Rob Kearney represented his country at the World’s Strongest Man competition in the African nation of Botswana in 2017. This might be notable enough for anyone, but there was one aspect that made the trip a little more significant. Kearney is openly gay, and homosexuality was illegal in Botswana at that time.
Unlike most strength athletes invited to compete, Kearney was notified through a phone call from lawyers at CBS, which broadcasts the event, that his now-husband could not attend, for fear of the pair being thrown in jail. “So it was the most intimidating and exciting phone call I’ve ever gotten,” he recalls.
Brute strength and power cannot buy universal acceptance, and the Wilbraham resident said as much when he spoke to students at Frontier Regional School the morning of Nov. 22. The self-proclaimed “World’s Strongest Gay” addressed high-schoolers and then middle-schoolers in the auditorium and shared his story of coming out in a sport steeped in hypermasculinity.
“The biggest thing I want you all to realize is, you know, once you aren’t afraid to actually be yourself, that’s when you actually get to experience real happiness,” he told the middle-schoolers, sporting his trademark rainbow mohawk. “For me, it’s when I got to experience real love, once I was finally able to break down all those walls and accept me for who I actually was, it completely changed my life and let me be able to talk to students like you about the things that I’ve done in this world.”
Kearney, 28, explained he competes in strongman, which he described as “a sport where we lift really crazy-heavy things.”
“We lift cars. We pull planes. We lift really big, heavy rocks. And that’s what I do for fun,” he said. “For me, strongman has kind of become a way of life completely by accident.”
Kearney mentioned that for 22 years he lived a stereotypical heterosexual life. He competed in high school football and baseball, played in bands and served as class president, even speaking at his graduation in southeastern Connecticut. He was on the weightlifting team at Springfield College, winning state championships and national titles.
“But I was kind of battling with myself,” he told the students, adding that he graduated from college and was in a relationship with a woman. “I say ‘relationship’ fairly loosely, now that I look back on what it was. It was essentially just me and a good friend just living together.
“And, I don’t know what it was, but one day I woke up and I finally realized why I wasn’t so happy,” he recalled. “I would wake up every single day putting up this facade, acting like somebody I wasn’t. I literally had to pretend to be straight every single day, which was exhausting.”
Kearney said he accepted his homosexuality (as did his friends and family) and he broke up with his girlfriend, ushering in a new chapter of his life. He began to admire LGBTQ icon RuPaul, who has been quoted as saying, “If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else?” Kearney met his husband, Joey Aleixo, on a dating app and the two were married this past March.
Kearney recalled coming out on social media and going viral, being mentioned on The Huffington Post and TMZ and by comedian Conan O’Brien.
“Fortunately, it all turned out to be really, really positive,” he said.
However, he said, he has received some hateful backlash rooted in homophobia, and he shared with students some nasty comments and messages he has received on social media. But he also shared a touching message from a bisexual student who said he was contemplating suicide until he heard Kearney’s story.
“That’s why I’m unapologetically openly gay,” Kearney said.
But homophobia isn’t the only obstacle he has had to overcome — as a 5-foot-10, 285-pound mountain of a man, he is actually the smallest strongman competitor. He told students he is committed to working harder than other strength athletes.
After speaking to the middle-schoolers and meeting them after his talk, Kearney said he agrees to speak to students to “get the word out” and motivate young people.
“The only thing stopping you is yourself,” he said, “and I think a lot of people get caught up in everything else that’s going on, and they don’t realize that they hold the ultimate power to do whatever they want.”
School counselor Kelsey Cropp, who runs the gender and sexuality alliance at Frontier, said she reached out to Kearney to share his story.
“Sports are really a big part of the culture here at school and so there is a lot of that pressure that you’ve got to be manly and macho, and we do hear some homophobic comments that happen just because kids think that’s what they’re supposed to do,” she said. “So it’s really important and powerful to have someone like Rob come and be, like, ‘Yeah, I am macho — and I’m also gay.’ He doesn’t have to be either-or.”
Kearney encouraged students to message him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or YouTube if they have questions or comments they felt too uncomfortable to ask in front of their peers.