Rugby star Devin Ibañez made waves right as 2020 was ending when he not only came out publicly but introduced the world to his handsome boyfriend Fergus.
In doing so he joins several other athletes who did something similar last year. Others include retired alpine skier Hig Roberts and decorated Olympian Danell Leyva.
The decision to come out was not an easy one for Devin as it weighed heavy on his mind for several years. It was that much more difficult for him as he and Fergus were together during his time in the closet (from a public POV) where he had to go through personal hell in order to keep his sexuality and their relationship a secret.
Now that closet door is busted wide open and Devin’s future looks brighter than ever. He spoke with us about everything from his very relatable coming out story to the love he has for his man and what’s next for him in his professional career.
Why did you decide to publicly come out when you did?
I actually planned on coming out several times over the past few years. I first realized it was important for me to be an openly gay athlete when I suffered a life-threatening injury playing in 2016. The close call made me reflect on what was important for me to accomplish in my career. It was at this time that I realized how meaningful it would be to me to come forward and potentially inspire others with my story.
However, it was just a seed that had been planted, and I never made any concrete plans. It wasn’t until Fergus and I started dating in December of 2017 that I began to make actual plans to come out. However, as time went on I made every excuse I could think of to not follow through with it. I wanted it to be the perfect time, but it just became abundantly clear that there is no right time. There will always be a way you can justify not going through with it.
I felt this mounting need to follow through on what I had set out to do, not only for myself, but for Fergus. This past year has been particularly difficult for everyone around the world, and Fergus and I were no exception. I am based in Boston and he is based in London, so the pandemic presented several new challenges for us. We could no longer plan when we would be able to see each other and struggled immensely with the distance and uncertainty. At times it felt hopeless and as though things were completely beyond our control.
As Fergus and I were already struggling, my family puppy Ruby passed away unexpectedly. She was my best friend and the loss hit me extremely hard. I fell into a depression and began to struggle with basic tasks and productivity. I realized that I had to make changes to pull myself out of it, so I sat down and wrote out a list of goals. One of them was to finally make a public coming out post.
The New Year approached and I still had not made progress towards my goal, I decided enough was enough. Fergus had an upcoming birthday on January 3rd and I wanted to be able to celebrate him publicly. The idea of not being able to do that freely was unbearable. I had a lunch break one day at work and decided “If not now, then when?” I began writing and decided to put it out there, turn off my notifications, and see what happens.
Were there people in your life, outside of your boyfriend, who knew about your sexuality?
Yes, absolutely there were. I actually came out to my parents when I was 12 years old. So throughout my life I always found people that I would confide in. But despite how comfortable I felt in my home life, I did not feel that same comfort in the rugby world. It was like there was a distinct need for me to keep my athletic career and my sexuality separate. I always had a reason or an excuse as to why it would be a distraction and unnecessary to divulge.
As the years went by, I slowly told more and more of my teammates. I began to hide it less by answering questions posed to me bluntly and truthfully. But the teammates I told were relatively few and far between. Outside of rugby I would say that most of my friends knew, but still not all of them. I often found the topic of my sexuality awkward to bring up, and it made me uncomfortable trying to force the conversation. So I often just steered away from that discomfort over the years.
How did your boyfriend feel about this? You’ve been together for many years so was that an issue for him with you not being completely out to the world?
It was extremely difficult for both of us. Fergus has been open about his sexuality for several years and never felt a need to hide our relationship. So it was one thing for me not to be completely open in my own life, but it was another thing when I began affecting how open he was. I asked him to make his Instagram private so that he could post photos of us together without my rugby teammates being able to see it.
There were times that he felt I may be ashamed of him and our relationship. The idea that I was making him feel that way was heartbreaking, because I felt completely the opposite. I was so happy to be with him and loved him so much. Although he encouraged me to go at my own pace and did his best not to let me notice how it impacted him, I knew that it was taking a toll on us both. It got to the point where I knew I had to push myself to follow through on coming out publicly. Because our happiness and relationship was so much more important than any of the hesitations I may have had about coming out to everyone.
He has been unbelievably happy for me and supportive since I came out publicly. It feels like we can finally celebrate each other in the way we want to. This year I was able to wish him a happy birthday for the first time publicly. It is easy to undermine the importance of those little things, but why should I ever have to second-guess celebrating the person I love?
Furthermore how did your teammates react to you coming out?
My teammates have been incredibly supportive since I made my post. It was amazing to see how eager they have been to support me. I had hoped for a positive response, but I never could have anticipated this level of support from them. Several teammates who do not identify as LGBTQ+ have told me what I did is important and they wish more people would come forward in our sport.
It makes me excited to get back to playing and building even stronger relationships with my teammates moving forward. Rugby is a sport where the chemistry and connection is paramount. I feel that throughout my career I have prevented myself from developing the best relationships possible with my teammates by not being more open.
There are so many athletes from different sports coming out as LGBTQ in recent months. What advice would you give to those who are still in the closet but want to be their authentic selves to everybody and anybody?
The best advice I can give is to take your time and move at whatever pace you are comfortable with. Everyone has their own unique circumstances to overcome; there is no easy solution that will apply to everybody. Take your time to become confident and comfortable in yourself. There is no age or time that you have to reach that point by, so don’t put any undue pressure on yourself. There is no right or wrong time for you to come out.
Use that time to find close friends or family who you can build trust with and eventually confide in. Having a strong network of support can make a huge difference as you start to find that inner confidence. Make sure that you have that group of people that you know you can rely on no matter what. This way if you do decide to come out, you will know that those people who matter most will have your back.
But once you are ready, just know that there is a whole community waiting to embrace, support, and thank you for coming forward. When I was still in the closet within the rugby community, it was easier to focus on the possible backlash than it was to see the potential positivity and love. Give yourself time to feel the potential joy and relief of finding support from a community you didn’t anticipate it from.
And lastly, don’t be afraid to seek advice from athletes who have gone through something similar! If any athletes are struggling with their coming out journey, my Insta DMs are always open @thatgayrugger and I would be happy to listen and offer any advice that I can.
Part of the reason I chose the name @thatgayrugger for my Instagram was because one of my greatest fears before coming out was that would be all I was known for. That my sexuality would eclipse all rugby achievements and make me a token. Don’t make the same mistake I did and allow your life to be ruled by fear of negative backlash. Do what is best for you and your own happiness.
What’s next for you now that this weight has been lifted off your shoulders?
My goal is to reach as many people as possible who may be impacted by my story and try to inspire them to be themselves openly without fear of backlash. I want to travel the world and be as visible as possible in hopes that it will be much easier and less daunting for the next openly gay athlete to come forward in rugby. I also hope to pursue coaching across the globe and being an advocate for LGBTQI+ inclusivity in sport. Another goal I have set is organizing a local touch rugby tournament and donating the proceeds to a LGBTQ+ charity.
The most important thing to me beyond being visible and advocating for LGBTQ+ inclusivity in sport, is moving closer to my partner, Fergus. It has been so difficult being apart during the pandemic and for the last couple of years. I want to spend time with him while also speaking with local teams and athletes while I am in the U.K.
Rugby-wise my goal is to continue playing at the highest level possible for as long as I can, whether that means signing with Major League Rugby again or finding a team closer to my partner in the U.K. Another personal goal is to become the first openly gay captain of Team USA for the 2022 World Maccabiah Games in Israel. That would be a tremendous honor and an accomplishment I would take immense pride in.