KALAMAZOO, Mich. — A Kalamazoo native is making headlines for being the only Black male professional tennis player to publicly come out as gay during his career.
Professional tennis player Lendale Johnson is urging top male athletes to help foster an environment where gay men can feel comfortable coming out publicly.
"It is a big responsibility, but why not? Someone has to pave the way, and I am ready to do it," said professional tennis player Lendale Johnson.
Lendale Johnson has been playing tennis since he was five years old, growing up in Kalamazoo's Northside neighborhood.
His mom, Roberta McCurtis, said she knew he had a gift for it.
"I couldn't afford to take him to tennis, so he wanted to do tennis. I bought him a tennis racket and a ball, and when he got out of school, I would walk him to LaCrone Park every day. He started hitting off the fence there. That's where it all started," said Lendale's mother, Roberta McCurtis.
Johnson continued to play tennis growing up and eventually joined the International Tennis Federation's pro circuit tour back in 2013.
While his family and friends knew he was gay, it wasn't something he openly talked about to other players, fans and press.
"There is a lot of issues. There is a lot of toxic masculinity in sports. All of that masculinity has just really been enthralled into American culture and into our social and cultural situations and ideologies. I feel like it’s really not right," said Johnson.
Last year when the Black Lives Matter movement ignited, he felt it was the perfect time to come out to everyone. He made history as the first openly gay Black male in professional tennis to come out.
The only male player in professional tennis to come out publicly before Johnson was Brian Vahaly, who spoke about his sexuality for the first time in 2017, a decade after retiring from the game.
Johnson said not everyone supported him, including fellow players.
"I can be feminine and girly if I want. I can wear a ponytail. I can paint my nails. When I go on the tennis court, that is not going to stop me from performing. People shouldn’t judge me for that either but that is just how the world is," said Johnson.
Johnson said he wants to inspire and encourage others who identify as LGBTQ+ to be their true selves as well but, of course, on their own timelines.
"I obviously encourage it because of the mentality. Once you come out as a player or a person that you identify as, it is going to be a huge weight off your shoulders," said Johnson.
More about Johnson's life and career will be featured in an Amazon Prime reality show called Deuces and Love, which is scheduled to be released later this summer.