Young soccer referee has thrived all the while being openly gay

Gay sport news

Alec Pena in a referee shirt.
Alec Pena has been a soccer referee since he was 13.

‘Sports have always given me the chance to express myself and be passionate without the fear of what others will think of me,’ Alec Pena says.

I’m 24, have been a licensed U.S. Soccer Federation official for 11 years, love sports and am openly gay. I hope one day to become a professional referee at the highest level.

I love being a soccer referee. It has given me the opportunity to grow as an individual and improve communication skills I will be able to carry with me throughout my lifetime. Starting at a young age also gave me a better sense of financial independence and the importance of saving money early.

At first, it was very intimidating officiating a game where there would be conflict and I was only 13 years old. I would have to interact with disgruntled parents, coaches, and even scarier, kids my age or older. It took a lot of on-field experience and mental toughness on my part.

While I was learning to grow as a young official, I was also learning to grow as a young person who was trying to become more comfortable with my sexuality.

Being gay and passionate about sports is something that was new to me, but I am here to continue breaking stereotypes. I am proud that I have been able to express my sexuality while being heavily involved with sports. Both play a huge role in my life and I am so grateful for where my experiences have brought me today.

I started playing soccer at a young age in my hometown of Orlando, Florida, through a church league. I moved up to northern Indiana in fourth grade where I continued playing soccer while also trying various other sports. My love was and continues to be soccer. I played goalkeeper not only because I was the tallest on the team, but mostly because it was my favorite position.

Growing up, I always loved taking charge and leading others and those qualities play a huge role in being a goalkeeper. Sports have always given me the chance to express myself and be passionate without the fear of what others will think of me.

While I loved playing the game, I quickly realized I had a lot of potential officiating soccer also. My brother had a game where the official didn’t show up and I volunteered, as a 13-year-old, to fill in. Someone gave me the number to a referee assignor and I quickly got involved and started officiating more games. I stopped playing after I became licensed and got more heavily involved with the officiating world.

Alec Pena cheering
Alec Pena was born in Florida but spent his formative years in Indiana and attended Indiana University.

I am going into my 11th season as a licensed USSF official, but my journey to get where I am now wasn’t the easiest.

While I am proud to call myself a Hoosier, I grew up around many who didn’t believe it was OK to be gay. This is something I struggle with. I was hiding who I truly am and not able to feel comfortable enough to express my sexuality.

I started officiating during a time where I was trying to figure out who I was. I would officiate players who I thought were attractive, but I never thought anything of it. I just thought it was normal, but I didn’t realize until later in my youth that I was gay. It took a while to accept.

I quickly realized that I had more people than not supporting me and loving me for me. Sexuality didn’t change the way people thought of me. Officiating soccer has given me the opportunity to be independent, remain passionate, lead others and continue to participate in a sport that I love.

Through my involvement with soccer, I have found other outlets to officiate and also play sports such as softball, volleyball, basketball and futsal through my involvement with Indiana University’s recreational sports program, which is where I attended for my undergrad and worked during my four years in Bloomington.

Sports have always been something that has played a huge role in my life whether it’s officiating, playing, watching in person or on television. This all stemmed from my early exposure to sports through playing and officiating soccer. I participated in the student sections from high school through college, bought season tickets and traveled hundreds of miles to big sporting events.

Alex Pena in a referee shirt.
Alec Pena loves all sports, though soccer is his passion.

Sports have had a huge impact on my life. It is a part of my life where I have felt most comfortable expressing myself and this isn’t limited to my sexuality. It truly is amazing to me to see where I started as a youth soccer player and how it has turned out as an adult who has officiated the game for more than a decade and is an avid sports follower.

I hope I can show others that it is OK to break the stereotypes and be who you want to be and express yourself in any way you see fit. Just be yourself and do what you love. That is something I learned quickly and I hope others lan follow this same path during their journey.

Alec Pena, 24, recently graduated from Indiana University-Bloomington in May 2020. He is in his 11th year as a licensed United States Soccer Federation official. He can be reached on Instagram (alecpena97) and loves talking to fellow members of the LGBTQ+ community about sport-related topics.

Story editor: Jim Buzinski

If you are an out LGBTQ person in sports and want to tell your story, email Jim (kandreeky@gmail.com)

Check out our archive of coming out stories.

If you’re an LGBTQ person in sports looking to connect with others in the community, head over to GO! Space to meet and interact with other LGBTQ athletes, or to Equality Coaching Alliance to find other coaches, administrators and other non-athletes in sports.

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