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This article was published 15/8/2016 (1655 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Being openly gay has cost Chris Voth a job, but the 25-year-old professional volleyball player from Winnipeg said it’s a bump in the road, and he is more determined than ever to stay the course on the next part of his journey.
Voth came out in 2014 in the pages of the Free Press with the goals of inspiring others to be who they are and joining the fight to break down barriers in sport faced by athletes who are gay.
A member of Canada’s national B volleyball team and a former University of Manitoba Bisons player, Voth came home to Winnipeg this summer from the Netherlands after having the most successful season of his professional career. He won three volleyball championships as a left side for Abiant Lycurgus Volleyball Groningen, winning the league championship, the Dutch Cup and the Super Cup (winner of Dutch cup and the league champion from the previous year).
Recently, Voth and his agent, former Bisons player Steve Welch, were negotiating a lucrative new contract for the 2016-17 season after speaking with a number of clubs.
Then suddenly, the offer was pulled.
"I had a great offer lined up, I was pretty excited, and I had good references for this club," Voth said. He decided not to publicly state the country to keep the focus on the issue of barriers faced by athletes who have come out as gay. "My agent told me the team said they didn’t want to take you because they were nervous about other teams’ fans being hostile toward you because of being gay. I was just, ‘Oh.’"
Welch said losing the contract hurt because it would have been a great fit for Voth, and the deal was essentially done.
"But the team called and specifically said it was because of his sexual orientation why they were backing out. They said it was for his own protection because other people in their country were not as open-minded as they were," Welch said from Ottawa.
"As an agent, getting rejected is part of the business. It is not uncommon to present a player to 20 or 30 teams before finding one that accepts. But with Chris, it has been a little strange. Teams seem to be really interested one minute, and the next minute I can’t get them to return my calls. Teams do research on players, and Chris is very up front about his sexual orientation. I am sure that some of these teams have decided not to take him because of his sexual orientation but just don’t want to come out and say it."
Voth said he was surprised and hurt by the nature of the contract rejection.
"It did hurt because I was being open and trying to be a leader within Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada and even perhaps the world. I was trying to set an example that it is possible (to be successful as an openly gay professional athlete), you can do it. So for it to kind of do the opposite, instead of making me a leader, it prohibited me from getting a job, it’s a tough situation," he said, noting he’s looking to play at the next level from where he had been the past two seasons.
"My team in the Netherlands was amazing, they were very supportive and I loved it there, so I didn’t really think it (being openly gay) would be an issue. I had some offers in countries that I knew I couldn’t go to (where homosexuality is illegal or punishable by death) like in Iran, Egypt and eastern countries like that, so I don’t really want to do that," he said with a laugh.
Voth said having the offer retracted gave him pause, but he has no regrets.
"Then I of course wondered what if I just didn’t come out, then I could go to these countries and make more money and be safe because now it kind of is limiting as opposed to what I was hoping for that it would help me and set me apart a bit," Voth said.
"I still would have come out, because I think that’s the right thing. With the article I did before, I got so many messages from people about how I helped them and inspired them, and that was really rewarding to be able to help even one person. That makes it worth it."
Barriers and equal treatment for openly gay athletes have been issues at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. Television commentators did not acknowledge men’s synchro diving bronze medallist British diver Tom Daley’s fiancé, Dustin Lance Black, an American Oscar-winning screenwriter, even though the partners and spouses of other straight athletes have been identified. Another commentator referred to the wife of Brazilian beach volleyball player Larissa França as "her husband."
Wanda Guenette, a member of Canada’s women’s 1996 Olympic volleyball team and former professional player who is gay, said she was disappointed to hear about Voth’s contract offer being pulled.
"I can’t believe the archaic mentality," Guenette said. "I’m pretty sure I lost my last (professional) contract because of it. I’m almost certain it’s because the first year, I was single and the second year, I brought my partner out, and from then on, that was it."
Guenette, now the coach of Manitoba’s 2017 Canada Games beach volleyball team, said Voth’s experience happened at a time there are more openly gay athletes in the Olympics than ever. She was referring to the recent CNN report that there are a record number of openly LGBTTQ* athletes at the 2016 Olympics, at least 41, while outsports.com reported 49.
"We went from 23 in London to 40-some in Rio. There was a marriage proposal (in women’s rugby), so more people see it and get comfortable with it and start losing their fear. Fear of what, I have no idea," Guenette said. "It’s not like we’re a disease or something. It’s that kind of fear, and it doesn’t even make sense."
When Voth came out in 2014, it was just before Jason Collins signed a contract with the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets as the first openly gay active player in the four major U.S. sports leagues and just before Michael Sam was a 2014 NFL draft pick.
"It was kind of big news that some athletes were coming out, and there was kind of no followup. I think everyone just assumed they came out and found teams and everything looked to be pretty good," Voth said.
Collins, near the end of his career anyway, retired shortly after. Sam, at first citing mental-illness challenges, disappeared from football and left the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes after one game in 2015.
Voth now has offers from several other professional teams and could have a contract soon.
"The truth is, before this happened, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my career, if I wanted to really go for it or maybe travel for a while, but this really sparked my determination," Voth said.
"It’s like, ‘You know what? I’m going to do this anyway.’ It focused me even more and made me even more determined. Not to spite them but just to prove that you can do it. It is possible."