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Navigating a maze in blue: Two gay Michigan gymnasts share their stories

Evan Heiter, Ben Strauss
Evan Heiter, Ben Strauss

By Ben Baldus-Strauss and Evan Heiter, with Cyd Zeigler

Evan Heiter (left) and Ben Baldus-Strauss

Editor’s Note: Ben and Evan were teammates on the 2010 men’s gymnastics national championship team at the University of Michigan. At the time, Evan was out on the team and had been for a while; Ben was in the closet and would remain there until after his last meet as a senior in 2011. Despite being in different stages of coming out (not even Evan knew Ben was gay), they became best friends.

This is the first-person account of both men’s struggles with being gay on the same team, one in and one out of the closet. Evan’s words are in italics.

Ben: I have to attribute a decent amount of my success in gymnastics to the fact that I was closeted. This void I created in my adolescent life needed filling, and gymnastics was just the ticket. It demanded so much time, sustained effort, and perfectionism that it had the power to pull me away from the gripping internal struggle that ate away at me whenever I had a second of down-time. My goal was to stay as busy, as distracted, and as exhausted as possible so I could continue to put off dealing with my deep-rooted feelings.

Gymnastics became a powerful outlet for me. While my peers explored drinking and sex as we entered high school, I decided that as an elite athlete I had too much at stake to risk having fun or investing in a relationship. I poured every ounce of energy I had into athletics, and eventually this same mindset translated to my schoolwork. It was to the point where I was regularly pulling all-nighters studying while attempting to balance four hours of high-level training. I thought, if I could continue to succeed, to overshadow everyone else with my accomplishments, they wouldn’t judge me—wouldn’t hate me—for the way I was born. I could salvage some measure of respect from them at the very least.

I barricaded my walls so strongly and felt I had only one flaw to my name. As long as that flaw remained discreet, I could surely preserve the respect of the people in my life that mattered most to me. It was both powerful and suffocating as I overthrew exhaustion, sacrificed my health, and even compromised my relationships with friends and family for years.

Graduating high school valedictorian in a class of over 600 students and securing a scholarship to compete for the University of Michigan men’s gymnastics team, I seemed to have it all together. But beneath the exterior of that driven young man was a pained adolescent who felt bitterly alone in the world. I had never been truly happy.

Evan: Being a college athlete allowed me to have experiences that I could easily have not been so fortunate to have. Being a gay college athlete only made these experiences all the more worthwhile. Still, it was no fairytale (pun intended). For me, my college athletics career was about self-reflection, finding my place on the team, and ultimately finding myself along the way.

My journey to becoming a college athlete was anything but traditional. I quit gymnastics before seventh-grade basketball season. Whether it was burnout or a deep need to feel accepted, I stepped away from my passion and started down a more traditional path. Later on in high school, there was no shoving into lockers, bullying, or fear. Whispers, jokes, I’ll give you those, but essentially, I was popular. I had a ton of friends—great friends. Whether or not they were concerned with my sexuality was never an issue that was confronted…at least outwardly. Internally, I had a tremendous daily struggle to “just not worry about it now.”

I felt tremendous pressure to make my parents proud. I pushed aside the dreams of having someone to love and care for. I was confident that there would come a time when I could handle everything that weighed so heavily on me. At times during this self-reflection, I’m sure I looked more like a crazed, smiling Lifetime-movie lead, rather than a 17-year-old kid.

I started gymnastics again the summer before my senior year…a five year hiatus from the sport was unheard of. I have my club coach to thank for creating a way for me to regain my love for the sport, and more importantly, my skills.

Ben: Walking into the gym for the first time as a freshman at Michigan, I considered coming out and adding to the life changes that were being thrown at me as I started college life. But I quickly felt the pressure of the hyper-masculine environment of NCAA gymnastics and the rest of the athletic community. I retreated to my safe place.

Still, I was excited to learn that one of my teammates who was two years ahead of me was openly gay. But I was often a witness to the way people talked about him when he wasn’t around. While most of it was in good fun, it was no laughing matter for me. I had little self-confidence and was extremely sensitive to judgment. A people-pleaser to my core, I knew that coming out was going to be no easy task; The behavior of those around me reinforced my fears.

I succeeded beyond expectation in the gym and in the classroom, landing a 4.0 both semesters of my freshman year and making the Big Ten and NCAA Championship line-up on all four of my events. I also developed a deep friendship with my teammate Evan Heiter. We were on the same wavelength – humor, perception, pop culture, worldview – the list goes on.

I listened as rumors circulated about him talking to gymnasts on another team. And I watched the growing distance in his eyes. At a team post-season gathering, he went around to each member of the team and came out to him. I remember him saying to me, “I have to tell you something, but do you promise to still be my best friend?” I knew what was coming.

When I woke up the next morning, he was on our couch in the living room, and we spent the day talking and laughing as though nothing had changed. Because it hadn’t.

Evan: When I first stepped into the gym at the University of Michigan, I knew everything was about to change. I had attended another university for a semester, but I couldn’t find my groove. So, with the help of many supporting characters, this guy took to changing, and successfully applied to transfer, with a walk-on spot on the men’s gymnastics team in tow. It took all of five minutes before one of my new teammates asked if I was gay. “Phew, now I can just shrug that one off and go on my straight-acting way,” I thought as I told him this was not the case.

My first few semesters were a whirlwind of academic pressure and closet-case antics. And I was bolstering my gymnastics skills. I found a home amongst my teammates. I grew so inspired and comfortable in my new surroundings that those repressed, adolescent thoughts began to emerge. I was about to start something big.

I feel like everyone who comes out of the closet starts dropping hints whether they know it or not. Whether it was the fact that I wore cologne to practice or included “I Wanna Dance with Somebody”on my workout playlists, things should have become easier for my teammates to figure out.

It all culminated at a social gathering one summer. I “lit” the fuse so to speak and made my rounds letting my brothers in Blue know that I was gay. And then I waited. I think the most comforting part of my coming out to the team was how much outward, almost indifferent support I received. “Well, this doesn’t really change anything,” was a common response. I was glad. There wasn’t much they could have hoped to change any way.

Ben: The aftermath of Evan’s coming out wasn’t all smiles and rainbows. I had teammates confide in me that they thought Evan was getting “gayer and gayer every day.” And another whined to me about how the two gays on the team had to prance around on the floor at competitions and ruin our reputation. Still another who had arranged to be Evan’s roommate before the news left him high and dry on their housing plans. The closet, to me, seemed the best place to ride out my athletic career. For me to feel comfortable in my own skin, it needed to be about a hundred times thicker than it was.

I’m sure my teammates and other members of the athletic community had their doubts about me. When someone called me “Bengay” or a captain asked me as a freshman how the GC (gay community) was treating me, I just shrugged with empty eyes and pretended I was too stupid to understand. For the most part, though, my teammates looked up to me as an academic and athletic leader of the team, and because of that, I think they felt that homosexuality wasn’t even a possibility for me – it didn’t fit their perception of who gay people were.

I was envious of Evan’s freedom and his confidence in himself, but I didn’t think I had that strength in me yet. So I was a silent observer of a life I wanted to live. I wouldn’t say I was miserable, but the way my life worked for those first three years of college was essentially that all of these activities were slowly depleting me and I had very little opportunity to build myself back up due to my repressed personal life.

Evan: Like I said earlier, it was no fairytale. It was not like my teammates were all of the sudden weaving rainbow support ribbons onto their gym bags. There was no mystery who began talking to me a little less, making sure they weren’t too alone with me, and definitely not making the extra effort to get to know me any further. As an upperclassman, walk-on, transfer on the team, believe me I had to pay my dues and take the road less traveled. By my Junior year, I could not be bothered to apologize for who I was. As far as I saw it, my title was “student athete, gay” not “gay, student athlete.”

In gymnastics, there’s no denying that the presence of gay-athletes is felt stronger than in other sports. However, what most don’t realize is that this creates a fiery passion for some heterosexual gymnasts to defend themselves and cut others down.

I only received bits and pieces of what was said about me behind my back. I took comfort in the fact that every one has their battles, in sports and in life. If my teammates felt compelled to make illogical connections regarding mine, they were investing a lot of time into something they “hated”.

Ben: In the fall of my senior year, on the heels of an NCAA Championship season and a summer of cramming for the MCAT, I finally broke down to my mom over lunch one day. When she embraced me down to my very last secret, I realized that people would still care for me on the other side of this and even if some didn’t, the unconditional love of the people that mattered most to me in my life would carry me through the struggle.

Over the next few months, with the full support of my family, I gradually told everyone, leaving my very own team for last. I suppose it was a personal decision – with only eight months remaining in the sport at the beginning of my senior season, I didn’t want any distractions and hoped to close out my athletic career on a strong note. But I can’t deny that something inside made me think that this would be far and away the hardest group of people to tell

Evan was now in Seattle, having graduated a year before me. He was the first of my peers to hear the truth. His response? “Welcome to the rest of your life, bud.” This couldn’t have been more fitting for the changes that were to come.

Evan: By the end of my tenure at the University of Michigan, I had played a supporting role in a Big Ten Title and a National Championship. And by supporting, I mean mostly as a spectator, cheering from the stands while other guys on the team competed. My story is not about coming out, rising above persecution, and saving the day to win it all. It’s about finding myself and embracing my place. Of course I would have loved to have different opportunities, but the struggles and successes I endured in and out of the competitive arena, brought me to a place where I could be free enough to write this piece. Today I feel nothing but love from my parents, family, and friends. And I take confidence in knowing that I continued and triumphed in the battle that many had fought before me.

When Ben came out to me I was beyond proud. He was very concerned that I would hold some kind of bottled contempt for his staying closeted while we were on the team together. If anything, I knew that my path was my own and his was his own. If our friendship was great before, it was the best now. I have so many reasons to be thankful for Michigan Gymnastics. If not for allowing me to find myself and put a face to everyday, gay athletes, then just to find a friend like Ben.

Ben: Coming out flipped my life right side up, giving it meaning and purpose. And it provided me an outlet for my passion – something that wasn’t a challenge to overcome or a goal to accomplish but that was just simply for me. This newfound freedom was so liberating that I lost all concern for others’ judgments and perceptions. The few troubles I came up against in this whole process were dwarfed by how happy I was now that I could finally be myself and so they didn’t matter to me.

Two weeks after I retired, I decided to email my team more out of concern for gay athletes in future generations than for any compulsion of my own. It took me almost a half-hour to push the send button. Part of me felt guilty for not telling them sooner, but as Evan was quick to remind me, you have to come out on your own terms. There is no wrong time.

That same night, I received an email back from over half of my teammates and was pulled aside by a few in person. They were nothing but supportive and while I’m sure there were things they wished they could retract, everyone, including myself, committed to moving forward. I was treated no differently and I actually grew significantly closer to some of my teammates because I finally let my guard down around them.

I like to think that Evan and I put a face to the gay community on our team. We were so much more than stereotypes. We were real people in their everyday lives who put in countless hours in the gym with them, competed for them, struggled academically alongside them, and laughed with them. And while there were certainly bumps and bruises along the way, I saw the evolution of a team over my four years and I’m proud to have helped in bringing that about with my best friend, Evan.

You can follow Evan Heiter on Twitter @YoEv. Ben Baldus-Strauss is also on Twitter @bbstrauss. Both men are also on Facebook: Evan and Ben.