For GQ's Give It Up series, Kerron Clement talks about celebrating his first Pride—and the hurdles, both physical and mental, he cleared to get there.
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When Kerron Clement stood a top the podium at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, he was hiding a part of his story from the world. The gold medalist in the 400 meter hurdles and three-time Olympian was at the top of his sport, and the part of himself he’d kept hidden had been one of the motivating factors that pushed him toward success. Throughout his career, Clement felt he had to be the best on the track to prove something to the world—or maybe just to himself—about what gay athletes are capable of. But nobody else knew that at the time, and eventually he realized that while winning was great, freedom was essential.
A little over three years later, on National Coming Out Day in 2019, Clement did just that, though that’s not what he’d call it. “I like to say ‘telling my story’ instead of ‘coming out,’ ” he says in a phone call from his home in Los Angeles, where he is training for the postponed Olympic Games in Tokyo. He told his story at a Nike event at Los Angeles City College debuting a new rainbow-colored track, speaking publicly about being gay for the first time.
Clement was born in Trinidad. It was there that he fell in love with running, which has always felt like “an escape” for him. He knew he was gay at age 11, and it terrified him. When he was 13, his family moved to La Porte, Texas, a coastal city of approximately 35,000 people. The origin story is almost comically direct: Clement came across a hurdle in the middle of a field and a kid challenged him to jump it. So he did, with perfect form, and Michael Moseley, the track coach at La Porte High School, recruited him. Things went skyward from there: He attended college at the University of Florida, where he broke the world record for the 400 meter indoor sprint.
After Three Olympic Medals Sprinter Kerron Clement Does His First Pride
He’d go on to become a four-time world champion and three- (going on four-) time Olympian, winning a gold medal as part of the 4x400 meter team and bringing home the silver in the 400 meter hurdles at the 2008 Games in Beijing, and winning that gold medal in the 400 meter hurdles in Rio in 2016. He also held the world record for the 400 meter indoor sprint, which he set at the 2005 NCAA indoor championship (and which stood until 2018). But hiding his sexuality took a toll, even if it may have contributed to some of his success on the track.
“When I was in college, I was so paranoid going to a track meet. I would look up in the stands and assume that someone knew my sexuality,” he says. “At one point, I was so afraid to utter the words ‘gay’ or say ‘I’m gay.’ ” He credits his best friend with helping him accept himself: She would comfort him by telling him to “go out on the track and kick their ass.” “And that’s what I did,” he says. “That's why I broke the world record. I was angry. I had something to prove.”
Finally sharing his full story has felt like lifting “the weight of the world” from his shoulders. Clement says he’s “free now.” “I don’t have to look around and be like, ‘Oh, my God, this person knows my secret.’ ”
“Kerron's visibility is vitally important because it helps encourage the world of sports to continue moving the needle toward greater acceptance,” says Nick Morrow, interim communications director for the Human Rights Campaign. “And it shows other LGBTQ athletes what is possible. Kerron's bravery and openness will encourage others to follow in his footsteps, and work toward a more equal playing field for all.”
Clement is inspired by the work the Human Rights Campaign is doing to achieve equality for LGBTQ+ folks under the law, at work, in schools, and in our communities. They are currently focused on getting “pro-equality candidates elected up and down the ballot, including at the state and local level, but also in congressional races,” says Morrow. They have also made the federal Equality Act, which would extend nondiscrimination protections to LGBTQ people in their daily lives, their key legislative priority.
“Their mission statement is what I seek and live by,” Clement says. “[For people] to live their life regardless of their sexuality, because there are so many unhappy people out there by simply not living their own lives and trying to appease others.”
This is Clement’s first Pride Month as a publicly gay athlete. The current political climate has brought the protests and movement for Black lives together with Pride celebrations, and Black queer voices have been centered and uplifted in ways they haven’t always been in the past. For Clement, those identities are just who he is on a daily basis. “All those go together: being an athlete, being gay, being Black in this country,” he says.
And more than just telling his story, he’s speaking up. “Black people have been oppressed for over 400 years in this country, and I think people are tired of it,” Clement says. “The movement happening right now is amazing.” A few weeks ago, he joined protesters in the streets of L.A., an experience he found incredibly powerful. “I was marching and people were honking horns and had fists [raised] saying, ‘Black lives matter.’ I got chills, like: ‘Wow, I am part of this movement.’ Hopefully, we don’t have to do this anymore and hopefully change will come.”
His outspokenness as a gay man and a Black athlete—and his newer identity as a proud protester—comes as athletes are pushing for the International Olympic Committee to abolish Rule 50, which bans protest at the Olympic Games. Clement hopes to add to his medal count in his fourth Olympics in 2021—and he agrees with the push to abolish the rule.
“In the current climate, professional athletes should use their platform as an opportunity to advocate for social justice and bring about change,” he says. “I always remember this quote by Rosa Parks: ‘You must never be fearful about what you are doing when it is right.’ It is very fitting in this moment.”