Leading by example

National men’s volleyball team member Chris Voth shares his experiences as an openly gay athlete

Anyone who knows, or has talked to Chris Voth personally, understands the calibre of person that he is.

Most would define him as a kind and confident leader, with numerous accolades to his name.

His accomplishments speak for themselves, and include two provincial high school volleyball championships as a captain of St. Paul’s, as well being named the Canadian Interuniversity Sport Rookie of the Year with the University of Manitoba Bisons in the 2008-09 season.

Starting in 2011, Voth played for Canada’s men’s national team, which he currently trains with full-time. While Voth was a standout athletically, and appeared to have everything in his life mapped out, there was a secret in his personal life.

Voth first came out in 2010, after his second year of university. He originally told a select few of his close friends on the team.

“It was a pretty scary road,” noted Voth. “I started coming out to more and more people throughout the years. I told my university teammates that I was best friends with. I started with friends that I was closest with, really, and then kind of went from there.”

Voth noted that at that time, his decision wasn’t talked about much. This mainly had to do with his teammates, who were unaware who else had been told, and, along with Voth, opted to keep things private. After a while, however, the whole team heard the news.

“Eventually everyone just knew and it didn’t bother me,” he said. “We were all pretty close, being teammates, so it was only a matter of time until everyone knew.”

A major step in confidence for Voth occurred when he attended the Goldenboy Volleyball League’s drop-in night. The league is a part of Out There Sports in Winnipeg – an LGBTTQ* organization founded in 2002. For Voth, it was his first time meeting other people from the LGBTTQ* community.

“Going to that drop-in really put things in fast-forward,” said Voth. “That was my first experience [meeting] other gay people, so that helped quite a bit, just knowing there were other possibilities out there to be happy, so that for sure propelled me forward.”

He attended the event with another gay friend, both for support, as well as to have someone else to share the experience with. For Voth, the drop-in was very important, as he was still in the process of gaining confidence with his sexual orientation.

“I was really nervous,” he said. “We went like an hour early. I couldn’t think of doing anything else, we were in anticipation so much and we were really scared.”

The fact that the event was in a sport setting helped. It gave Voth the chance to do what he loved, and just play volleyball. If worst came to worst, he knew he had the sport that he was passionate about to fall back on. But the drop-in went very well.

“They [the other players] actually didn’t know I was gay until we went out to a house party after that,” Voth told the Manitoban. “This really helped me. I had never seen gay people before that.  I mean, I had known one or two gay guys, but never in a social setting, and it really opened my eyes.”

The more people that Voth told after that, the better he felt. A huge burden was lifted.

“When I started coming out to people, I felt a weight off my shoulders. I was happier; my volleyball performance improved drastically, and I was finally free,” he said.

“I remember distinctly one of my teammates asking me, the first day back to practice after I had gone to the drop-in, what was happening because he said I was jumping higher, hitting harder, and it was like I took steroids or something. It was crazy.”

One of the hardest decisions for Voth was making the choice to tell his parents. They had raised Voth and his sister with Christian values, and same-sex marriage was not a topic they took positively to.

“One day I was coming home from the airport after travelling to UBC and my parents told me we had changed churches. I asked why. They said it was because ours started allowing same-sex marriage. I hadn’t come out to them yet, and felt like I was put deeper in the closet. I wanted to tell them, but felt like I couldn’t,” Voth said.

Eventually, Voth gave his parents the news. Of course there was the momentary shock factor, but that faded over time.

“Since coming out, my parents have accepted me with open arms. It couldn’t have gone better. I don’t really know what I was afraid of, but it was all put to rest. There’s a lot of negativity that comes with being in the closet. Most of it is all perceived, though, and isn’t entirely based on reality,” Voth added .

As the first openly gay national-team athlete, Voth is a groundbreaker, and also a potential role model for many who are struggling with coming out. The way Voth sees it, his decision has more to do with other people who are hesitant, as opposed to himself.

“For me at least, I feel like I could have used someone to look up to, and so really, it’s not about me. It’s about trying to help the other people. If they would feel more comfortable having a role model, then that’s amazing,” Voth said happily.

“I can’t even put into words how great it is to help other people, and just kind of be myself now and not feel the weight on my shoulders.”