In Mental Health Awareness Week, sports reporter Jak Ball talks about football, feeling free, and how he once struggled to even say the word ‘gay’…
By Jon Holmes
A little over two months ago, Jak Ball tweeted ‘Finally ready to be me’, accompanied by a Pride flag emoji and three screenshots from Notes in which he’d written from the heart.
It was the night before his 30th birthday. Jak, who has worked in sports media for the Plymouth Herald newspaper and digital for several years, was on holiday in Croatia at the time. In the note, he had written: “I’m coming out as gay on social media, not because I want to be centre of attention but because my mental health needs it.”
To mark Mental Health Awareness Week, Sports Media LGBT+ caught up with Jak to discuss the reaction to his tweet, how his mental health has improved since sending it back in March, his love of football, working in local media, and much more…
JH: Hi Jak, thanks so much for this chat. Tell us a little about yourself and your career in sports media and local media.
JB: You’re welcome, appreciate you reaching out! I went to secondary school here in Plymouth which is where I developed a love for writing. I studied Magazine Journalism and Feature Writing at Southampton Solent University. I did work experience at the Herald and then freelanced for a year before becoming permanent staff. In the six years since, I’ve covered lots of sport, including the local football and basketball clubs, Argyle and Raiders. I’ve also done celebrity and TV journalism, ‘what’s on’ content, and I’m now Senior Reporter, covering a wide range of different stories for the newspaper and the website, Plymouth Live.
I remember reading the Notes in your tweet and it made me so happy, to see you finding your freedom, and to see the reactions – lots of supportive replies, and over 1,000 likes. What was the background to you posting that?
As I said at the start of the note, I’m really not the type of person who likes to be the centre of attention. But at the same time, I wanted it to be out there so that it would feel to me like everyone knew, and I wouldn’t have to worry every time I met someone. Now I know that not everyone’s going to see that tweet, but in my head would be the thought of ‘well, it’s out there now – people will know.’
It still wasn’t easy to post, though. I didn’t want it to feel like, ‘he just wants attention’ – you have that battle in your head. But it felt like writing my feelings out was the only way I could do it, because I’m not very good at speaking about it. Being away in Croatia was ideal – I wanted to be away from people so that they could react to it in their own time. Everyone’s got to do what’s right for them, but I felt that even if I could find the words to tell someone in person, they don’t then have the chance to react how they want to react without me being there and putting them on the spot. So I was conscious of that and how it would be easier for everyone else. I thought Twitter would be the best way.
I’m sure a lot of people will relate to that – there’s rarely any part of the coming out process that could be considered ‘easy’. Who did you feel able to talk to about it first?
I told my mum a year ago – I wrote her a letter. But before her, it was only people I connected with online that I’d seen had gone through the same sort of things as me. To start with, it was two friends I made through Instagram – we just started following each other, liking each others’ posts, an occasional comment, and ended up messaging eventually.
I found it easier to confide in someone that I wouldn’t have to face in my day-to-day life. One of those, Nick, has become a really close friend and is the person I went to Croatia with. I told him I was planning to put a post up before I turned 30. The holiday week was progressing towards my birthday and I really wanted to do it. It got to the evening before and I just wrote it in that moment – and then spent two hours not being able to press the send button, reading it over and over and over. And then I did it.
Almost instantly, I felt better – it’s hard to describe how much that mental weight is lifted off your shoulders. It’s almost like a cloud was gone, and I saw life again. In the worst moments in the past, I’d resigned myself to being almost miserable forever; I’d accepted that was going to be my life.
Nowadays we hear so much negativity about social media but those friends you made through Insta just goes to show how brilliant it can be too.
Without them, I definitely wouldn’t be where I am now. I also mentioned a friend called Jay in my tweet. When I told him that, first of all, I was trying to come out to my mum and my dad, he sent me ‘No Matter What’ by Calum Scott. The lyrics really resonated with me. I’m not overly emotional but I listened to that and broke down because I really wanted to come out to my parents.
I was coming up to 30, thinking that if I live to 90, I’m a third of the way through my life already and I’m still not even who I’m supposed to be. On my drive over to my mum’s to drop off my coming out letter to her, I was listening to that song on repeat so I wouldn’t back out of doing it. When she read it, she texted me with all the things you’d hope your mum would say – that she loved me, it didn’t matter, and she was glad I had people I could talk to about it.
So that Insta group of LGBT people was a great support. It’s one of the positive sides of social media. You can meet people that are like you. I’d never dream of going up to someone in real life, and start chatting about that. Without that group, I wouldn’t be talking to you now, my family wouldn’t know, and I’d still be struggling every day.
It was great to see so many people commenting on your tweet and liking it, recognising what a big personal step you’d taken…
Yeah, it was lovely to see all the reactions – not so much to make me feel better, it was more to see people communicating with others they didn’t know. Many to say, ‘we’ve been through it’… selfishly, I didn’t do it to try to help anyone. It was just to get it out of my own head, and not have to have that weight on my shoulders any more.
Looking back, did being involved in sport and football as a reporter make it any harder for you to come out?
I did think that at the time, but now I think I just found whatever excuse I could to not have to face it, to be honest. Down here, I’m known to an extent through media – in Argyle circles, for examples – but compared to national journalists or actual footballers, I understand of course it’s much harder for them.
There was certainly part of it that was down to the fact a lot of the people I worked with were ‘lads lads’ type people. They’d sometimes make jokes which maybe others might deem inappropriate. But I didn’t want people to change around me, I didn’t want there to be this awkwardness all the time – ‘can we say that, can we do this’ – I just wanted to be treated the same. There was definitely an element of that, but I’d say it was more of an excuse not to do it.
I remember going on nights out with work, and people trying to set me up with girls. One guy bought me two drinks just because I was chatting to a girl, there wasn’t anything in it – a drink for me and one to give to her. You find yourself in situations like that, when people automatically assume and push you in one bracket. I remember feeling so uncomfortable. Another time, someone said to me, ‘you’ve not been with anyone for a while, are you gay?’ And I said ‘oh no, I’m not’ – it caught me off guard.
This all sounds so familiar – the feeling of pressure, not wanting to change how people see you, being cautious with what you say and do…
Yeah, it was all there. I can recall family discussions long ago, talking points – things like how would you bring up a child if they were gay. I always felt awkward in those conversations, and would censor what I was saying. I didn’t give my honest thoughts.
I already feel in the two months since coming out, I’ve not been censoring myself as much. I’ve been being more me. For example, I went to a Spice Girls concert last year but I didn’t tweet about it because I didn’t want people to know I was going. I was still trying to deal with everything. In my head, I was a bit more comfortable, but I thought if I tweeted out about the Spice Girls, people would know I was gay and I wasn’t ready for that to happen yet so I just didn’t mention it at all. It’s things like that I don’t worry about any more.
To add to that, it’s only in the last few months that I’ve felt comfortable to say out loud, ‘I’m gay’. Before, I even struggled to say the word. Reading around, I think that’s a very common thing. The other issue I had was that I was in a relationship with a girl for six years – from 18 to 24 – and we were engaged. For people that don’t go through it, I don’t think they can understand that. Looking back, there were so many signs. But I just didn’t get it, I just didn’t understand.
What could have helped you come to that understanding sooner?
Visibility is a massive thing. I’d say even three years ago, I didn’t understand it because I don’t think the visibility was there as it is now.
I remember watching ‘Love, Simon’, and when it got to the part where he came out, I just broke down. I thought, that’s the first time I’ve ever seen ‘my story’ played out on screen. That put something in my head, that I need to make it happen like Simon had done in the movie.
As I said, I’m quite an introvert, and not the sort of guy to put myself out there. So if you’re not the type of person that likes to reach out to people or talk to people that often, it’s hard to get involved in the LGBT+ community. Once I’ve met someone, I’m fine and quite chatty, but beforehand I get so anxious about things.
I think my biggest challenge now is learning more about the community because I was denying it for so long. I’ve never been to a gay bar, for example. I’m not saying once lockdown ends I’m going to be rushing out to go to one, but it’s working out how to do that down here in Plymouth, for starters.
That can be really daunting. It’s one of the most important things we can do, to show that there’s not just one type of LGBT+ person…
My mindset was, unless you look a certain way, you’re not going to fit in at Pride events and places like that. Seeing different types of gay guys really helps – you see one type of image, I think, a lot of the time. It sounds weird as a 30-year-old to say that, that you still need to be able to look at a screen and see yourself, but I do think that’s really important.
You’re absolutely right. We’re seeing it at the moment with the storyline about James Bailey in Coronation Street, and shows like Schitt’s Creek…
There was that tweet a couple of weeks ago where someone had complained about gay characters in Netflix shows, and Netflix responded brilliantly. And it’s true – even if it’s to just one person, that ‘unnecessary gay character’ could be very necessary indeed.
I mean, there are so many redundant straight characters in shows but no one ever comments on that! Look, I don’t judge people that haven’t gone through the need to see representation because I didn’t understand it until I really faced it. I have some level of sympathy, because how can you get that if you don’t go through it yourself? People telling their stories makes such a difference, whether that’s in drama, comedy, or real life.
And for us as huge football fans, then working in football media, it was not a part of life where you saw versions of yourself.
Yeah, and neither was my love for football something that I exaggerated to hide who I was from people – I do really love the game, that’s always been true. That’s why it’s so good that sport is doing a lot more; it starts conversations for those who need it.
Last year, before I came out to him, I went to a game with my dad when the Rainbow Laces campaign was on. Now he’s not a man of many words, and we don’t have a relationship where we talk about anything emotional. But he said, ‘oh look, there’s a rainbow on the corner flags’. I didn’t delve into it any deeper because I wasn’t ready to, but the fact he even noticed that… That must happen all over the country. If it happens again next season, maybe we’ll have more of a discussion.
For any gay son, that first conversation with your dad is something that takes on great meaning.
Yeah, the message my dad sent to me after I came out was the most important one I got. I didn’t expect it but that was the one that meant the most to me. I remember him saying, whatever happens, when we go on family holidays, you can bring a partner along just like your brother and step sister can. The fact he said that meant everything to me.
That’s so encouraging. Like you, I’m from Devon – and an Argyle fan – so I know a little about the difference between LGBT+ life there compared to somewhere like London or Manchester. Did that have an effect?
I do feel it can be harder for LGBT+ people who aren’t necessarily from a big city. Plymouth is quite big but it’s far behind other places, in some ways.
That’s one of the reasons why I think the Pride In Football fan groups have been so helpful to anyone like us. I’m sure, like me, you were pleased to see the Argyle Pride group start up a couple of years ago…
It just fills you with a bit of confidence, particularly when you see straight football fans praising things like that. It was like when I tweeted – some of the people that commented are quite well known among the Argyle fanbase. They were saying ‘just be you’, and replying positively. It meant a lot even though I don’t know most of them personally. If people like that can accept it, then that’s great. I like to look at that over any negative comments.
There was a video that Argyle Pride put out through the club in November 2018, featuring captain Gary Sawyer and also Cameron Sangster and Alex Battle, who were two young players at Home Park at the time. Gary spoke really well about homophobia, and a couple of ‘what if?’ scenarios, and Cameron and Alex definitely got more confident in talking as the film went on. I thought it was really positive.
It can’t have been easy for those Argyle players. They might have been thinking, ‘if I comment on this, will people think I’m gay?’ That must enter people’s thoughts. I feel sorry for footballers out there who are gay, knowing how hard it was for me, in terms of how much people care about the issue of there being no out players. I’m sure it will progress. I just feel sorry for anybody in that position of being in the closet. It’s like a mental prison.
That brings us back to Mental Health Awareness Week. If you were asked for advice, knowing what you know now, what would you pass on?
For me, Twitter and Insta were better places to get advice than Tinder and Grindr. I really wanted to find someone to speak to, but how would I go about doing that? So I followed people on social media and looked at what they were into, hoping I’d find someone I could connect with. People often say that if you’re struggling with mental health, ‘just go and talk to someone’ or ‘ring this number’. But you might not want to talk to someone verbally and I think that gets forgotten sometimes.
I’m not able to do that particularly well. I’ve struggled with my mental health for a long time – there were days I didn’t want to get out of bed – but I’ve never once gone to see someone about it in person. So if that sounds like you, try reaching out to message someone you don’t know. For me, being able to be honest about who I was and not have to face that other person, to feel they’re staring at me… I could just put my phone down, whereas if it was someone at work, I’d have to see them every day. Being able to write words and messages was better than talking or video calling.
It’s still early days since you sent your tweet and came out to friends and family too. Has life changed at all yet?
Well, I was dreading going back into the office after my holiday and being the centre of attention but because of the lockdown, I only had one day there. Some of my colleagues did come up to me and say well done, which was really nice. But it did feel a bit weird for me and probably for them too. Do you congratulate people?
But I already feel a lot more open. I’m happy to talk to people about it, which I would never have done a few weeks ago. Even the whole Spice Girls concert thing – just mentioning things like that. I wrote something the other day and thought, ‘I’d never have written that two months ago.’ And it was something so small that people wouldn’t have even thought about it. But in my head, it was basically me writing a tweet saying, ‘I’m gay!’, that’s how I felt. So just not having to restrict myself and just being who I am fully… my personality may not change too much, but inside I’m a much happier person. I don’t go to bed anxious every night any more.
When you’ve done something like coming out, you get an inner strength that makes you think you can achieve more in life. That’s how I feel now.
And what’s next for Jak on this journey?
Well, I still feel a little bit like a fraud at the moment, so to write any articles or pieces would risk me being preachy. When you’ve not been in this LGBT world that long, you feel a bit uninformed. So I would like to learn more. I’d love to do a podcast and speak to LGBT+ people in Plymouth about their experiences. A couple of years ago, there was a local drag queen who wanted to do a makeover of someone for the paper and I was asked, and I said no… but in my head, I thought I’d love to do that, to see what I looked like! Now if it came up, I wouldn’t rule myself out!
For more information on Mental Health Awareness Week, visit the Mental Health Foundation website.
If you’ve been inspired by reading Jak’s story and would like to connect with our supportive sport and sports media community of LGBT+ people and allies, please contact us (confidence is guaranteed). You can also email Jon at email@example.com.