Dancer Corey O’Brien and NFL veteran Ryan Russell, are as impressive and inspirational as a couple as they are as individuals. As the Black Lives Matter movement merges with Pride Month, the couple remind us to celebrate the change we see around while urging people to act as one community to make the world a better place for everyone, no matter the race, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation.
Speaking to EUPHORIA., they delve into Russell’s coming out essay for ESPN, Corey’s journey to sobriety, their joint YouTube channel, what pride means to them and much more.
Earlier this month, you both joined the Black Lives Matter protest at Pasadena. For this civil rights movement to happen during Pride month, and as someone who falls in the intersection of two minority communities, what’s your message to people who might be going through a tough time? Russ: I would tell them first and foremost to take care of themselves, mentally, emotionally, and physically. Then to educate themselves on racism, police brutality, systemic racism, and the unedited history of this country. Next, take action to make this world a better world for all people, Black people, LGBTQ+ people, and women alike. Whether it be supporting local Black and queer businesses, donating to non-profit Black and queer organizations, peaceful protesting, signing petitions, any act that serves equality. Vote. Vote. Vote. And lastly, celebrate the change you see around you and around the world. You deserve to celebrate when you see things changing for the better because of the actions of yourself and your peers.
In your coming out essay for ESPN, you’d mentioned how you’d come to build separate worlds for yourself when you were growing up. After coming out, have the two worlds merged, or are there parts of you that you’ve yet to reconcile into one? Russ: The two worlds have definitely merged, sharing my love of sports and writing is a huge testament to that but also having a boyfriend that building a future with me while being kind and understanding of my past. The love from my sports colleagues and the love from friends and family have been phenomenal.
In the essay, you’d also mentioned the mantra you live by; “If you don’t know me personally, I don’t take what you have to say personally.” But what happens when it’s someone you know personally scrutinizing or judging. How do you deal with that? Russ: That’s a much harder situation and I’m not sure there’s a simple mantra that will encompass all of what someone can fell in those moments. I can tell you that no matter how many people you lose you will gain ten more who love you for you and embrace the very thing you struggled to embrace yourself. Also, at the end of the day, the comfortability and beliefs of others come second to your comfortability and love for yourself. As hard as it may be, disengage from the scrutiny and negativity, and stay drawn to the positivity and acceptance.
What do your writing and poetry mean to you? What drew you to poetry in particular? Russ: Writing to me is therapy through storytelling, healing through honesty, and connecting with others through vulnerability. It’s almost impossible for me to write something without either revealing how I see/feel about the world or how I see/feel about myself. At the end of my poetry book, “Prison or Passion,” I state, “Now you know me as God does. All my hopes, dreams, and wishes. Now you know me as Satan does. All my desires, insecurities, and SINS.” It’s a very raw and frightening way to reveal yourself to the world but that’s how you achieve true growth and make raw and real connections. Your writing might also help others who are going through something you’ve been through and just need to see a happy ending either in your story or in your life.
Corey, you wrote about your battle with addiction in April. In the piece, you spoke how navigating sobriety given the state of the world right now can seem impossible. What gives you stability and strength? Corey: I find strength and stability by staying connected to my recovery by speaking with others about addiction on my Instagram live series called “Isolated in Sobriety,” catching up with my family or even small things such as meditating and journaling. I stay humble and grateful for all that sobriety has given me by remembering all the dark places that my addiction once took me.
What’s something you wish you heard from people when you were struggling that you’d now pass on someone in the world who might need to hear it? Corey: There wasn’t anything I wish I heard from others because I heard it all. “There is hope,” “You can change your life around,” “You are worthy of love” – These were all things I heard, but what I do wish is that I believed them sooner. I was stuck in such a sick cycle of drinking, shame, and self-hatred that I was unable to imagine a life full of love, confidence, and peace. I found that when I started putting the work into my sobriety, everything started to fall into place.
You have a joint YouTube account, are there any particular ideas for videos you haven’t done yet that you’d love to in the future? Corey: I would love to just continue showing different parts of our relationship. I know we want to plan more travel videos and we have really exciting things planned with our “Poetry in Motion” series which features me dancing while Russ is speaking poetry over it. We have already done some of those but we are adding a twist to them now.
Russ: I think collaborating with some amazing people that we’ve had the pleasure to connect with or maybe have idolized from afar, YouTube has been such a connective force in our lives.
There’s a lot of things happening in the world right now, so it’s easy to feel sad or down. But what’s one thing that made you smile most recently? Russ: We have been binging RuPaul’s Drag Race. I had never really seen a whole scene before and after meeting Corey and learning he was on the show I was more intrigued to watch it. Once we started I just couldn’t get enough of the cunning, uniqueness, nerve, and talent each queen was bringing to each and every episode. To anyone who is looking to put a smile on their face, I would highly recommend.
Corey: Russ said it best! I have never seen any full episodes before quarantine, but now I am obsessed. Dancing on RuPaul’s Drag Race was an experience I will never forget and I believe the show has such a powerful message of acceptance, self-love, and unity. With everything going on in the world right now, it’s been nice to escape for an hour watching the queens create gorgeous outfits and laughing at the hilarious challenges they throw themselves into.
What are your hopes for the future as individuals and as a couple? Russ: I’m currently writing my memoir. I’ve found some much strength in being honest and vulnerable and I finally feel brave enough to share my whole story with the world. Also, I’ve heard from people and seen first hand how my ESPN essay has helped change the landscape of sports and create space for more LGBTQ+ athletes to pursue their dreams at the highest level. If my story can be a beacon of hope for young Black and or queer folk than it’s my life mission to be that beacon. Of course, I’m also training for my return to the NFL. I love football, and at 28, I feel more mentally and physically prepared than ever to take the league by storm and help a team win a Super Bowl.
Corey: I’m going to continue sharing my story of addiction and connecting with others who have had similar struggles to spread a message of hope, self-acceptance, and recovery. I want to inspire others who have ever felt like they did not belong or found themselves in a dark place they felt unable to get out of and show them that anything is possible. I am still going full speed at all things dance-related, whether it be auditioning, performing in different shows, or just creating dances for TikTok. Dance was always my first passion and has a special place in my heart.
Both: As a couple, our happiness and love is first and foremost. Our hopes as a couple are too keep growing closer, keep getting to know each other, and keep making each other laugh and smile. We want to continue to represent interracial couples and LGBTQ+ couples the best we can and create spaces for all people to feel equal, worthy, and loved. YouTube is amazing but it’s just the beginning. We’ve started working with non-profit organizations that fight on behalf of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ people and learning how to use our collective voice for the betterment of all.
What’s one question no one has ever asked you in an interview you wish you were asked? Russ: “If you could recommend an organization for our readers to donate to what organizations would you choose?” To which I would respond with, Black Lives Matter, Human Rights Campaign, NAACP, The Trevor Project, and True Colors United. They are all wonderful organizations helping to make the world better for all of us.
Corey: “How can I help a loved one battling with addiction?” I would tell them, places such as SAMHSA, Addiction Guide, and American Addiction Centers have incredible knowledge, facts, and resources to help educate yourself on how to move forward in getting your loved one help. What you can do right now is just listen to whoever may be struggling and let them know you are here for them, especially when they are ready to accept help.
Lastly, what does pride mean to you? Russ: Pride to me is about love, loving yourself, and loving humanity so much that you won’t stop until everyone is equal, validated and heard.
Corey: Pride to me is respecting and loving yourself with all of your heart and never allowing anyone to make you feel less than just because of who you are.