Life as an openly gay athlete: 'Coming out often felt like jumping off a 30-foot cliff into a deep pool of water.'
(This article first appeared in 2003).
By Jordan Goldwarg
When I look back over the past year, I'm amazed at how much my life has changed. Last year at this time, not only was I completely in the closet, but I had not even accepted myself as being gay. Today, though, I've fully accepted myself, and I'm completely out with all of my friends, my family, and most significantly, my ski team. What happened that changed everything?
Looking back now, I think I knew from a very early age that I was gay. I've always felt more attracted to guys than to girls, right from the time that I started feeling attraction. The problem was that I didn't see any other gay people around me who seemed similar to me at all.
Pretty much the only exposure to gay people that I had was through the media, which only reinforced in my mind stereotypes that I didn't fit into. I told myself that I couldn't be gay because I didn't seem gay, and there weren't any other gay men like me. Instead of accepting myself for who I was, I went into denial, making up many of the excuses that I'm sure other gay men have used, like, "This is only a phase" or "I just haven't found the right girl yet."
Even though this denial went on for years, I was lucky in that I had a lot of other stuff going on in my life that distracted me from thinking about it. I always kept myself busy in school, and I have a loving and supportive family and a close group of friends.
One of the most powerful things, though, was skiing. I had skied with my family pretty much since I could walk, and I started racing when I entered high school. There, I raced the Nordic (cross-country) events for both my school team and a club team outside of school. Skiing provided a focus in my life that made it easy to spend time thinking about the sport rather than agonizing over whether or not I was gay. At the time, I didn't think about the fact that my position as an athlete would later be one of the greatest barriers to my coming out.
My life at Williams was great right from the start. I loved my classes, my friends, and the location, and the ski team experience was even better than I hoped it would be. The team was a lot of fun, forming the core of my social group, and I was also seeing steady improvement in my skiing. Always lurking below the surface, however, was the increasing knowledge that I was gay.
By the end of my sophomore year, I was starting to make some small steps toward accepting the fact. I would become comfortable with the idea of being gay for a while, but then something would happen that would push me back into denial. I still had a lot of trouble seeing myself as a gay man, in large part because I was an athlete and I didn't see any other gay male athletes around me. Through this time, I was still completely silent about the subject and none of my friends had any reason to suspect that I was gay.
Finally, in February 2002 (the winter of my junior year), things changed. While looking at Outsports.com one day, I came across the list of out athletes. Reading it over, I found that there was another Nordic skier on the list who was on the ski team at his college out West. This discovery was incredibly powerful. All of a sudden, it didn't seem like I was completely alone in my situation; here was someone else who had really similar interests and who was also gay.
I was able to get in touch with him through e-mail, and we began corresponding, which helped me first to accept myself as being gay and then to have the confidence to come out. Once I accepted myself, I quickly began to feel the need to start telling people and end the secret.
In April, I told my first friend (a girl), who was great about it - totally supportive and accepting. A few weeks later, I told a teammate (also a girl), who was also great. By June, when I went home after the end of school, I felt that I was ready to tell my parents. Even though I knew they would be totally fine with it, it was still probably the most difficult thing I've ever done. It was just such a big piece of news that I was filled with apprehension, wondering what their exact response would be. It took my parents some time to adjust to the idea that their son was gay, but they showed incredible love and support through the whole process, for which I consider myself incredibly lucky.
Taking the Plunge
Coming out to people often felt like jumping off a 30-foot cliff into a deep pool of water. You think about it beforehand and plan how you want to jump. You know that it will almost certainly be safe, yet there's still an element of the unknown. When it actually comes time to jump, though, you can't really think about it at all because you'll chicken out. You just have to go on autopilot and take the plunge.
When I got back to Williams last fall, I soon realized that I wanted to come out to more people, including the rest of the ski team. I had come out to a few more people over the summer (including a couple of teammates), but most of my friends still didn't know. My sense of urgency was increased when I began dating my first boyfriend, since I couldn't stand the idea of living a double life. Most of all, I wanted my friends to know me for who I really am.
I still had lingering fears and doubts about telling the ski team, though. I really didn't think that my place on the team would be jeopardized in any way, but I was afraid that somehow things would be different and people would treat me differently than they had before. So I kept putting off telling the team until they were the last of my friends who didn't know. (One of the ironies of coming out for me was that it was often easier to tell people who I didn't know so well and harder to tell my closest friends - I guess I thought I had more to lose with those closer to me.)
Finally, I decided that I couldn't put it off any longer because it was really starting to eat me up inside, distracting me from my skiing and my schoolwork. I first told my coaches, who were great about it - they helped give me confidence to tell the rest of the team. A few weeks later, we had a training camp, which was a good opportunity to tell people since the whole team was together for a week. After dinner one night, I just said that I had something I wanted to talk about and told the team as a group. There was definitely an awkward silence afterward (this was not the usual post-dinner conversation), but later that night, people started asking me questions about being gay and telling me that they appreciated me telling them. They also told me that it didn't change their opinion of me at all.
Now that some time has passed since I came out to the team, I can see that all of my fears about coming out have not come true. Rather than changing my friendships negatively, coming out has actually allowed me to become closer to my friends since I can be completely honest and open with them now. My teammates even joke about my being gay now, which definitely shows me that they're comfortable with it and accept it.
I know that my experience is not the same as some other athletes' experiences with coming out. I think I'm lucky in that I compete in an individual sport (and one that happens to be pretty open-minded at that), since coming out in a team-sport environment definitely seems to be more difficult.
It is possible, though, to come out as an athlete and have a positive experience with it. I've gained much greater self-acceptance, and I don't have to waste huge amounts of mental energy anymore worrying about it and trying to hide it. The whole process has been incredibly liberating.
(Jordan Goldwarg, 21, grew up in Montreal and is a senior at Williams College in Massachusetts. He competes on the men's Nordic ski team. He is majoring in History and Environmental Studies.)
Feb. 4, 2003