CLEVELAND — In the two years that Browns fullback Johnny Stanton has been in Cleveland, he's never shied away from using his growing platform to inspire change, and as Pride Month is celebrated this month, Stanton's mission to be a strong ally for the LGBTQ+ community hasn't wavered.
"Being a supporter of the LGBTQ community is really important to me because LGBTQ athletes, especially youth athletes, drop out of sports at an alarming rate and they don't feel comfortable. They don't feel safe in the world of sports," Stanton said. "And I want to make football—I want to make sports a more welcoming, supportive atmosphere for all people."
Stanton has always been an ally for equality and inclusivity, having personally seen how alienating sports culture can be. His uncle, an Olympic swimmer, wasn't fortunate to compete in a time in which he felt comfortable being his true self.
"My uncle Patrick Stanton was a swimmer and he would have gone to the 1980 Olympics if we had not boycotted it and he didn't feel comfortable coming out until after he was done swimming," Stanton said.
Knowing his uncle's story inspired Stanton to make sure as he began a career in sports that things were different.
"I don't want people to feel like they can't be their genuine selves like they can't live truly with who they are and have to hide that from the people who they're closest with. I'm extremely close to my teammates. I can't imagine not being myself around them," Stanton said. "My uncle Pat didn't get the chance to be able to come out to his teammates while they were his teammates, and I don't want people to feel like they need to hide who they are to those people who are so integral to their everyday life."
The fullback has been an ally in numerous ways, from partnering with Athlete Ally to raise money and awareness for LGBTQ+ resources to attending this year's Pride March and many other hands-on efforts.
By being so vocal about bringing change, Stanton has gained more fans of his off-field work, which has in turn given him more fans tuning in to see what he's able to accomplish on the field as well.
"Some people think that sports was never for them, that they didn't feel comfortable in the world of being a fan or being an athlete and that my vocalness—I've been very vocal, especially recently on social media and in my words—has allowed them to feel comfortable becoming a Browns fan, becoming a sports fan," Stanton said. "People will say that their kid is part of the community and seeing me be supportive of it has allowed them to see like, okay, this is something that is important to my child and to show support to them is something that, especially seeing it from a football player, really means a lot. So every time I get one of those messages, it's really special."
Stanton has also received not-so-positive messages from people who oppose his efforts. He puts his pronouns (he/him) in his bio, and often goes viral on Twitter when he responds to people attacking for the action. As he's said to critics, he puts his pronouns in his bio as a gesture of solidarity, normalizing sharing them so it's no longer a taboo subject that riles up people who may not understand.
"Being able to normalize having pronouns in your bio, being able to like specify your pronouns from a cis-het person is it's important to me to show that it's a normal part of life," Stanton said. "Because when people have to show that so that they don't end up getting misgendered."
The feedback isn't always positive, but Stanton has made it a point not to focus on the negativity.
"When the people come in my comment saying that 'this is gross,' 'least favorite player on the Browns,' I've been getting those messages," Stanton said. "I've had people in my messages saying 'thank you for showing your preferred pronouns and it's really important to me because I need to actually show what they are to people. So it's been a good experience. It's way more support than hate for me."
Often times when a professional athlete chooses to use their platform to speak up for causes close to them, opponents will tell them to "stick to" whatever sport they play. For Stanton, that's not something he ever plans to do.
"I won't stick to football because I have a platform. I will never tell somebody to not be active, involved in their community and vocal about what they feel passionate about. And I'm passionate about this. I am passionate about making sports an inclusive place, about making the LGBTQ community feel welcomed within all communities. Making sure that they have the rights they need. And there's nobody who's going to be able to stop me from saying those kinds of things," Stanton said.
As Stanton continues joining initiatives to support the LGBTQ community and raising awareness to issues that help foster inclusivity, he also is receiving support from the people closest to him.
"It's been very positive. The team is supportive of me being supportive of the community," Stanton shared. "My teammates—a lot of them I've spoken to—are considering going to Pride next year."
And while this cause is extremely important to him, Stanton isn't trying to convince anyone of anything. He simply wants to help create understanding and in turn help people be more accepting of people for who they are.
"I don't see this as an evangelizing opportunity. I'm not trying to get a bunch of people to come to Pride, I'm not trying to get a bunch of people to put their pronouns in the bio. That's their decision. For me, it is just about normalizing it, about being vocal in my own community," Stanton said.
"I'm not trying to convince anybody of anything. I'm trying to bring comfort and bring support to people within the community and show that they are seen, they are heard and they are appreciated," he said.
Camryn Justice is a reporter at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.
Download the News 5 Cleveland app now for more stories from us, plus alerts on major news, the latest weather forecast, traffic information and much more. Download now on your Apple device here, and your Android device here.