This column originally appeared on GO! Athletes, the world's largest LGBT athlete network, where Dafforn is a member.
The hardest part wasn't understanding internally, and accepting, that I was gay. That was somewhat easy. I realized early on who I was, what my attraction was, the way I was created.
The difficult part was comprehending how I was ever going to share who I was with those I loved: family, friends and teammates. That was the part I dreaded - physically, emotionally, mentally - for more than eight years.
I'm originally from Fort Wayne, Ind., and am currently a graduate assistant coach for the swim and dive teams at Defiance College, an NCAA Division 3 School in Defiance, Ohio. From 2007-2011, I was a swimmer and four-year-varsity-letter-winner for the Purdue University Boilermakers men's swim and dive team. It was during my senior year that I came out to my team.
Before I get to that part, I don't want to give the wrong impression; The realization and understanding that occurred on my road to self acceptance was difficult. I struggled heavily with understanding and accepting who I was. Everything I was told by society, surroundings and friends up to that point said that being gay was wrong, unnatural, and weird. Non-straight people were killed, shamed, disowned; I didn't want that for myself. Fortunately, I knew my parents and my sisters would never stop loving me, no matter what I confessed to them. This was in large part to the relationship I shared with each of them and the love I knew they had for me. I was very fortunate. This doesn't mean I wasn't scared. I was terrified and nervous at the thought of coming out to my family despite our bond.
My friends and teammates at Purdue were another story. I wasn't sure how the guys I had spent the majority of my time with the previous three years -- practicing, socializing, going to class, even living with -- would react to my news. I had a few openly gay teammates at Purdue but always kept my distance from them in fear of guilt by association. Spending all that time pretending I was something I was not, hiding who I was, and constantly monitoring my actions and words was taxing ... but successful. To a degree. Friends and teammates asked me about girls and I continued to lie, hoping they wouldn't know my secret.
Throughout high school and most of college, it was relatively easy to avoid being gay. I kept myself so busy with swimming, schoolwork and extracurricular activities that I was focused, occupied, and no one really questioned much why I never dated girls. I was committed to doing well as a student-athlete, and people understood that.
Looking back, my teams at Purdue were very accepting of gay teammates. However, that doesn't change the power of one's fear and willingness to be comfortable with who he or she is. It was during my junior year at Purdue that I finally worked up the courage to confide in one of my openly gay teammates. Opening up to that teammate is undoubtedly one of the best decisions I've made in my life.
My gay teammate told me it was important for me to come out to my parents and family before I graduated college. That was scary. I had planned on graduating from Purdue and finding a job before coming out to them. Then I'd leave to start a life somewhere else.
The plan was such a cop out.
I took my teammate's advice and came out to my parents and sisters the month before I returned for my final year at Purdue. It went well. After I came out, there were many discussions helping them understand, answering questions, and listening. It was a process. I am so grateful for them and for their unconditional love and support. I know not everyone has a family like I do.
By choosing to come out to my parents before my final season at college, my parents had the opportunity to see I hadn't changed. They continued to visit Purdue for tailgating, football games, and my swim meets and see me in my favorite place in the world doing what I loved. I was the same Ryan: their son who loved Purdue, loved swimming, and loved being part of the greatest university and team I could have ever imagined. It showed them being gay didn't define who I am, it was just another aspect of all that I am.
After coming out to my parents, I felt it was time to come out to my entire team. By December of my senior year I had begun dating someone, and in doing so, the coming out process with my team and friends just naturally happened. I didn't have to have a talk, although I did speak with a few individually. It was this really awesome, cool and open dialogue between my teammates and me. Believe it or not, most were mad at me for not coming out sooner and telling them. I thought that was the coolest reaction.
My teammates and friends expressed that nothing changed in how they viewed me or in our individual friendships. They had so many questions, and I enjoyed answering them. It showed me they cared by wanting to be more informed and wanting to understand. A surreal feeling took over. For years I had dreaded this moment and thought it would never happen. In reality, coming out to my team and friends was a complete relief. It was a moment of pure happiness.
Working as a graduate assistant coach now, I want to help create an environment, especially in athletics, where people don't have to live in fear, where harassment isn't continuously pushing people further and further away from being comfortable with who they are.
People, perhaps particularly LGBTQ people, need to hear more stories of love and acceptance and welcoming. Growing up, I didn't know this type of reaction and acceptance was possible, especially on a sports team. I didn't know people like me existed: athletes who were talented at what they did and also happened to be gay. Since coming out and meeting new people - all the while being comfortable now with who I am - one thing I know to be most true is that I am not alone.
And you are not alone. There are people out there in this world who understand what you're going through, how you feel, what scares you - people out there who fully realize the struggles you deal with internally and externally.
Not everyone's coming out experience is the same, but understand and know that the fear, unknown, anxiety and other emotions associated with this process are shared by many. The road to self-acceptance and the timing for coming out are different for all of us. Just please remember: you are not alone.
Dafforn is a member of GO! Athletes, the world's largest LGBT athlete network. If you're an LGBT current or former athlete and want to get involved with improving the culture of sports, contact them via their Web site or on Twitter.