Now Reading
America’s first black, gay male pro tennis player on growing up as a gay person of color

America’s first black, gay male pro tennis player on growing up as a gay person of color

  • Lendale Johnson is the only openly gay, black male professional tennis player in the International Tennis Federation Pro Circuit.
Lendale Johnson.

The idea that your skin color, let alone your sexuality, may have a grave impact on your life is something no young boy would understand – myself included.

The earliest time I can recall that I experienced racism and homophobia would be around grade school.

I remember playing Double Dutch with a bunch of pretty girls one day during recess at my elementary school Spring Valley. I was the only boy playing with them.

Indeed, I would get picked on and get into fights with the other boys at school and so I played with the girls. They were nice to me and I really wanted to learn how to Double Dutch.

It’s a jump rope game that requires twirling two ropes at the same time. It fascinated me. But a grown-up that was supervising the playground told me that it was a girls’ game and boys couldn’t play.

Of course, I was upset and played anyway after they walked away.

Moreover, I came to realize they targeted me because of their own sexist, homophobic beliefs.

‘Easy bake ovens are not for boys’

Funnily enough, a similar situation happened around Christmas. My parents let me open up one of my presents early before Christmas Day.

I opened up the big box and it was exactly what I had wished for – an easy bake oven.

Unfortunately when my mom found out, she told me it was not for boys and returned it to the store.

Again, I was so upset, I had a temper tantrum with my dad at the toy store. And so he brought it for me again and told me to hide it under my bed away from my mom.

I can laugh at the situation now, of course, knowing my family was very religious, especially my mother.

When I came out to her towards high school graduation, I recall she was in the middle of doing my hair and a thought came across me to tell her I was gay. 

She slapped me and said: ‘You will not claim that living under my household.’

And so I left. I ran away actually. I ran to my godmother’s house, which was conveniently in the same neighborhood.

Years later my boyfriend helped my mom do her hair for my cousin’s wedding in Michigan and the three of us wore matching outfits to the wedding. 

I was gonna have to work twice as hard

Tennis pro Lendale Johnson.
Tennis pro Lendale Johnson. Supplied

Being black and gay, for me, meant dealing with a lot of dynamic adversities at a young age.

For example, my orchestra teacher gave me a financial aid form for my parents to sign without asking if we needed it or not. My assumption is that she saw I was a poor little black boy whose parents didn’t have enough money to pay for my violin.

It was true, my parents had divorced and a lot of the bills had fallen upon my mother. Whether or not it was true, it was absolutely a racist action. In the end, I used the school’s violin until I had my own.

But all this taught me that being black gay man meant that I was gonna have to work twice as hard to get where I wanted to.

Therefore I overcame the problems by educating myself and creating opportunities when there were none.

My mother knew this – and bless her for instilling that into me. That’s why she was so hard on me growing up. My dad did the same. It was tough love.

You had to be in A&F and Doc Martens to fit in

My first job as a teenager was ‘corn detasseling’. I spent most summers working in corn fields on hot summer days to make money for the things I wanted.

My mom transferred me to a predominately white school district so I could have the best education.

However to be ‘cool’ at the time meant wearing expensive designer clothes. You had to be in Abercrombie & Fitch head to toe with Doctor Martens shoes.

First of all, A&F is a white brand for white people. There was no representation of what to wear if you were black – so the only option was A&F.

I would either save up to buy the clothes or beg my parents to buy the clothes for me. Indeed, I was so naïve that I thought the clothes would help me fit in.

But, of course, I was mistaken. I soon realized it didn’t help and so I just did my own thing.

Do you and keep it movin’

Therefore, my advice to other black gay LGBT= people is to embrace who you are. After all, if other people don’t like it then they don’t deserve your presence.

And don’t waste a second worried about what they think about you. Do you and keep it movin’.

If you come from a religious family, be mindful about who you associate with in and outside of your family. Create a group of people you can trust with your deepest truths.

It’s your life and your business so you can take as long as you need to to open up to whoever you feel comfortable with. I am grateful I grew up with a lot of people that loved me, many LGBT+ people cannot say the same.

About Lendale Johnson and getting help

If you are struggling with any of the issues raised by this article or need other support, help is out there. You can find a list of LGBT+ resources and helplines all around the world here. Please note, some of the helplines may have different operating hours during the pandemic.

Lendale Johnson is America’s first black, gay, male profesional tennis player. He is on the International Tennis Federation Pro Circuit.