minnesota, around the country, and just kids who are playing soccer, that impact for me is greater than anything I'll ever do on the field. It was something that kind of blew me away, and I didn't know how much of an impact I was going to have.

On how sport is changing to become more accepting:

I think [this is] the important part to recognise: There are multiple areas in your life where you need support, and sport is this really cool place where we feel free to express ourselves and play, and exercise and enjoy ourselves. And if that can be a place where someone can feel accepted and included, and often it is, and also feel included in their sexuality, then that's what I think we should be striving for.