Cole Fox has lived all his 18 years in the small town of Gilbertville, south of Waterloo. His dad, Ray, is the assistant wrestling coach there and works construction. The family is Catholic, and Cole goes to Don Bosco Catholic High School, where he followed in his father’s footsteps and became a very good wrestler.
The preceding lays out the level of difficulty for a young man who made up his mind recently to tell everyone, including his father, that he is gay.
One night last month, he was up pacing at 2 a.m. “making impulsive decisions,” he said. He pulled out a piece of paper and began to write a letter to his father.
He told him he was gay and that any feelings he had about it were valid because it took him nearly 18 years to come to grips with it himself.
Cole’s story has attracted national attention this week. Coincidentally, the tension between the Catholic church and gay rights captured the spotlight in Iowa this week when a teacher candidate at Dowling Catholic High School in Des Moines said he was not hired after school officials found out he was gay.
Cole was featured this week on SB Nation’s Outsports, which bills itself as the “galactic leader in gay sports.” That story was shared nearly 17,000 times on Facebook. Since then, he’s also been featured on various local television broadcasts and his social media feeds have lit up with comments from supporters.
In the letter, Cole told his father he would give him time. He told him he loved him, regardless of his reaction.
Then Cole slipped the paper in his father’s jacket pocket, knowing he was headed out early in the morning for a three-day work trip.
He tells this now because he was just given a Matthew Shepard Scholarship by the Eychaner Foundation, a non-profit in Des Moines that promotes acceptance and non-discrimination. It’s given to students who show academic skill, leadership and community service.
‘This is my chance’
Cole explains his decision to speak out this way:
“This is my chance to show what the Catholic Church means,” Cole said.
“I go to Mass a lot during the week. I never hear anything tormenting LGBT people. I hear fundamentals of love and dignity toward all people. I hear about loving people as Christ loves them.”
Fox is saying this in a room adjoining the main office at Don Bosco during the lunch hour Friday. Though school officials won’t address his sexuality, they clearly are giving him the latitude to speak out.
He said he feels accepted by the teachers and the school. After all, he loves the place. He has watched the successful wrestling teams gather numerous state championships, and by third grade wanted nothing other than to proudly wrestle for Don Bosco.
He wasn’t good at first, but kept at it, even as inside he felt different from others. By seventh grade, he knew the occasional gay slur he heard in the locker room bothered him. He worried about his future, especially in sports, where toughness and grit are often associated with machismo and masculinity.
He doesn’t talk much about anything he faced in those early years, other than quiet rumors of his sexuality as he grew older.
“I don’t want my burdens to define me,” he said. “I approach this with joy. That’s my faith. I’m a joyful person, regardless of what is happening.”
By the time he was in high school, he had become a better wrestler. He qualified for the state tournament at 126 pounds his junior year. His head coach, Tom Hogan, said he had become a great teammate and leader.
But he was still a small-town wrestler in a Catholic school. Those three identifiers made it difficult for a gay young man.
“It seemed like my whole life was an oxymoron,” he said.
Then that summer, he went on a religious retreat in Colorado with other teens. They were asked to share their stories. Although a couple of friends knew of his sexuality, up in the mountain air he decided to tell his story to others.
“Since then, all I feel is joy,” he said. “I can make a difference.”
He told his mother.
“I know,” she told him.
“I don’t know how moms do it,” Cole said, laughing. “They always seem to know.”
He waited, though, to tell his dad. He was a tough but loving guy. Cole really wanted to apply for the scholarship and needed to tell him, “but I’m scared of confrontation.”
So he fidgeted that day at school, knowing the note was planted in his father’s jacket. Then in sixth period his phone dinged with a text message. He stepped out of the room and read it.
A great burden was lifted, and when Cole got another message later that day from him he knew everything was okay.
“Do the dishes,” his father wrote.
Cole said his father probably doesn’t know it but it was partly because of him that he had the courage to come out. “Dad doesn’t care what people think of him, and he taught me that.”
“I’ve got a lot of joy out of that kid,” Ray Fox said. “He’s always been a little different. He’s a funny, articulate kid. No doubt it was hard for him. I apologized that he felt like he couldn’t tell me, but he said he thought I’d take it weird because I was a wrestling coach.”
‘You are not alone’
It’s rare for an Iowa high school athlete to come out as gay, said Alan Beste, executive director of the Iowa High School Athletic Association. His organization is not involved in the process, but would counsel school officials to treat such situations with “dignity and respect.”
By all accounts, the people of Gilbertville and fellow students and teachers at Don Bosco have done so. Although coach Hogan said he couldn’t comment on a student’s sexuality, he said Fox was so prized that he received the coaches’ award for his hard work this season, after he again qualified for the state tournament in February.
“It’s small-town values,” Hogan said. “We look after our own. Cole is one of us.”
Fox plans to attend the University of Northern Iowa. He wants to become a teacher. The situation at Dowling made him nervous, but he knows progress is possible. Just 10 years ago, another student at Don Bosco won the Matthew Shepard Scholarship and it wasn’t publicly acknowledged at the school, he said. This time, school officials have already signed his certificate and congratulated him.
“As Catholics, I know we are split. There are those that think one way and others who think another,” Cole Fox said. “But we are the church. Just because we are younger doesn’t mean we aren’t valid.”
He is growing leery of the attention, though.
“It’s not about me. I just want to be that person I needed to see as a middle schooler,” he said.
He wants people to know that there is value in the teachings of the Catholic Church, and that the LGBT community is not unreasonable. He wants to follow his theology teacher’s advice, who told Fox: “You might be the only gay person they know, so be a good one.”
And he wants his message to be the focus.
“I want people to know you don’t have to hide anymore. People need to know they are accepted,” he said. “You are not alone.”