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Openly gay national volleyball player aims to be role model for young athletes

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For Chris Voth, coming out wasn't about him. It was an opportunity to help others, particularly young athletes.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

For Chris Voth, coming out wasn't about him. It was an opportunity to help others, particularly young athletes. Photo Store

It would be too easy to say Chris Voth always felt like there was something different about him.

But there was nothing easy about admitting to himself he is gay -- not when the 23-year-old spent many of his years trying to figure out what was making him so unhappy. Even when he was surrounded by the success he had worked so hard to achieve.

Chris trains full time with Canada's national men's volleyball team in Gatineau, Que. In 2013, he was a member of Canada's fifth-place Universiade team.

Before that, he was a captain of the University of Manitoba Bisons men's volleyball team, a four-time academic all-Canadian and the Canada West conference and Canadian Interuniversity Sport rookie of the year. In high school, he led in St. Paul's High School's two provincial volleyball championships, again as captain, and was a nationally ranked badminton player.

Voth had it all. Except the truth.

It was hovering there. Sometimes Voth felt it, but mostly he focused on just trying to fit in.

Do what other boys did. Think like other boys did. Act like other boys did.

The truth is, he was always like other boys. Just not the ones he first thought.

"It was tough," Chris says. "I've kind of been living that life for about five years. It was pretty much sport that kept me going, teammates and friends I had through sport. The first person I told was a teammate in second-year university and I got to the point where most of my close friends knew but no family members. You imagine the worst so it took a while before I was ready to jump off the cliff and take the plunge with family."

Last fall, Chris came out to his family in a letter to his parents. Then he was gone for four months of training in Gatineau. When he came home to spend Christmas with his parents, there were talks and tears.

"We certainly are supportive of Chris and we try not to be judgmental but it's still very new to the both of us," says Lloyd Voth, Chris's dad. "Where we're at with our son is we still love him the same, there's no difference in terms of how we treat him. However, it's still something we're not sure how we're going to handle in the future."

Chris is a trailblazer here in Manitoba as the first openly gay national-team athlete. Even now, in deciding to speak for this story, Chris knows it's going to surprise, maybe even shock, some people. But he's ready for that because he's not doing it for himself. Those closest to him already knew.

"My motivation here is, I know when other athletes have come out, there is a lot of negative reaction. If it is all negative but one person gets helped, then we're even. If one more person gets helped, then we're plus-one," says Chris. "I wish when I was growing up I had a role model for that. It was still kind of taboo. Now I see some athletes coming out and that's kind of inspired me. Maybe I can help the people that follow me be more comfortable."

He hopes to help change the landscape in Manitoba for people who are LGBT (lesbian gay bisexual transgender), especially athletes who fear not being accepted.

"It seems like a typical Chris Voth move that if it can benefit others, then he'd be willing to go extra lengths to help others," says Chris Komishon, a longtime friend and teammate in club volleyball and the U of M. "If it can raise awareness and help other people in similar situations, that's why Chris will be doing it."

-- -- --

It's been tough at home.

Chris Voth's parents, Lloyd and Val, are both teachers who are committed to their faith and brought up their children, Chris and his older sister Ashley who is a professional volleyball player in Switzerland, with Christian values. Lloyd and Val go regularly to church -- theirs does not recognize same-sex marriage -- and their son's news is not an easy fit.

"He was very forthcoming with the letter that he wrote us, but in terms of talking with us personally, I don't know if it's the fact that he's not comfortable with it or he feels we're not comfortable talking about it, but he hasn't talked about it a lot," Lloyd says.

Chris says that's because it's taken him a long time to get to this point.

"I was unsure of what was happening. Up until my Grade 12 year, I had girlfriends, but then there was a bit of transition period. In my second year of university, I was OK with 'this is who I am now' but didn't really tell anyone. It was a tough year for me and my volleyball struggled and I was super-unhappy and depressed. I knew I needed to make some changes."

Lloyd worries about how people will treat them and Chris after they find out. Will there be kindness? Will people be able to see past any prejudice or preconceived notions?

-- -- --

It's a tough road to travel in male sports, and Chris knows this. That macho, boys-will-be-boys stereotype may never be shed.

But as a 6-5 man with a deep voice and a deep kindness who has been a leader all his life, he has the tools to drive through those barriers.

And he's not alone in his journey.

Witness the strong stance taken by Brian Burke, currently the acting GM of the NHL's Calgary Flames, and his son Patrick, an NHL scout. When Brian's youngest son, Brendan, came out in 2009, there was Brian on TSN telling the world, "it doesn't change anything... " After Brendan was killed in a car crash in 2010, Patrick and Brian launched the You Can Play project to end homophobia in sports. The national media campaign features NHL stars stating, "If you can play, you can play." It's about skills and abilities, not who you date.

Last April, when 12-year NBA player Jason Collins came out in a Sports Illustrated cover story, he became the first openly gay active male athlete in a major North American sport. A landslide of support overshadowed closed-minded criticism.

-- -- --

Komishon says Chris made an immediate difference in attitudes in the locker-room after he told U of M players individually he is gay.

"We didn't treat him any differently at all," Komishon says. "If anything, the biggest thing was we tried to be more respectful of the language we used. In the past, the term 'gay' was used negatively so we were just more conscious of that."

For Chris, sport has been his safe environment.

"Volleyball is a team sport, it's very social so it's given me that acceptance that I was needing," he says. "It was because I was so comfortable with my friends I was able to do well and not feel pressure."

The first time Chris ventured into the LGBT community, it was through sport.

He attended the Goldenboy Volleyball League's drop-in night at Gordon Bell High School with a friend. It is part of Out There Sports in Winnipeg -- an LGBT organization founded in 2002 that runs competitive and recreational sports leagues and other activities. He dressed casual so he could blend in.

"The first thing that happened was a couple of people came over and said, 'Hi' and then, 'Hey, aren't you Chris Voth?' he says, laughing. "Most of them just thought I was there supporting my friend, which I was, but I was there for me, too."

While Chris was later comfortable enough to reveal he is gay, Out There Sports volunteer Thomas Novak says a comfortable atmosphere is what it is all about.

"The main social opportunity, before this, for LGBT people, was the bar. So this is a viable alternative to the bar but also a chance to get together in a safe atmosphere and have fun," says Novak, who has been involved since 2003. "Every one of our groups is open to non-LGBT people as long as they are comfortable with us. But no one asks."

It motivated Chris to run his own beach volleyball tournament called Pride Without Prejudice for the past two summers, with all proceeds going to Pride Winnipeg.

-- -- --

In high school, Chris reached out to one person -- St. Paul's guidance counsellor Jennifer Kolton. But he didn't tell her he was gay until years later when he returned to coach badminton.

"I just tried to give him some ongoing support. We discussed a lot of issues dealing with feelings of low self-worth he was having due to being gay and not being sure and that uncertainty of whether he would be accepted by his family and his peers," says Kolton, who spoke with Chris's and her school's blessings. "We were able to work around some of those things without him having to name that he was gay."

-- -- --

Lloyd worries.

Society is not only critical of LGBT people, but ugly and hurtful, with the jokes, slurs and comments. Changing those attitudes is a big challenge. But he has faith his son is up to it.

"Chris is very courageous. There's a quote that makes sense: 'Life grows and shrinks based on the proportion of one's courage.' Chris, being very courageous, I expect his life to expand."

ashley.prest@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 18, 2014 0

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