Story and photos by Alex Kirkpatrick | @takirkpatrick
Brenden Moon knows pain.
For most of his life, he’s been involved in athletics, during which he’s endured numerous concussions and injuries.
At 5 feet 10 inches tall and 215 pounds, Moon was a juggernaut; nothing could stop him.
Except when the pain became too much to bear, he walked away from football, the sport he loved.
Football was a part of his identity. In a way, it gave him a purpose in life. He was never pressured to play. He looked up to Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison, a man who, in Moon’s mind, displays work ethic and discipline.
For Moon, it was depressing to lose a part of his identity.
And just as he was coping with the loss of football, another challenge arose. Word spread around that Moon was gay — without his consent.
He was outed by friends he thought he could trust. His sexuality became the talk of first-floor Kresge his first semester of college.
He knows pain.
His coming out story isn’t a happy story, but by embracing who he is, Moon has learned to be stronger than ever.
Injuries pile up
When Moon was 6, he started playing baseball, and in fifth grade he took on football to be on the competitive edge with his younger brother.
The West Des Moines Valley graduate played football — a sport where brutal hits and excessive force are common — for four years in high school as a defensive end, a linebacker and then a running back.
But then freshman year of college started. Within one month, Moon suffered two concussions.
He was barred from excess physical activity, and he couldn’t get his heart rate above 130 beats per minute until he passed those nerve-wracking tests that would decide his fate. He could train mentally, but without the physical reps, he couldn’t do much.
Eventually, he was cleared in May. That meant he had 2 1/2 months to catch up to the other guys.
That lack of conditioning led to another injury during football camp sophomore year in which his knee and ankle gave out, and he was forced into a limb brace.
He knows pain.
After talking with Coach Jim Glogowski, he took the year off. He was going to come back. At least that’s what he thought.
Then his junior year rolled around.
At that point, Moon had a job at ChildServe, a nonprofit that helps children with special needs. He mentored a young boy named Sam, and the two formed an inseparable bond.
Should he go back to football?
He met with Mike Hadden, the athletic trainer. Hadden determined it would be unwise for Moon, who had six concussions, to continue playing.
“Coming to terms by yourself is one thing, but being told by someone else you can’t do something anymore, it’s hard to fight. It’s hard to accept,” Moon said.
But the team doctor cleared him to play. He was on the right path. But after re-aggravating an old back injury during practice, Moon decided he was done and said he wasn’t going to come back. He slipped into a state of depression. He felt defeated.
“I miss putting on the pads and hitting people,” he laughed.
It was deeper than that.
“I was very upset, very depressed because
football was taken away from me,” Moon said.
He went to see Ellie Olson in counseling services. They figured out ways to deal with the heavy blow.
The sport he played for half his life was gone just like that.
He knows pain.
Discovering sexuality, a new struggle
As an athlete, Moon was supposed to be tough. As a big, strong guy, he couldn’t cry.
“I just don’t share deep issues with people,” he said.
His Facebook feed is filled with the latest sports news and commentary.
But what happens when you defy stereotypes?
Starting back in sixth grade, Moon knew he was attracted to guys. Flash forward to his senior year at Valley High School. On a college visit to Simpson College, suddenly Moon’s appendix ruptured. He had to have surgery.
He knows pain.
While heavily sedated, Moon started texting a few guys on the football team. He didn’t think much of it.
“Mostly because I had a crush on them. In hindsight, I have no idea why I did it,” Moon said.
But he wasn’t out.
He sent three teammates a message, saying he was bisexual. It was partially true as he would come to find out later.
Two of them said they never wanted to speak with him again.
“I wasn’t particularly close with them, so it didn’t hurt me as much,” Moon explained.
The other one didn’t mind. But a sinking sensation came over Moon as he walked through the halls. The guy who supposedly accepted Moon for being different? He started telling fellow classmates.
“I think he thought that’s what I was essentially trying to do, but I was not,” Moon said, adding that high schoolers, especially seniors, can be malicious.
Rumors of Moon’s sexuality spread around like wildfire.
“It was a disappointment,” Moon said. “It was a friend I thought I could trust. You always want to be the person to tell.”
He knows pain.
It was the end of high school, so Moon knew he could start over soon. He wasn’t harassed, probably because he was a masculine figure.
“If I were thin, I would have been made fun of more,” he said.
People knew about Moon, but they didn’t say anything for whatever reason.
“I’ve never been the one to pick up on judgments; I’m usually fairly oblivious to it,” Moon said. “Maybe more so, I don’t care.”
Iowa legalized gay marriage in 2009. It was supposed to signify a change in heart.
But it didn’t.
Moon started to discover his sexuality the summer before freshman year of college, but he was still petrified to tell people. Starting at Simpson meant a clean slate.
“I kept it under wraps,” Moon said.
He came out to some guys on the football team he became really close to. He also came out to his roommates, one an atheist, one a Catholic, who said it didn’t matter.
But it went south in what felt like a repetition of high school senior year in which he was outed. Someone who shouldn’t have known found out. Everyone on his floor knew Moon was gay.
Someone had allegedly written on a whiteboard outside his room, “Go to hell, fag.”
He knows pain.
“Part of me kind of felt outcast because of what happened.”
Those therapy sessions with Olson quickly turned from football to sexuality. It got to the point where Moon needed services to go further, possibly medical prescriptions. But in order for him to get more help, his parents had to know what was going on. That meant Moon had to come out to his parents.
A Thanksgiving surprise
After Moon had been concussed several times, his mood shifted dramatically. Part of the brain that deals with emotions was affected. One moment, he’d be happy, the next he’d angrily snap. Because he was on his mother’s insurance, Moon had to come clean about what was going on in those meetings.
A week before Thanksgiving, Moon told his mom the news. He said he wasn’t going to school, he wasn’t going to class, he was sleeping 17 hours a day and he’s attracted to men.
“My mom cried for months, months after I came out because there’s that whole idea that they always have plans for you, and plans change,” Moon said.
“My mom cried for months, months after I came out because there’s that whole idea that they always have plans for you, and plans change.”
His mother wanted to tell his dad, but he wasn’t ready. When he worked up the courage to do so, his mother was sobbing in the background.
“My dad was wondering why she was crying,” Moon said. “What did I do to make my mom cry? And so I told him while he was folding laundry, and he was like, ‘Yeah, I knew.’
“I paused. I looked at him and I said, ‘What do you mean you knew?’ He goes, ‘I always had a feeling you were gay.’ I go, ‘How?’ He goes, ‘Just things you did.’”
Moon thought about it for a while. He played college football. He played baseball. Well, he was in choir as a baritone, but a lot of football players were, so that couldn’t have been it. He dressed up in ninja costumes and such.
What was it?
“Remember the Victoria’s Secret supermodel show?” his dad inquired.
“Yeah, what about it?”
“Your brother’s face was glued to the TV. You were playing games on your computer,” his dad said.
“Touché. Fair enough.”
As if to offer closure, Moon was able to tell his family, the only people who found out because he wanted them to.
“It’s kind of like breaking up with someone over a text message; you’d rather it be done in person,” Moon said
He never made a public announcement. It was as if he were peeling back layers of himself, piece by piece.
Moment of acceptance
Moon was doing better emotionally after he came out to his parents. He was more stable. He found mechanisms to fight depression. He still had symptoms of concussions after winter break, however, and was on the verge of quitting college.
Even though he was emotionally getting better, he still felt lonely. He spent the weekends in his room. He felt like an outcast. It was the first time he felt judged. His depression started to creep back.
He had the opportunity to take a medical withdrawal from Simpson. He was going to do it. His parents were OK with it. Why not?
The day before he was about to sign the paperwork to withdraw, he got a text message from a teammate, Andrew Harris, that read, “Hey, can you come over to the fraternity?”
Moon usually goes over for study tables at Alpha Tau Omega. He figured he left something over there.
“Hey, did you need me for something?” Moon said.
“Yeah, yeah, I wanted to give you something,” Harris said as he disappeared into the room.
He came back to hand Moon an envelope.
“What’s this?” Moon said.
“Open it, and you’ll find out,” Harris said.
Moon went back to his room, opened it and found a bid to join ATO.
An overwhelming flood of emotions came to Moon.
“That was probably the first time since I was in sixth grade that I cried because I felt accepted. But it also gave me a chance to get a fresh start,” Moon said.
A fresh start was exactly what he needed. He weighed the option with his parents.
He went back to the fraternity and asked Harris, “Why did you give me this bid?”
“We thought you were a great guy, and I can see you being a leader in the fraternity,” Harris said.
“Well, does anybody in the house know?” Moon said.
“We had a discussion about that,” Harris said. “I’m not supposed to tell you, but all 30 guys voted yes anyway. They don’t care because they accept you anyway.”
After a tumultuous freshman year, it seemed like things were going to be OK. He signed the bid and moved into the house two weeks later. He went from feeling like he had nobody on his side to having 30 guys supporting him.
And it turns out Harris’ prophecy came true. Moon became a leader, holding the positions of vice president, housing assistant, Interfraternity Council representative and risk management officer.
It was hard work, but he was able to relax. He felt protected.
He didn’t have to be alone. He didn’t have to worry about being outed. He didn’t have to worry about someone writing “Go to hell, fag” outside his door.
“In a way, ATO saved my life,” he said.
Four years later as a senior, Moon would write on his Facebook page: “I struggled for years trying to figure out why I was different, why my mind doesn’t work the same as other guys… I managed to overcome my anxiety, my fears and depression.”
No one thinks about their child being gay the minute they’re born, Moon said. So for him, loving unconditionally is the most important part of being human.
“It takes a certain strength to come out, and you can’t fully come out until you accept who you are,” Moon said.
There’s nothing wrong with him. He’s embraced his sexuality. He says it’s kind of fun.
“People think the dirty things, but no, it’s fun,” he said. “It’s fun to be gay. I think it is, mostly because I am happy with who I am.”
Now he has a military boyfriend who lives in Iowa City. They met on a gay dating app in October and have been official since around mid-November.
He enjoys going to gay clubs in Des Moines and is pretty involved in the gay community – something he didn’t imagine even five years ago.
People are still incredulous that he’s gay.
“In a way, ATO saved my life.”
“It feels good to break stereotypes,” Moon said. “People think those who are gay are feminine, have the high, frilly voices, dresses.”
But not him.
For a while, he hid. He didn’t know who he was.
The key to living? “Be who you are, and people can’t tell you otherwise.”
“Brenden never needed to hide any aspect of himself,” Harris said. “He’s a man of high integrity, character and grit. He was a major trailblazer in my eyes as not only an openly gay football player, but using his free time to work with children with disabilities.”
Up until this point, Moon has only known pain.
Now he knows love.