Today’s #SameHereHero: Joe Altenau (Having previously worked in professional sports, I got to know Joe at one of my team stops, as we worked together for 3 years at the Prudential Center. In that industry, you’re at the arena so often, the coworkers that you connect with quickly become your friends. Joe was no exception. As a friend, I’m in awe of his strength and courage, coming out as a gay man, publicly after college, in this industry that is still far from being fully accepting.
I think to all the people that I now mentor through mental health complications, who are afraid to even ask a therapist, confidentially for help, for fear of the stigma still attached. They’ll ask me things like: What if word gets out and the whole community knows I’m seeing someone? What if work finds out and the “powers that be” don’t want to keep me?
I would never compare the “level” of angst that must be attached to someone’s coming out as openly gay, to that of someone who fears being open with their mental health complications. They are both terrible, erroneous stigmas we must change. We are at a 30-year high in suicides, and the LGBTQ community is amongst THE most affected. It saddens me to think those who are considering coming out as gay, who have mental health complications as a result of their questions and fear, are fighting two of society’s largest stigmas at the same time. Joe, you are the definition of a “Crazy” Hero…and we are honored that you shared your story with our accepting community.)
“When you’re gay, coming out is a recurring event. It rarely happens just once for a person, and instead happens over and over again, as you open up to new people who enter your life. Friends and family are usually first followed by co-workers. And then there are the occasional awkward moments when a member of the opposite approaches you romantically.
While each time is different and provides unique challenges and opportunities, each situation always causes the same internal reaction for me: my mind will begin to race in the lead-up with questions based mainly on fear and rejection. What if the person is homophobic? What will they say behind my back? What if I lose a friend or professional contact? What if a key colleague at work reacts negatively to hearing that I have a boyfriend? My hands start to sweat, the temperature in the room rises and I have only a few seconds to decide if I feel comfortable sharing this incredibly personal part of my life with a stranger.
I first knew something was ‘different’ in high school but wasn’t able to fully accept or acknowledge the feelings I had for other guys. It wasn’t until I was in school at The George Washington University, that I realized I was gay and had the courage to come out to my friends. There were a few times where I would dance around the topic…have it on the tip of my tongue, but I wouldn’t actually be able to say the words ‘I’m gay’ to any of them. Even after I came out, there was a short time where I felt like I had made a mistake. Despite having an incredibly supportive group of friends, there were days where I figured I would graduate from college and then make an entirely new group of friends who didn’t know I was gay – and I’d be able to go back to being straight. Luckily, that’s not how it works and after I felt more comfortable in my own skin, I fully embraced who I was.
Having that supportive network was critical for me, but I’m well aware that not everyone has that group. Even with a close group of friends, coming out isn’t something that can always be handled on your own. After a few years of being out to friends and family, I was struggling with things that gay guys in their 20s typically struggle with, but I thought I was the only one who could be facing these issues. To help tackle them, I sought professional help from a therapist who specialized in LGBTQ issues, after some not so subtle prodding from a friend to do so. For me, my friends and family are my rock, but at that point, I needed something more, and seeking professional help was exactly what I needed.
Being able to have tough conversations with my therapist allowed me to grow as a person in a way I didn’t think was possible. It has been almost a year since I shared my coming out story in an article I wrote for Outsports.com, a website that shares coming out stories for athletes and those who work in the sports industry. This is something I would have never done in the past for fear of rejection and other negative consequences, but I did so with newfound strength with the hope that its message of acceptance would be read by others and might help anyone who is struggling with their sexuality. Now I hope this note will help those struggling with that topic who also feel alone because of the mental health complications that can come along with it.
There are so many organizations helping those in need. The Trevor Project is a 24/7 hotline (866-488-7386) for people in the LGBTQ community, who need someone to talk to. You Can Play is an organization that promotes acceptance for the LGBTQ community in hockey, and has spread to all sports, emphasizing the message that you should be judged on your capabilities as an athlete and not your sexual orientation.
I’m very lucky to work at an organization that has not once judged me for my sexual orientation. Prudential Center and the New Jersey Devils all-inclusive environment has allowed me to stay true to who I am. This coming February the New Jersey Devils will host our second annual Pride Night, where we will be celebrating and honoring the LGBTQ community of New Jersey and beyond. For me, it’s incredibly special to be a part of a professional sports organization that is truly committed to standing up and supporting this underserved community.
#sSameHere and the most impactful message I can share is that over time, things really do improve. For anyone who is struggling, stay strong and stay committed to your true self. It will get better.”