Charlotte-born MLS player on coming out, changing the culture of pro sports

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Courtesy of Matt Pacifici

Matt Pacifici has played soccer practically his entire life and, like a lot of kids, going pro has always been his dream. He grew up in Charlotte and played soccer at Charlotte Catholic High School for all four years. [We were classmates together in the class of 2011.]

After high school, he played at Wake Forest for a year, then transferred to Davidson College, where he was a starting goalie. For most of his soccer career, he knew he was gay — but the timing never felt quite right to come out.

“Both Wake and Davidson are your classic Southern, conservative schools. Both are pretty small and campuses on which if a story gets out, everyone has heard it in the next 30 seconds — not unlike Charlotte Catholic,” he said.

“I thought it was much more simple to lead the life I was living rather than go through this whole change and not know how people would react. It was about being comfortable in the moment.”

So, he made a pact with himself to come out after college. But then things got complicated when his dreams of going pro began to come true.

After stellar seasons his junior and senior years at Davidson and making All-American, suddenly playing professional soccer was a real possibility. In 2015, he graduated from Davidson and started playing goalkeeper for the Columbus Crew, a Major League Soccer team in Columbus, Ohio.

“Playing professional soccer has always been my dream, since I was 4 years old,” Pacifici said. “I thought, I’m not gonna come out now. I don’t know what that environment is like. I don’t know if there are homophobic people in the sports world.”

In his experience, the culture of college sports was never outwardly hostile to gay athletes, but coming out felt like rocking the boat.

At the time, MLS star Robbie Rogers was the only active and openly gay professional athlete in men’s professional sports in the U.S.

According to Outsports, a LGBTQ+ subset of SB Nation, the popular sports arm of Vox Media, as of Rogers’ retirement in 2017, there were zero out gay male athletes in the five largest North American professional sports leagues – NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL and MLS. National survey results typically show between 5-10 percent of the population identify as LGBTQ+, so to Pacifici something didn’t line up.  

“Having had hundreds of teammates over the years, I would be shocked to know not a handful of them are gay,” said Pacifici. “You take the 300-500 of my teammates over the past few years, I promise you I’m not the only one who is gay, I’m just the only one who is out.”

But while Rogers was a role model in many ways, he was also a star. Pacifici was just starting out.

“I was never going to be the superstar that no care cares about anything else because he’s so good. Knowing that my role on the team was replaceable, I didn’t want to do anything to bring undue attention to myself,” he said. “It’s like, if there’s candidate A and candidate B and they’re the exact same, but you know candidate B is gay, maybe they’ll think, let’s go with A, so we don’t have to deal with the ‘other stuff’.

His perspective changed after a suffering an injury in 2017 that put him into early retirement, at just 24 years old. After a concussion, he developed postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), a condition that affects blood circulation and typically develops after an illness rather than an injury.

“In non-scientific terms, when you go from a sitting or lying position to a standing position your heart rate jumps more than it should,” he said. “As a goalkeeper, especially, when you’re diving, it’s one of the worst things you could possibly have.”

So at 24 and in the middle of a worker’s compensation process with the team and therefore unable to work, Pacifici was alone with his thoughts.

“It forced me to be honest and think, for the first time really think, about the type of person I wanted to be with, the type of life I wanted to live and what made me happy.”

He came out to his mom first, after an emotional conversation while out at lunch in Blakeney in South Charlotte. He told his dad next, then his closest friends.

“Everyone was just very surprised because — we can get into stereotypes about the gay world and gay community — but I guess I don’t necessarily check off a lot of those boxes. I had dated girls during high school, and in college I actually had a girlfriend I dated for about two years,” he said.

Courtesy of Matt Pacifici

“For me, sexuality is relatively fluid and I don’t think your sexuality negates or takes away anything from a relationship you had in the past. There’s so much to a relationship — the way you guys are, the way you met, how it ends. I don’t look back on that now as a ‘fake’ relationship.”

A few months after coming out to his friends and family, he met his boyfriend, Dirk.

Coming out privately was hard enough, but through his career, Pacifici has established a large social media following and he knew coming out publicly would reach a lot of people, especially other athletes.

It wasn’t just living openly that was important to Pacifici; being visible for other gay and questioning athletes and showing the normal, everyday side of gay relationships was hugely important to him.

“A lot of people will come out and have like a rainbow flag draped over their shoulders or something that,” he said. “But for me, my biggest thing is just how much I want to help normalize gay relationships.”

On January 20 of this year, Pacifici and his boyfriend, Dirk, put up photos on Instagram at the same time. Pacifici’s, a faded photo of the two holding hands and smiling sweetly with the caption “What do you mean ‘I didn’t tell you’?” and Dirk’s a photo of the two in New York with the caption “They say it’s great city to be single in… I guess I wouldn’t know.”

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What do you mean “I didn’t tell you?”

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“We both took the more subtle approach of, instead of ‘Hey look at me, I’m coming out,’ it’s ‘I’m in this relationship with another guy and it’s pretty normal.’ ”

“After we posted the photos, we turned our phones off, had a few drinks, and went to Central Park and got dinner. We didn’t know what type of reaction we’d get, so we said ‘F it’ and hung out with each other and made the day about us.”

The reaction they did get has been overwhelmingly positive — and farther-reaching than either expected.

After coming out on Instagram, he had people from all over the world, including close friends, message him to share similar stories about their relationships.

“It’s given a lot of validation to what we did,” he said. Pacifici now works closely with Outsports and AthleteAlly, two organizations dedicated to erasing homophobia in athletic communities.

“The culture is changing and there’s a lot more visibility for gay relationships than there used to be, but a lot of people seem to be of the mindset that if you’re an athlete you’re straight, which is just silly,” he said.

“My teammates, my friends, they didn’t respect me because I was straight. They respected me because I’m a good player and a good friend.”

The culture shift is happening even back at home in Charlotte. After Pacifici came out, he spoke with his former coach at Charlotte Catholic, Oscar Del Pino who wanted get his take on the culture of the high school teams he played on and helped coach after college.

“Matt’s situation got me thinking about all of my players, all my time spent coaching what had to be thousands of kids,” said Oscar Del Pino, the head men’s soccer coach at Charlotte Catholic. “The single biggest takeaway for me is that there are kids right now who are struggling [with coming out] as LGBT in their teens — already a really hard period for anyone. And athletics really helps these kids navigate the waters of that formative time. That’s gotta be very hard for kids who don’t have role models to look up to.”

“Young men and women can look up to Matt and know that he didn’t let being ‘different’ be a reason he couldn’t succeed,” Del Pino said.

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