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Former Olympic Gymnast Danell Johan Leyva On Why He Chose Now To Come Out

By Lisa Costantini | Oct. 30, 2020, 1:27 p.m. (ET)

Danell Leyva competes at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 on Aug. 16, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 

 

Danell Leyva doesn’t understand why someone has to come “out.” But he still did it. 

On National Coming Out Day, the two-time Olympic gymnast posted on Twitter, “For a long time I’ve known that I wasn’t straight.” He went on to admit that he came to the realization earlier this year, but he’s “always rejected that side of me.”

National Pride Month was the first time he thought about making his post public, but “there were a lot more pressing matters happening in the world in June,” he said. So when a friend reminded him about the annual LGBTQ awareness day in October, she encouraged him to post. “She told me, if you don’t do it now, then when?”

And while most of the reactions have been overwhelmingly positive, he said it was his first gymnastics coach, Chris Brand, who said something that stood out to him. 

“He texted me saying he almost sees coming out as irrelevant as a person saying whether they are right- or left-handed,” said Leyva. “He said I understand that sometimes we need to label things, but individuals shouldn’t be restricted to labels, and I agree. One hundred percent.”

Despite that, the 29-year-old tweeted that he mostly identifies as bisexual or pansexual, but said he “is still trying to figure that one out.”

Born in Cuba and growing up in a Hispanic home, Leyva said there were always certain words and stereotypes that were thrown around. 

He said I understand that sometimes we need to label things, but individuals shouldn’t be restricted to labels, and I agree. One hundred percent.

Before he came out publicly, a candid conversation with two of his younger cousins made him at ease enough to speak his truth. It was the first time he was comfortable saying out loud that he isn’t straight.

In talking with them he said, “I was giving examples about how there’s still a lot of jokes, and comments that we say — especially as men — and it’s like, ‘Oh, but it’s a joke.’ And I’m sure the intention behind it isn’t necessarily hurtful, but the problem is that once there is somebody who identifies as whatever-the-butt-of-the-joke-is, it becomes uncomfortable for that person to come out to people they considered to be their friends.”

It is why he has only dropped hints around his mother, never saying it outright; and why he still hasn’t told a lot of his family. 

“A lot of them don’t use social media, so I don’t even think that all of them know,” the three-time medalist said.

Regardless of what his mom might say, he is thankful she is someone who will actually sit and listen. He added that she was also the only person who was there for his aunt when she came out almost 50 years ago. “I can only imagine how much more difficult it was for her back then,” Leyva guessed.  

He is currently living back in Miami with his family after leaving Los Angeles at the start of the pandemic, and at the end of a four-and-a-half-year relationship. “

In April I had just separated from my girlfriend,” he recalled. “Funny enough, I was the one who helped her come to terms with her own sexuality. And it was at a point where I was self reflecting, too.” 

Another woman who helped him take a look at himself was his therapist. 

“I started therapy late last year and it’s a big reason why I was able to fully accept myself,” he said. Even though he was at a good point in his life when he sought help, he said he eventually “started uncovering — like an onion. The more you peel, the more you reveal about yourself.”

He realizes he was lucky to get paired with a therapist he clicked with right away, but strongly believes “therapy is something everybody should do. I just feel that it is something that allows you to hear yourself. And in most cases, you almost give yourself the answer of how to better process whatever it is you’re going through.” 

When Leyva was doing gymnastics full-time, he “worked with a sports psychologist who was helping me to compete well, whereas now it’s someone helping me process everything and getting me to be a better person.”

The switch has been “world changing, for sure,” Leyva said. And it makes him want to help other athletes, too. His passion for mental health, and sport is the reason why he started working with Rise Athletes. The organization “pairs up Olympians and elite level athletes with younger athletes who are going through the process of competing.”  They teach skills that will help them balance competition life with home life, and one of the big focuses is mental health. 

“For me, growing up mental health was still stigmatized. If you said you wanted to see a therapist, someone would ask if you were crazy — instead of saying, ‘Oh, that’s great.’” 

In his video podcast, Out of Bounds, he talks a lot about his past, including his Olympic experiences, and life growing up. He started the YouTube channel because he is interested in acting and directing and “thought it would help me be on camera more, which will ultimately help my acting career.”

In 10 years, he hopes to be “really busy doing production meetings and stressed out about how I’m going to get one project done in the middle of filming another.”

Then he laughed and added, “And worrying about which award shows I was nominated for and means more to me to go to.”

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Danell Leyva