Being a card carrying lesbian, I served my obligatory summer playing on a softball team, “Girls Like Us” (or as we liked to pronounce it, girls LIKE us!).
I had assumed that my position on the team would be head cheerleader but somehow at our first game, I was coerced into playing catcher. Unlike this week’s portrait, Bryan Ruby, I hung up my cleats after one season.
Ruby has been playing ball since the age of 6. He graduated from Vassar College in 2019 and plays third baseman and outfielder for the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes in Oregon. He is currently the only active professional baseball player to come out as gay. His love for the sport is only matched by his love for the community and country music. He is also the co-founder of the advocacy organization Proud to Be in Baseball.
Originally from Montgomery County, he recently returned to the area to attend an event at Friends Central School, returning to his high school after nearly 10 years on the road. He captured the event for a new documentary about his life, “Out in Nashville” and donated the first of Proud To Be In Baseball’s LGBTQ Sports Library Collections. As a musical artist, he won Season 7 of the talent-search competition Nashville Rising Song, and is preparing for the release of his debut EP in 2022.
How was the school event?
It was cool! I got to go back to my old high school and speak to a small group of students and then gave a speech for the entire school assembly, which was a real full circle moment for me. I’ve been around the world and back with baseball. I’ve played in 6 different countries and 19 states in the US, so to be able to come home and share my story was something special.
Where did you grow up?
Right near here! I-76, right off the Schuylkill, just up the hill from the Conshohocken exit. Then at the age of 18, I hit the road for baseball but right before I left I had an internship at 92.5, WXTU, Philly’s country station. I loved country music and I also learned something important there, that a lot of the country singers don’t write their own music, so I decided that in addition to baseball, I wanted to write country music. They’re both areas where we haven’t had a lot of LGBTQ representation, and I wanted to change that.
That’s great. So tell me a little about your beginnings.
I’m from a family of 5; I’m the oldest of three kids. My dad was a professional baseball pitcher in Australia, my mom was a Division 1 athlete in both lacrosse and field hockey, my sister was a national championship soccer player in college, and my brother is currently a Division 1 college baseball player. So there were certain expectations that I felt, especially as a male athlete. But my whole life I felt like I was different, I just didn’t know what it was.
What’s something that looking back was probably an early sign?
[Laughing] Oh, I don’t know. I was in denial for so long. I’m 26 now and I had a girlfriend until I was 21. I guess an early indicator would be that I probably enjoyed Justin Bieber videos a little bit more than my teammates!
That’s funny, and definitely a sign.
Yeah, it was hard. I thought there was something wrong with me. Especially hearing all the comments that you hear in school about queer people while knowing that I had this dream of being a professional baseball player which I thought couldn’t possibly happen if I was gay. I went through a dark period for a while. I spoke about that to the kids at the assembly. And there were no role models for me, I would have loved to have known about an active player who was out and proud.
Years later, I learned about Billy Bean and read his book, and it changed my life. He came out after he retired, but it helped me realize that I wasn’t alone. I literally wrote him a handwritten letter and mailed it to “Major League Baseball.” They somehow got it to him and he invited me to come and meet him. This was while I was in college and he was kind enough to give me some advice. His book was so important to me; it’s one of the reasons that after coming out, I wanted to create an LGBTQ sports library. I was at the school donating the first of Proud To Be In Baseball’s LGBTQ Sports Library Collections.
What are some of the books in the collection?
We have books from athletes like soccer star Abby Wambach, former NFL player Ryan O’Callaghan, Billie Jean King and of course, Billy Bean. There really haven’t been that many books written about LGBTQ athletes, it’s not nothing, but it isn’t a huge number, a few dozen rather than hundreds or thousands.
Do you know Esera Tuaolo? He’s an ex-football player who played for the Vikings and won a Super Bowl with the Falcons. He also sings and was on The Voice.
Yes, I know him, we have his book in the collection. He’s a great guy.
What are some of the things you enjoyed outside of baseball as a kid?
Oh my god, a lot. I played the piano, and I played a lot of sports, not just baseball. I played basketball, soccer, and street hockey. I’d go fishing with my grandpa, all that stereotypical macho stuff.
[Laughing] Street Hockey? And yet you still have all your teeth.
Outside of the immediate family, who is a favorite relative?
My uncle David. He’s gay and was open about it. Even though I wasn’t brave enough to live my authentic life at the time, I always admired him and his courage. He was a great role model… [Pauses] Sorry, I always get choked up when I talk about it. Just to see a queer person living out and proud. He has a partner, my Uncle Jamie, and they still inspire me.
And I read that it softened the blow when coming out to your dad because he already knew someone gay, his brother.
Yes, my dad’s a macho guy, but both my parents accepted me right off and I know that not everybody gets that kind of acceptance. And not just my parents, my friends, and my teammates as well. I’ve been very lucky and I want to use that to create a better word for others.
What is a best and worst sports moment?
They kind of happened at the same time. One time in college I was getting ready to bat and asked my teammate about the pitcher, he replied, “Oh, he’s a faggot, he sucks” implying that he was a weak player. I had already come out to my teammates, so I got really angry. I thought, what else do I have to do to live my life with… look, I love baseball, but it’s not the safest world for a queer person. I was furious and hit the ball with so much anger that it was a home run, my first one in college. I ran the bases and everything but I was so blinded with rage that I don’t remember it. It’s on my video page so I can see it, but I have no recollection of it.
It actually ended up being okay because 1: I hit a home run, which made me happy afterwards, it was a big moment, and 2: the teammate immediately apologized after the game, so the problem corrected itself. But the truly best moment was when my boyfriend Max got to come to a game. We’d been together for two and a half years, but he’d never been to a game. The day after I came out, he finally got to come to one of my games. Up to that point he had never, ever seen me play.
Yeah, I was so happy to have the guy that I loved in the stands cheering me on. I was wearing my rainbow shoelaces, I had rainbow tape on my bat, I was like, if I’m coming out, I’m doing it all the way! I lived a quarter century having to hide because I was afraid. Screw it, I’m living. Finally!
I think one thing that’s neat about you is that you are vocal about your struggle and about hiding it for so long. I think many people might relate better to that, than to the kid who comes out, flags flying, at 17.
Yes, I’d been out with friends and family, but as I approached the locker rooms for a game or practice, it felt like I’d have to go back in the closet each day. The day I came out was nuts, I got 6,000 notifications on my phone. It was overwhelming, and most of them were not the people who came out at age 12. I think those are incredible people, and they’re braver than me, but I think that a lot of people could relate to me, an athlete, a country music person, coming out. The rancher on a farm, the closeted athlete, the country guy, my story seems to have struck a chord with that segment of people.
Any letter that particularly moved you?
I got a letter from a high school player who will be going into college soon and found our Proud To Be In Baseball site. It helped him feel less alone. There’s a stat that says 16 million people play baseball in the US. Last season, I didn’t know any ball players like me and it fills me with pride to know that some kid in Conshohocken or Venezuela or Wyoming can now find someone with just a few clicks. We’ve got a lot of events this summer, we’re going to hit the road and do a lot of stuff. Pride Night events all over, and I’m doing a fundraiser with the Matthew Shepard foundation, things to actually help players on the field. I try to ask, what would have helped me most if I had seen it as a kid when I was struggling. What would I have been able to read or see to show me that I wasn’t alone? So we’ve started donating books, and I’m working on a documentary.
Unfortunately, you probably won’t be able to donate those books in Florida.
I know, and it pains me to think about our rights being rolled back and the things that my Uncle David and Uncle Jamie fought for now being taken away. Living in Tennessee it’s very concerning.
I hear you. So how did a boy from Philly get into country music?
Baseball! I played in a couple different tournaments down South, and it’s the music they play at the ballpark. I just got into it. I know that it doesn’t seem like a very welcoming place, but I love country music and I’m hoping my music and the songs I write can help change that. At first it was crazy, I’d write two versions, one on paper where the song was about “she” and “her” and then another version in my head where I’d switch pronouns and use you and him. Both professions were ones where people just assumed you were straight and I learned to pass. It would get awkward when the guys would want to go pick up girls after the game and I’d have to make excuses or say that I was seeing somebody.
It seems like a lot of the country stars are progressive, Garth Brook’s sister is gay, and he had a beautiful song, “We Shall Be Free” and of course Dolly has always been welcoming.
Yeah; I hope by writing authentically to also help move the needle some day.
How did you meet your partner?
I won a songwriting prize that allowed me to go to NY and work with a producer named Chris Connors. We met while I was in NY, but our first real date was here in Philly. A friend of mine gave me two tickets to a Cher concert here at the Wells Fargo Center. I couldn’t stop thinking about the cute guy I met, so I invited him. He came down and we’ve been together ever since. I love him so much, I couldn’t have done any of this without him. When I was halfway around the world, struggling playing baseball in another country, places where I felt isolated, having someone to call to say goodnight made all the difference.
Were you ever concerned when playing in a country that was anti-gay? We have this situation now with Britney Griner.
I’ve been lucky, traveling the world because of baseball. Before I wasn’t out yet but it was always in the back of my mind. Now, it’s more of a concern, but if I have the opportunity to go, I will. I think it’s even more important now for them to see a queer person that’s succeeding. When I step on the ball field it’s all business and being gay has nothing to do with hitting a 93mph fastball. I’m proud of the fact that last year was my best season ever because I was living my truth. There was a huge weight off my chest and it became a mission to show that we can play too.
Nice, well let’s do some rapid fire questions. Do you cook and if so, what’s your best dish?
I’m not the best cook, but I love to barbecue. My dad is a co-owner of Baby Blues BBQ at 34th & Sansom.
Yum! What entertainer is your celebrity crush?
Oh God! Okay, it would have to be Shawn Mendes.
Ever been skinny dipping?
No. I wish!
You need to fix that! What’s the first thing people notice about you?
Probably the hair!
Something that intrigues you but also scares you?
Phillies, Birds, Sixers or Flyers?
All of the above!
Favorite piece of clothing?
I love jewelry so both are in that vein. First, my Guncle David gave me a rainbow necklace that he wore during the AIDS March on Washington in the 80’s. It may not be worth much, but it means a lot to me. The second necklace that means a lot to me is a jade heart-shaped one that I got in Guatemala. My boyfriend Max and I have matching ones and keep them on 24/7. I have to say, I’ve done so many interviews since coming out and nobody has asked me questions like these. It’s kind of awesome.
Thank you; let’s wrap up with a favorite quote or motto that you’ve heard or used?
“You can’t be what you can’t see.” from Marian Wright Edelman, Spelman College in 1959. I want to raise visibility for openly gay athletes like myself, not only so we can be our full and authentic selves but so that we can be examples for those coming after us.