Standing on the bed of a 24-foot platform truck, Lee Cary took in the scene around him. His hands gripped the multi-colored flag draped across the wooden beams encircling 50 members of the Philadelphia 76ers organization, with smiles just as wide as his.
While a freshman at Penn State, Cary clutched his textbooks tight and buried his head in news assignments, never imagining a world where he could openly admit his sexuality. Nearly a decade later, he stood shoulder to shoulder with his friends and coworkers, leading the Sixers in Philadelphia’s 31st Annual Pride Parade.
Growing up, Cary’s involvement in the athletic arena cultivated his love for sports — performance and statistics-wise. Knowing that he couldn’t pursue a career professionally on the performance front, Cary combined his love for writing and the plethora of sports statistics floating around in his head — thus, formulating his career in sports journalism.
With his standing as a Penn State student and his future profession in mind, Lee found himself heavily involved in the day-to-day affairs at The Daily Collegian. The publication, which was part of three of his four academic years, had a profound impact in shaping his natural instinct for communication and his understanding of the professional world, according to Cary.
“I learned an incredible amount at the Collegian, not only about writing, but about people and how we interact with one another,” Lee said. “Some of my best friends today are from connections I made while writing there.”
The Collegian also led Cary to his current partner, Zack Neiner. Though he did not reveal his sexuality until the tail end of his collegiate career, Cary recalls the publication as a medium that introduced him to the beginning of what would be the rest of his life.
“I first met my boyfriend Zack at the Collegian, and we have been dating ever since,” Lee said. “Without the Collegian, I probably wouldn’t have met him and certainly wouldn’t be where I am today.”
In a broader sense, Cary attributes a prominent part of his professional success to the foundations laid and relationships built within Penn State’s journalism program.
In addition to the university’s far-reaching alumni base and resource network, Cary said Russ Eshleman, the head of the department of journalism at the Bellisario College of Communications, had a profound impact on Cary’s academic career.
In a recount of his journalistic endeavors, Cary recalled his struggle with a long-form piece that he wrote within Eshleman’s in-depth reporting course. With the encouragement and guidance of Eshleman, Cary both completed the piece and placed sixth in the Hearst Awards, a competitive multimedia journalism competition.
“The network you have at Penn State is so vast. It seems like everyone knows someone who went there, so it’s always great to work with someone who shared a similar experience as you,” Lee said. “Russ was committed to assisting me along the way. As a professor, I felt like he always believed in me and took the time to help me develop as a student, as a writer and as a person.”
Behind his Penn State persona, Cary struggled with his sexuality for the majority of his teenage and young adult years. Prior to his senior year of college, the thought of coming out to his close family and friends was a reality that felt out of place for Cary.
“I didn’t start coming out to friends or even talk about being gay until the final semester of my senior year at Penn State, so I was pretty blind to the resources and groups that were on-campus,” Cary said. “I spent a lot of time trying to be someone who I wasn’t. I internalized quite a lot of pain before I came out, hoping one day I would be different.”
Surrounded by a supportive environment and all-welcoming group of friends, Cary found himself in a place where he could reveal his sexuality to those closest to him. According to Cary, in retrospect, he is astonished at the progress that he has made since his initial coming out.
“If you told me going into my senior year that I would be writing a story about my coming out journey and leading the 76ers’ participation in the Pride Parade, I would have thought you were insane,” Cary said. “I was so deeply stuck in the closet that I truly never thought I would tell anyone.”
Following his graduation from Penn State in 2015, Cary accepted a position as the Philadelphia 76ers social responsibility manager, where he has continued to make an impact on the LGBTQ community.
Despite his initial reservations about revealing his sexuality in the workplace, Cary said the Sixers community has been insurmountably supportive of him and the LGBTQ community.
“Once I started working for the 76ers, I was still pretty guarded when it came to sharing my sexuality. I started working there less than a year after coming out, so I was just in a vulnerable place,” Cary said. “But, just as it was at Penn State, I was met with nothing but support from those around me once I did open up about being gay.”
Cary’s friend and former coworker at the 76ers, Nicole Bianchini, emphasized Cary’s impact on her throughout their relationship. Inspired by his “selfless and kindhearted” personality, Bianchini uses her relationship with Cary as an example to advocate for the uniquely personal impact that Cary has on the people around him.
In 2019, State College earned a perfect score for LGBTQ inclusivity on the Human Right’s Cam…
“Lee has taught me so much in only the few years we’ve known each other — he’s taught me the importance of being fearless. Taking risks. Doing things you wouldn’t normally feel comfortable doing. He’s taught me self-love. The importance of knowing your worth,” Bianchini said. “I’m beyond grateful for our friendship and what Lee has brought to my life and I truly couldn’t be more proud to be his friend.”
Within the organization, Cary continues to use the Sixers broad-reaching platform to advocate for the LGBTQ community. The organization hopes to continue expanding its message of inclusivity to fans and members of the Sixers’ community.
The 76ers are thrilled to be hosting their pride celebration game on Feb. 20 of the current season, Cary said.
“Our organization is committed to being inclusive of all fans and engaging our diverse communities in ways that are most meaningful to them,” Cary said. “It has truly been an incredible three years of working on the 76ers Pride Platform.”
Regarding his dedication to exemplifying the Sixers’ supportive platform to the public, Bianchini further emphasized Cary’s dedication to supporting the LGBTQ community through his place within the organization, as well as his own personal story.
Cary has not only grown more confident in his own sexuality over his tenure with the Sixers, but is using his status within the organization to encourage and support others attempting to come to do the same, according to Bianchini.
“Knowing that he could utilize such an incredibly impactful platform such as a professional sports franchise and bring awareness and support to the LGBT community is an incredible accomplishment of Lee’s,” Bianchini said. “He has gone from someone who is willing to share his story with close friends to someone who is willing to share his story with the world.”
Based on his own struggle with coming out, Cary has one piece of advice for other people who struggle with their sexuality — come out when you’re ready.
Each person’s situation is uniquely different — which means coming out should be done when one feels the most secure within their various personal communities and relationships, according to Cary.
“I wasn’t sure how my parents were going to react to me coming out, but I wanted to be in a place where I was okay if they didn’t want me in their lives. Had I come out in high school, the trajectory of my life would be very different from where I am today,” Cary said. “The first and most important priority for someone coming out is their safety whether that is at school, at home or in their community.”