I came out on Valentine’s Day. I was 19—a sophomore on the University of Utah’s ski team. The decision to come out had been a year in the making. It started with a stubborn belief that I didn’t need to come out to my teammates. What for? It was none of their business who I was attracted to, I told myself. I secretly knew that wasn’t the point.
The problem was that I was becoming better and better friends with my teammates. We were in the weight room together at 6 a.m., we skied and ran and biked for hours together every day, we watched movies and went to parties together at night.
Except on some nights I disappeared without explanation to go hang out with another group of friends, my gay friends. It was an arrangement that worked, but I quickly grew sick of maintaining separate groups of friends, of making excuses, of having a secret.
Secrets are exhausting. They are just the kind of distraction you want to avoid if you’re training to be your best at your sport. Finally, I decided the solution was to come out to my teammates. What’s the worst that could happen, right?
I decided to tell one of the girls on the team first. Gretchen and I had become close friends over the previous year and I targeted her because I thought she’d be the most understanding. We had been joking for weeks about whether she or I would have a date for Valentine’s Day. Alas, the day was approaching without any signs of movement on the dating front. Honestly, the last thing on my mind was whether I would have a date on Valentine’s Day. I was too obsessed with my decision to come out.
I knew it was time to do it. So I suggested, since we didn’t have anything else going, that she come over on Valentine’s Day and I’d make dinner and we’d watch a movie or something. I my mind, this was a perfect plan and I knew it would give me a couple of hours to build up the courage to actually tell her that I was gay.
Now. A small detail I overlooked is that when you invite a girl over for dinner and a movie—on Valentine’s Day!—it sends a certain message. So caught up was I in my fear and apprehension about coming out that I was completely oblivious that Gretchen thought she was coming over for a date. After awkwardly sorting that out, and then awkwardly mumbling the truth about why I’d wanted her to come over, the night ended with a long talk and Gretchen’s complete acceptance and support.
It was only one person, but I’d done it. And the world hadn’t ended.
Coming out to my guy friends on the team was next. My best friend on the ski team was Zack. We’d been roommates for a year and had spent the previous summer training together. I was terrified to tell him, but I also didn’t want him to hear about it from anyone else. I had to tell him, even if I worried he might treat me differently. I went over to Zack’s. We were going to be drinking, but as we were about to take our first shot, I stopped him.
“There’s something I have to tell you before we get drunk,” I said. I was starting to wish I’d gone ahead and taken a few shots first. The words felt like a huge gap that I had to jump over. I didn’t feel like I could make it to the other side. But then I just said it. “I’m a fag.”
He looked relieved, as if I’d been about to say something worse.
“I know,” he said. “I saw some stuff on your computer.” (Oh, right…there may have been some incriminating “stuff” on my computer.) “And you’re not a fag,” he said. “You just like other dudes.”
And then we took that shot.
I feel lucky. I had teammates that were not just good skiers (we won an NCAA Championship ring my senior year) but who were also amazing friends. But here’s the thing I’ve realized since then: my story isn’t that unusual at all. I’ve met hundreds of gay athletes—out and closeted; high school and college and beyond; elite and recreational—and what strikes me is how consistently admired and respected you are if you have the simple human courage to know yourself and not hide from it.
The most difficult thing about being in the closet is that the fear of homophobic teammates, friends or family tricks you into thinking small. The fear of the unknown seduces you, and you lose sight of the fact that people who aspire honestly and courageously to their better qualities always outshine those who are ignorant or hateful.
None of my out athlete friends had a negative experience coming out. Most of them wish they’d come out sooner. If you’re not out, what are you waiting for? Start with one person and go from there. If you’re not sure if you’re ready, reach out to someone who’s been through it. There is a fantastic community of supportive people, many of whom you can connect with through this site and others. The purest way to make your life better is to know yourself. And be yourself. And come out.
Just be nice to girls. Don’t do it on Valentine’s Day.
Ryan Quinn lives in Los Angeles. His debut novel THE FALL was published in January. Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.