Even before this past summer, Justin Rabon and Brad Neumann were a pretty exceptional couple. Not only did they both run division I track for the University of Minnesota, but they were also out to their friends, family and teammates as boyfriends. However, they were simply going steady in life, romantically and athletically, before they were approached by the publication OutSports.
One article later and the once closeted athletes were soon making headlines with their anomalous love affair. It isn’t every day you hear about two college sprinters doing much outside of sprinting, but their story has warranted a fair amount of attention since it’s somewhat groundbreaking. There are not many college athletes who have come out, and also not many who have found the same love and solace in a teammate as have Neumann and Rabon. With their recently found platform, the two are shattering gay stereotypes all while embracing their community unlike ever before, and living more authentic lives as a result.
Andrew Crossan: Tell me about both of your experiences realizing and coming to accept your sexuality.
Brad Neumann: You realize your sexuality when a straight guy realizes he like girls, except it’s just so much more confusing because you’re told day in and day out that you need to have a girlfriend and get married to a woman someday. Growing up, for me especially, it was hard because I was in a small, conservative farm town and they aren’t the most accepting there, so I decided not to come out to anybody while I was still living there. But once I came to college and met Justin, actually, I accepted who I am because he felt comfortable enough to tell me he was gay, so I was like, “oh, well…so am I.” It kind of just went from there; I gradually told my friends one by one, then my family, and then those articles came out and everyone kind of knew.
Justin Rabon: I’d say it’s similar for myself: I’ve always known from birth that something was different about me, but I never wanted to pinpoint that to be my sexuality because while growing up sexuality is taught to be what defines you in life. So, naturally, I tried to fool myself that I wasn’t gay for as long as possible. But you get to a certain point in life where you can’t hide that anymore, you don’t want to not be yourself because you’re not having a good time; nothing seems authentic until you can be yourself.
I grew up in Milwaukee and it was a pretty accepting community, but still not to the point where I felt comfortable enough to come out and tell people that I was gay. It took the liberal education in college to see all different types of people, and once I found other people who were like myself, I slowly became more comfortable with the idea of coming out. So I decided to come out to Brad first, who was just my friend at the time at a rival school. I came out to Brad, he came out to me and then things lead on from there.
AC: What was the decision to go public with your relationship like?
JR: I was out a little bit more so than Brad was, and it was a big damper on our relationship because we would be scared to do simple things like go to the movies and be with each other—because we were scared that people would think we were dating and that we were gay. It’s hard for your relationship to flourish when it’s like that. I almost gave Brad some type of ultimatum—either we let people know we’re in a relationship and that you’re gay, or we’re not going to be together. Slowly from there, things expanded to close friends and then I told my family which was a big deal, and Brad waited another few months before telling his family. Once that happened, we were approached by OutSports and they asked if we’d like to share our thoughts about being athletes and an openly gay couple…We thought it would be really good for us to share our voice and our words with people, and it grew into this thing where we speak as much as we can and help out whoever we can.
AC: At that time, were you aware of the attention coming out would bring you?
BN: We had no idea. I did it because I thought that if a few people from my hometown read it, I would get a few shares there and it would be good for the community. Cyd [Zeigler], who’s in charge of OutSports, said to not be shocked if we got a little attention; we just thought that we would get maybe a hundred shares on our articles. About a week later, I had five thousand more Instagram followers and our article had over a few thousand shares. It was definitely a huge shock, but worth it.
AC: You spoke a bit about the reactions from your friends and family; what was the reaction like by and large?
BN: I haven’t had that many bad reactions. My family’s all great but, like any generational gap, it’s going to take them longer to understand whereas when I told my best friend, she knew it was big news but obviously not a problem. Some of my older relatives weren’t mad or anything, it just took some time for them to process that the little boy they knew in diapers is not what they thought he was.
JR: For the most part, it was the exact same thing [for me]. The first person I told was my mom—my mom is like my best friend and she instantly showed me love but she was obviously very upset for quite some time. She wasn’t expecting it and was kind of sad. She wanted me to tell my stepfather because she couldn’t keep a secret like that from him while she lives with him every day, so I told them at first and they were fine; I saw them crying periodically for about three days but after that things were fine, and now my mom is my biggest supporter. My dad still has a hard time grasping the concept of me being gay; he asks me how, and why I feel this way, but he’s still supportive in all my endeavors. My family as a whole has been very accepting; they’ve all met Brad and they’re all big fans of Brad. It’s all generally positive.
AC: How long have you run track and what drew you to it?
JR: I’ve run track since the age of seven, so fifteen years. My entire family had run track, so I was always exposed to it and once I was at the age to run, I started running. I wasn’t by any means very good then; it wasn’t until probably my sophomore year of high school where I started to put in a lot of work toward track. My junior year is the time I started to excel a lot and realized I could do it further past high school. That would be the moment I realized I could do things with track, and figured it could get me to college, and I got to compete at two different universities.
BN: What, thirteen years? I was always that fast kid who wanted to race everybody at recess because that was the only thing I was good at. I would go to small summer track meets until I could actually run track in sixth grade. That’s when I found out I was faster than the average kid because I was in training with the high-schoolers. By the time I got to high school I was already beating all the seniors in my conference, and I was making it to state and it wasn’t really a question. It was my junior year when I actually had the goal of running at a Big Ten division I school.
AC: You both have a speaking event coming up; what’s the occasion?
JR: Just two days ago, Brad and I got invited to speak at this event called WE Day; it’s for youth who are trying to make social change. There are eighteen thousand students in total who’ll be attending the event and we’ll be speaking about humanitarian and social justice issues. And it’ll be broadcast online, so there’ll be a few million people watching and the eighteen thousand at the big stadium here in Minneapolis. We get to speak about our process of coming out and what we can do now to help further social change. It’s just an opportunity Brad and I got involved with that we’re really grateful for, and it’s on November 9.
AC: Aside from that, what’s the coolest thing that’s happened to you as a result of all of this?
JR: There was one point where we were on the Huffington Post trending between Donald Trump and Rihanna. That was really cool, but we did a video with BuzzFeed—we went to their headquarters here in Minneapolis and recorded a video with them. BET worked with us, and we’re going to be in a documentary that’s coming out in spring of 2018 that we filmed for; that’s about queer people in general, and trying to show different lights of people who are not straight.
AC: In addition to being a gay couple, you’re also interracial. How do you feel about white gay men rejecting black gay men under the guise of a “sexual preference?”
JR: I have personally talked to a lot of black gay men who have felt that rejection from gay white men. I see that, and I do notice that. The gay community is ostracized enough as it is, and to further ostracize those within the community by race is upsetting to see. I try not to surround myself with people like that if I notice that type of behavior and injustice happening.
Coming from the other side, I have a lot of black queer people who have told me that I’m letting down my race because I’m with someone who’s white. That’s also hard because I don’t want to seem as if I’m not proud of who I am just because I’m dating someone that’s white, but Brad is someone who has the same exact views as myself—he sees all people as equal, regardless of skin color, and that’s someone that I want to be with. I’m with him regardless of his skin color, it’s who he is.
It’s hard coming from both sides because I do see the injustice black people feel being rejected by white queer people, and I also get retaliation from black people feeling as if I’m betraying my race. It’s difficult, and it’s something that I would like to speak more upon but I want to become more knowledgeable about how to and to let people know that’s not OK.
AC: Do you feel any pressure to not do anything effeminate since you’ve built these masculine images for yourselves?
BN: I feel a little bit that way, just because we have that stereotype of the athlete. If I did something more effeminate, I wouldn’t necessarily be shamed but I would definitely get talked about in a different way, especially by my straight friends or teammates. I know Justin doesn’t feel that at all—this weekend he was strutting around Los Angeles in knee-high high heels. I feel like that might also be because I’m still involved in a division I program and he’s out of it [as he’s graduating in December]. Also that’s not something I really want to do. We’re very true to ourselves and we’re going to do what we want regardless of what people say.
JR: I’m all about gender expression; if one day I want to wear some baggy sweatpants and a sweatshirt, it’s fine, and someday I want to wear some shorts that most straight men wouldn’t wear, then that’s fine too. I don’t really care what other people feel about that. I think people read our stories and comment on the articles saying, “Wow, this has a hint of toxic masculinity,” but if you know me, I hate overly-masculine things. I’m all about just being who you are. I don’t feel the need to portray myself to be more masculine or more feminine just because I’m gay or because I’m a gay athlete.
AC: Do you have any guilty (or not so guilty) pleasures within what’s traditionally thought of as “gay?”
BN: I definitely know at least 75 percent of Beyoncé’s choreography. Like, “End of Time,” I could almost do a whole live dance. I really want to start watching “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” but I don’t have time right now. We watch some highlights and it’s so great, I love it so much.
JR: I’m obsessed with Ariana Grande, who always advocates for gay people. We both like “Drag Race,” Cher, Celine Dion, Christina Aguilera and generally pop music. I love Madonna and what she’s done for gay people, so I fall under that cliché.
BN: We literally follow Laverne Cox’s every move.
JR: …A queen.
AC: In the interview you did with USA Today, Brad said “it’s 10 times better being out.” How have you two grown from being out and how have your lives changed overall?
BN: I think the biggest thing is that everyone knows and it’s not something we have to hide anymore. For a while, Justin moved to Minnesota while we were together and we had to carry on this façade as if we were just really close friends. Since we’ve come out, my teammates talk to me about Justin as I would talk to them about their girlfriends. I’ve definitely opened the eyes of a lot of people. Overall, it’s made it easier for us to actually go out and do things that a heterosexual couple would do and not feel weird about it.
JR: I would say the biggest change would be that people view us as courageous now, which isn’t necessarily something we thought of ourselves in this. We honestly were just trying to be our true selves, but now people think of us as leading voices almost. It’s weird to have gone from a normal person to someone who people view as an activist and for social change. I love that I now stand for something and that people see me as a voice for something, versus just being Justin. That’d probably be the biggest change for me, becoming someone that I really am proud of. We’re both very proud to be who we are now, and of what we do.
AC: In the future, do you hope that stories like yours will be more normalized and thus less worth reporting?
BN: That’s a big reason why I wrote it. There were a few people that commented on a bunch of our articles, asking why it was news, “why should we care?” I was like, that’s exactly the point. A story like this coming out shouldn’t be news. It’s the stupidest thing, to think that something as small as somebody dating somebody almost made national news.
JR: I don’t see a change happening overnight, but I hope so. I hope it’s not as big of a deal and that it’s more accepted. Every now and then you’ll hear those stories about athletes who had a rough time because they couldn’t be themselves and they didn’t feel safe where they were; hopefully, we get to a point where it’s not a big deal at all and everyone can feel safe.
AC: You’ve already accomplished so much, what do you hope to do moving forward?
JR: We’re both at crossroads with our degrees and what we want to do after school. Originally, my goal was to go to physical therapy school after my undergraduate in kinesiology but lots of things have changed. There’ve been a lot of different ideas sprouting, joining activism groups and starting some things like that. In between the year and a half that I have from now until when I was planning on going to grad school, I will definitely be looking at all other options. Throughout this process there have been a lot of connections made that I want to capitalize on because I feel like this would be more important in the grand scheme of things than what I was going to do originally with my life.
BN: I’m also struggling with what I should do; I was originally going to grad school for chiropractic but I saw how big of a difference Justin and I could make literally just writing a two-page article. What if we dedicated our lives to it? There were a few people that told us we saved their lives. One kid I think was from Belgium, he messaged me and told me that he was about to end his life that night and then he saw our articles, and that’s why he’s alive today. I just think to myself, what if we dedicated our lives to this, how many more kids like that we could save. And as great as I could make people’s backs feel, I’d rather help other kids.