By Stuart Miller-Davis & Dan Plouffe
Towards the end of his decorated career, word had started trickling around the Canadian wrestling community that Tyler Marghetis was gay.
One night, a bunch of different teams were out at a bar after a tournament. The 76 kg wrestler was shooting pool when a rival came up and challenged him.
“‘Hey Marghetis, I hear you’re gay,'” was the supposed barb thrown, Marghetis recounts. “And I said, ‘Yeah.’ There’s sort of this little moment of pause, and then the heavyweight on my team came out of nowhere, and sent the guy flying – just propelled him through space and time.
“In my mind – and I mean, this isn’t what actually happened – but the way I remember it, the guy hits the wall like in a cartoon and slowly slides back down, and then the big heavyweight just stands there, with arms crossed, and is like, ‘Alright kid, you can go back and play now.’
“I mean, I don’t even know if that was a homophobic moment, maybe it was just competitors trying to get under each other’s skin, and yes, it was probably unnecessary to send this poor guy flying through space, but to know that my big hulking teammate was there to defend me, even though I didn’t need it, it still definitely felt good to know that my boys had my back.”
Long before Marghetis found acceptance in a sport he’d feared wouldn’t welcome him the way it ultimately did, came his childhood in Ottawa, when he never considered that he could be gay.
Now 37 and a neuroscience professor at the University of California, Merced, Marghetis started his athletic journey with the Nepean-Corona gymnastics club before he discovered his love for the mats.
The “luck of the universe” provided Canada’s top international referee as his school’s wrestling coach in Grade 7. Lee Mackay, along with others at the National Capital Wrestling Club, helped launch Marghetis towards repeat OFSAA high school provincial triumphs and a place on Canada’s world junior championships team.
He also ran, played rugby and was captain of “a very kind-hearted, suburban Catholic school football team that won one game the entire season,” smiles the former Mother Teresa Titan.
Marghetis’ parents were open-minded and loving, but it wasn’t like LGBTQ+ rights were a topic at the dinner table. His upbringing just didn’t invite him to consider that he was anything other than heterosexual, and it wasn’t until his mid-20s while training and studying in Montreal that he started questioning.
“I didn’t know any gay people – certainly not in the sports world, and not in my social world either,” explains Marghetis, who now wonders if his realization might not have been as delayed if he’d had any gay role models in his life.
“And also, it was terrifying,” adds the 4-time national university champion for the Concordia Stingers. “It was terrifying because of the unknown, and it was terrifying because I was worried about disappointing people, and that included my family, that included my teammates, and my coaches.
“And it was terrifying because I think I had a lot of internalized homophobia. I didn’t want to admit to myself that I might be one of these ‘lesser people.’
“Especially in the world of combat sports, there is, to this day, a real cult of macho heterosexuality. In my experience, it has never actually been directed, hateful, and actively homophobic, but it did pervade my social interactions in a way that sort of tainted the way that I felt about myself as a potentially queer person.”
Marghetis eventually allowed himself to go on a date with another gay male. They played pool, then decided to catch a movie. It turned out the only one playing at the cinema was Brokeback Mountain.
Spoiler alert for those who haven’t seen it: it’s about a same-sex relationship between two men that ends with one dead in a ditch and the other completely devastated and alone.
“I walked out of that movie shaken to my core, and realized that I had to come to terms with the fact that I wasn’t straight,” Marghetis recalls, and within weeks, he came out to friends and family. Some were surprised, and all were supportive.
But when it came to his wrestling mates, he decided to keep his sexuality a secret for much longer.
“I felt I had to live this really exhausting double life, honestly, not because I felt that the wrestlers would respond negatively, but more because I really wanted to excel in sport,” says Marghetis, who was eyeing a 2008 Olympic berth at the time. “I worried that if I were to come out, it would change the dynamic in the training room, with my training partners, and it would distract me from achieving my goals.”
High-performance athletes often walk a fine line between working exceptionally hard to achieve their peak potential, and pushing themselves too hard and getting injured or burnt out. Years later, Marghetis feels that the extra energy he expended to hide his identity in fact tilted him over the edge.
“In retrospect, I think it was the wrong choice,” signals the past Top-8 Academic All-Canadian who maintained a near-perfect GPA while studying mathematics. “I lost that spark of joy when I was in those wrestling environments because I was actively hiding a part of myself, and my life, that was actually such a source of excitement and happiness.”
The cracks beneath the surface were already starting to show in the lead-up to the Canadian Olympic trials, and when he lost in the final, they were laid bare, eventually leading him to leave the sport, drained.
Marghetis looks back on coming so close to making the Beijing Olympics “with great regret and frustration,” he says jokingly (though maybe not entirely).
“I did fall short of my goals, but with the wisdom of time, I’ve recognized that I never would have been satisfied anyway,” says Marghetis, who really outclassed every man but one in Canada en route to becoming Olympic alternate. “That’s the nature of high-performance sport – you’re always setting goals beyond where you are.
“You know, in high school, I don’t think I ever would have imagined that I would have been a multi-university national champion, that I would have been able to travel the world representing Canada.
“Sort of the curse of high-performance is that every time you accomplish one goal, you trick yourself into thinking that that wasn’t the thing you wanted, what you really want is the next thing.
“But now I really am proud of the things I accomplished in wrestling.”
Coming out in wrestling, by accident
It was on the car ride home from the Olympic trials that Marghetis came out to his teammates. At the time, he had confided in one female teammate who he felt was a safe person to tell, since she was open about her progressive political beliefs. But most of the team had no idea.
“I don’t remember exactly how it came up, but one of the guys said something like, ‘What are you, gay?’ in this sort of joking, teasing way. And I said, ‘Yeah, I am,'” details Marghetis. “And it was sort of silence in the car. And then, ‘Are you serious?’
“‘Yeah, I have a boyfriend.’
“‘Oh, man, well, OK, sorry I said that, like, that’s cool. I love you, bro.’
“And there was just this outpouring of support. And, again, a fair amount of confusion, because these are people who knew me to date women and had sort of seen me flirting and picking up women in various contexts.
“And also just a lot of genuine curiosity, and concern, and support. It was really, really nice.”
Word did quietly spread in the greater wrestling community. The reaction was largely supportive, or indifferent, though Marghetis remembers one university team did say aggressively homophobic things behind his back.
He wishes he could have been there to put a human face to it and try to battle the ignorance and dehumanization that fuelled it.
Marghetis, who later spoke to Montreal high schools about his experiences as a gay wrestler, was proud that he didn’t slink away during the incident at the pool hall, because he recognizes there’s a lot of work to be done in combatting homophobia in sports.
He doesn’t regret coming out to the wrestling world in the slightest – he only wishes he’d done it sooner.
Though his focus and dedication to training slipped after the Olympic trials, Marghetis says that wrestling free was what propelled him to his final university title the next spring.
“I was no longer afraid,” underlines the past FISU World Student Games participant. “For the first time in years, I could compete without a constant, low-level anxiety in the back of my mind — a fear that my teammates might find out I was gay, a worry that I somehow didn’t belong.
“I could finally just focus on competing, and the difference was palpable. I felt excited to win, confident that I belonged out there on the mat — more so than I had in a long time, perhaps since I had been a teenager.
“I think that speaks to the power of honesty and acceptance. Cultivating a more diverse, accepting, inclusive environment for athletes isn’t just the nice or the right thing to do — although I definitely think it’s the right thing to do.
“It’s also the best thing for performance. When athletes feel celebrated for who they are, they can show up fully as themselves — and deliver their very best performances.”
Though he called an end to his wrestling pursuits in favour of a path into high-performance academia, Marghetis did eventually rediscover his passion for the mats years later.
While working on his cognitive science PhD at UC San Diego, a friend invited him out to a wrestling club “that was explicitly queer, affirming, and welcoming to all people,” Marghetis highlights. “It turned out – and I had no idea this existed – there are these wrestling clubs all over the U.S. and the world, that are part of this movement.”
Though Marghetis faced a bit of homophobia when he came out in wrestling, it was limited, and the overriding spirit was massively inclusive and accepting. He feels that was in part the product of wrestling bringing people together from many different walks of life.
“You can see there’s a real levelling across lines of gender, race, class, political views, sexuality” with his SoCal Wrestling and Wrestlers WithOut Borders groups, Marghetis indicates. Trump supporters, Democrats, police officers, police-abolition activists, Black people, white people, and LGBTQ+ people all managed to coexist side-by-side.
“I think it really does have the transformative potential to bring together people who never would have this kind of really honest encounter,” he adds. “Because sports like wrestling, and grappling, are so exposed, it sort of gets down to just your base humanity, where you’re not seeing each other as a political identity or as a class background – just as a person. And I think that can be really healing.”
It’s puzzling in some ways then that the sports world tends to lag behind society in its acceptance of LGBTQ+ athletes, and gay men in particular, though Marghetis believes sport’s traditionalism plays a big part in it.
“I think there’s a conservative thread that runs through sport,” says Marghetis, who has a profile on 500QueerScientists.com in hopes of inspiring young LGBTQ+ science enthusiasts (though he’s not aware of a similar site for athletes).
“I don’t just mean politically conservative, I mean, conservative in the sense that, if you really want to perform at a high level, you can’t change things in a radical way from what came before.
“There’s a reason why there are these long-standing traditions, the reasons why we train in particular ways that have been honed over generations of athletes.
“And I think that mentality of sort of sticking to the things that work could bleed over into the way that we think about all of life, even in cases where somewhat radical change might be really healthy.”
Another factor is that “there is a deep intimacy that exists in a high-performance training environment,” he continues. “You’re always pushing yourself to your emotional and physical limits, and that’s only possible because you’re surrounded by people that you trust and who support you. They’re there to hold you – sometimes literally – to hold you in their arms when you’ve reached a breaking point.
“And that kind of intimacy can be scary. It can be scary. In society today, we don’t necessarily have good ways of thinking about male intimacy anymore. It’s very uncommon.
“If you look back in history, for close male friends to hold hands, or hug or touch – to show this kind of physical intimacy that in other cultures, and other points in time in our own culture – it was just sort of unquestioned, that was a natural way of expressing care for someone that you loved, not in a romantic way, but in a social, friendly way.
“When we don’t have good practices for expressing and experiencing that kind, social love, when the only kinds of visions that you have of male intimacy are of gay romantic intimacy, boyfriends holding hands or hugging, it can become really confusing.”
In a sport like wrestling – featuring intense physical contact between two people wearing spandex, Marghetis does point out – the effort to “police those boundaries” and not display any actions that could be considered gay is that much more present.
He also believes those types of behaviours are reinforced through teasing and bullying in high school.
“I was definitely guilty of that,” Marghetis reflects. “People would make comments about wrestling being gay, and of course, you respond with some sort of grandiose performance of your straightness. And then you kind of carry those habits into adulthood.”
The road to change
Marghetis suggests that true change will only come in the sports world after society redefines masculinity – what it means to be a real man – and permits men to show compassion and vulnerability without being seen as weak.
He remains very optimistic that athletes will be less fearful of coming out over time, and has already witnessed great progress since he left high-performance sport in 2009.
“My guess is that as queer or gay intimacy and love becomes more and more normalized – so that people don’t even bat an eye when they see two men or two women walking down the street holding hands together – it will feel less important for athletes in these highly intimate environments to actively distinguish themselves from that ‘other’ thing,” Marghetis notes.
A critical transition has already occurred, he adds.
“There are basically no young people now who haven’t seen a gay athlete,” explains Marghetis, who’s been riding out the pandemic at his partner’s family’s home in rural Tennessee. “And that’s such a critical difference from my own experience growing up where there were very few examples, and very few displays, in the sports that I cared about. So I think we’re sort of right on the cusp of a really beautiful transformation, and an explosion of visibility.”
Marghetis is full of optimism for the next generation of LGBTQ+ athletes.
“Think collectively, as a culture, and in Canada as a country, we’re moving towards a really much more accepting place,” he underlines. “No matter who you are, you’re going to know that there’s room for you to really chase after and maybe even achieve your dreams, whether that’s in science, or sport, or any other aspects of life.”
Read more on the lifestyle of a high-performance athlete and student in this 2007 feature by Dan Plouffe called: A Day in the Life of the Champ.