Anthony Alfano was the team captain for his final two seasons of the four he played for the co-op Huntley Raiders varsity hockey team that also featured players from Marian Central Catholic High School.
A left-handed shooting forward, Alfano was popular on the team and quite the playmaker. He also excelled in the classroom at Huntley before graduating in 2008, earning a spot on the Dean's List and the National Honors Society.
However, the real Alfano was hidden in the closet, afraid to reveal to anyone that he was gay. In fact, he admits he dated girls at the time to hide his identity. No one had any idea what Alfano was going through emotionally. He was, quite simply, a wreck, ready to end his life.
"In high school, I was very suicidal because of my sexual orientation," Alfano told Windy City Times. "I grew up in a very Italian, very catholic household, and being gay was never a point of discussion. I believed, because the Catholic Church was preaching against being gay, that something was wrong with me and that I was inevitably going to hell."
He attempted suicide three times, each time trying to suffocate himself, but he could never actually do it.
"I always felt that if I could keep pushing and getting involved in [ high ] school that life would be fine after [ graduating ] ," Alfano said. "I was lucky. I didn't fully accept who I was until the end of my senior year in high school and, at that point, I was still very uncertain of where I was headed in life and coming-out was not even on my radar. It wasn't until I started college at DePaul and went on a retreat for first-year students where I truly understood the importance of coming-out.
"The day I returned from the retreat I called up my best friend back [ in the northwest suburbs ] and told her we needed to talk. That friend, Erika Kearns, was the first person I came out to, and I know it was a little difficult as she had a crush on me in high school.
"Then over winter break of my first year [ in college ] , I told all my friends back home and one in particular, Gretchen Bachrodt, was the most encouraging and supportive and was someone who, although I knew I could always count on, solidified that feeling when she told me she always knew, but waited for me to be ready."
As a DePaul sophomore, Alfano didn't tell his roommate, Ross Richmond, until one month after they were living together. "It was either out of fear or lack of clarity on how he perceived the LGBT community that I waited so long to tell him, but he has been the most supportive person in my life and has seen me in the worst and best of times," said Alfano, who has been roommates in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood with Richmond for three years, to this day. Richmond is straight.
As a sophomore, junior and now as a senior, Alfano came out to friends at school, family members and, this past summer, to his mom, Anna, which he said has been his most difficult coming-out.
"I'm feeling great at where I'm at and have a terrific support network of people behind me," Alfano said. "For me, coming out was a long, continuous journey that I'm on."
Alfano, 21, will graduate from DePaul next June with a double major ( international studies and political science with a focus in social, economic and environmental justice ) . His resume also boasts another amazing accomplishment: he is the first openly gay student body president in DePaul's 113-year history, and DePaul is the largest Catholic university in the United States.
"It's interesting, because the very nature of DePaul is such a welcoming and accepting atmosphere that I haven't really been too afraid to be open," Alfano said. "Being the first openly gay Student Body President at the largest Catholic university in the nation definitely adds a little more weight than just being a normal kid in college who attends class and sleeps all day. I must say it's a great experience and I'm fortunate to be in the position that I am, and that I have such a great support network although popular belief tends to lend its voice otherwise. I think, since DePaul is such a major university, that it allows me to have a platform where I am able to show others that life does get better and people do change."
DePaul president, Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, was not available for an interview about Alfano, but interim assistant vice president Robin Florzak issued a statement:
"DePaul University is a diverse place that welcomes people of all races, ethnicities, religions and sexual orientations. Anthony made a courageous personal decision to discuss his sexuality with the university's student newspaper. Anthony is a remarkable young man and student leader, and we hope that his candor helps other young people facing these issues to feel comfortable discussing their orientation with family and friends."
Alfano doesn't accept the "pioneer" tag. "I just feel that I want to affect change at DePaul, to make sure every student has a great experience here, just as I have," he said. "I hope I am able to use this role not only to effect positive change at DePaul, but also to affect positive change in the lives of youth who are constantly put down by society and feel as though they cannot achieve their dreams and aspirations."
Alfano officially came out to everyone Oct. 10, during National Coming Out Month. That was planned, he said.
"I am not sure if I have any specific goals by coming out, except allowing others to see me as a person who was able to overcome a lot in life and be open about who I am in the position that I have," Alfano said. "Obviously [ short-term goals include ] making sure that our LGBT students have a voice at the table, but one that is equal for every student at DePaul.
"I thought it was really important and appropriate that I came out in this position during [ October ] and on National Coming Out Day because of the shared sense of history and unity that the LGBT community shares. I guess, in a way, this just adds to that history."
Alfano has been playing hockey since age 3, and the co-op Huntley Raiders team actually was started by his mom. Huntley didn't have a club team in the mid-2000s when Alfano started there, so Anna organized the parents of other hockey players to start the school's team.
Today, students from Huntley play on a co-op club team known as the Kings, featuring players from Jacobs, Marian Central, Belvidere and Belvidere North High Schools.
Alfano, meanwhile, now plays for the Chicago Gay Hockey Association ( CGHA ) men's league team at Johnny's Ice House in Chicago. He joined the CGHA team in June 2010 after meeting team members at the annual Gay Pride Parade.
"I joined [ the CGHA ] because hockey is a huge part of my life and I wanted to continue to play, but also wanted to be open about who I was as a person," Alfano said. "It seemed like the perfect opportunity to continue to play the game I love, but also have a group of people who have gone through similar experiences in life.
"The CGHA has really pushed me in my thinking of the importance of being out, especially within the community, but more importantly to those outside the LGBT community who are struggling with their identity. I think it shows those who believe that gay people are different or aren't masculine enough that we are just the same as everyone else and that we can play sports, very well I might add; we just happen to be attracted to the same sex.
"Playing for the CGHA is something that I am going to carry with me through the rest of my life. It really has impacted my life in a positive way to have met a great group of people as these teammates, as well as the opportunities I have had being on the team."
Alfano is the team's youngest CGHA member ever.
"The CGHA has given me the ability to see those who identify as gay and also play hockey have a great and productive life," he said. "They share similar memories that I have of coming-out and playing hockey, so it's a great sense of camaraderie and really does make things in my life a lot easier. I truly learn a lot from everyone on the team and am happy to have met all of them."
Alfano said several CGHA members have impacted his life, including Andrew Sobotka, David Stefanski, Chris Jordan, Scott Mix and Justin O'Rourke. "They're all great and meaningful friends who have shared a lot of memories and wisdom with me that I will carry with me as I move forward through the rest of my life," he said. "I consider them some of my best friends and am so grateful that they are a part of my life."
Alfano said he is planning to take the LSAT exam next summer and then apply to law schools after that. He wants to be in law school within a few years after graduating. However, he first wants to travel around the world, doing service work for underrepresented populations.
Long-term, Alfano said he wants to work and advocate for progressive change, perhaps within the non-profit world, or government, or higher-education.
"I think the overall impact I am making in Chicago is really just helping to push the needle a little further for progressive change," Alfano said. "Showing youth in the city and around the country that they can make a difference, and that they can be who they want to be without fear in society. I hope that Chicago embraces me coming-out as the student body president at the largest Catholic university in the nation as a sign that times are changing and people are becoming more tolerant and accepting of others for who they are."