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Part of the Crew

A Rower Comes Out: If Your Teammates Don’t Accept You, Then You Really Aren’t on a Team

(This story was published in 2005).

By: Ryan White

In my sophomore year, I dated one of my best friends, Sharon, for around a month. At this time I was also a resident assistant and a member of the varsity crew team at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash.

During the first couple of weeks things were great and we both respected the space we were accustomed to as well as spending quality time together. In the back of my mind I was not sure what I was doing or why I was doing it. For me it seemed like the right thing to do and that it was the next step of our relationship as friends.

I knew Sharon was onto my secret when she had to pin me down to make me kiss her, and then hear her say that I never wanted to touch her much beyond holding hands. She knew the one thing that I had tried to kill for so many years: I was gay. I told her that I needed to take some time and go away for a bit. I left on a Friday after classes with two of my other friends, Nathan and Sarah.

We had planed a secret trip to talk about how awful things had been going for us that semester. Our trip was a 1,000-mile road trip into Canada and back. We had no real plans beyond getting there and seeing some sights. I returned home to find an e-mail from Sharon saying that she and I were done and that she couldn’t believe that Sarah and I had destroyed our friendship with her just so we could be together.

What she didn’t understand is that Sarah and I were supposed to spend the trip talking about how I was to handle telling Sharon that I loved her deeply but to be with her was to kill a part of myself each time I lied.

Sharon and I broke up in November. Three weeks later was finals week and Sarah and I had still not had the conversation about my sexuality. One night, Sarah looked at me, cocked her head and said, “Ryan, I will talk to you tomorrow.” With that statement I knew that she knew and all the pieces had finally fit together on why Sharon and I hadn’t worked out and why the whole time I was with her I wouldn’t touch her.

The afternoon of Tuesday Dec. 17, 2003, was the first time I ever talked with someone openly about whom and what I was. I remember the extreme fear and hopelessness as Sarah and I walked Tule Loop on campus. I was so scared that she would leave me on the street and never talk to me again. It was the same road that transformed me into a rower and was now transforming my life as I came out for the first time.

My transformation to a rower was not as hard as some others on the team. In high school and in junior high I was involved in football, basketball, track and golf. It wasn’t until I had graduated from high school that I really appreciated running and endurance sports. I guess that was part of my draw towards crew. I didn’t start rowing until I was in college.

In my first year with the crew team I developed a family away from home. I believe that if it wasn’t for them and my connection to the team that I wouldn’t have stayed at PLU. I worked so hard to be the best I could be. I remember running hills in the middle of the winter rains by myself just to get better. In the following spring it paid off and I was elected captain of the novice men’s team.

Revealing a Secret

Sarah and Sharon are both rowers as well and because of this they are two of my best friends. The more Sarah and I walked the loop the more she learned about the first 20 years of life. She learned about my experimenting with guys when I was younger to the repression that I had imposed on myself. She learned how I emotionally tortured myself to fit the standards of growing up in a small Wyoming town.

For me the first step was the hardest. I don’t think I have ever felt so alone in all my life than I did that night. I laid in Sarah’s lap crying for hours. I cried because I was set free but at the same time I had opened a whole side of my existence that I had kept in a dark corner for far too long.

I cried because for me what it meant to be gay was to be hated for something that you had no control over and to die alone without the love of a spouse. I cried most of all because for me death was analogous with gay and to be gay was to die a long and painful death. The killing of Mathew Sheppard and seeing the fallout from it in my hometown, just 300 miles away, shaped my view of the gay world.

I strongly thought that to be gay and from Wyoming meant that my death was imminent. On Friday morning I flew home. Sarah and I agreed that it was best for me to tell my mom while I was home. I spent two weeks at home crying myself to sleep and hiding from my parents.

I remember that Christmas my uncle looked at me and said, “There is something very West Coast about you now, but I can’t put my finger on it.” In the back of my mind I was terrified that he knew and was about to say something to my family. I also had to endure my two cousins, who poked fun at me for all sorts of things, mostly saying that I was a girly man. This was nothing new from them. Our relationship had always been one of contention and a desire to outperform each other. So the teasing was just part of how we interacted but on this trip home it hurt more than normal and made me think that they knew my dark secret.

As my mom was preparing to leave town for New Year’s Eve with my dad, I was sitting on the couch in the living room crying. She kept trying to figure out what was wrong but I wouldn’t tell her. I couldn’t tell her. She left not knowing.

Keeping a Distance

When I got back to school a couple of days later, I returned to a world that was comfortable. A world that was planned and rigorous with workouts, class and other work. Nevertheless, I ditched my workouts with the team because I couldn’t stand for them to know that I was gay. So, I developed a plan of distancing myself from the team. I figured that when they did find out, they could walk away and the pain for me wouldn’t be as bad. I couldn’t stand for them to reject me and send me from their lives in shame. So, I hid from them as I had hid from everyone else in my life.

As the spring season went on in 2004 I told my closest friends before others could tell them. I vividly remember telling James, my best friend and pair partner. We went to the grocery store together and he was going off about how he didn’t think he could date another girl again because they just kept playing with his heart and hurting him.

He made the comment of, “Don’t call Simon and tell him I am gay now. He doesn’t need to fly out here and deal with me.” To which I responded, “James, we handle that in house now.” He looked at me as if I was crazy and then smiled at me. It was the kind of smile that said a million things without having to say a word. We talked for a couple more hours about life in general before I finally just said, “James, I am gay.” His response was, “Well that makes a lot of things make more sense.”

It was in the middle of spring that my mom became concerned about my mental health and summoned me home for Easter. On April 15, 2004 at 5:15 pm, I told my mom that I was gay. One of her first questions was whether it was a crew thing to be gay. I was shocked at first and then I told her that it wasn’t. She then asked if she could deal with alcohol and drugs. I think that she asked me those questions because she was trying to make sense of how this had developed. She knows how to handle drugs and alcohol but she hadn’t been exposed to people coming out before. It was new and scary for her. For the rest of the weekend, she would randomly break into tears. I thought that I had killed her from the way she reacted. I had caused her so much pain with just four words.

Redefining Myself

After James, I didn’t tell any one else at school until the summer. That was until I invited a friend to go to Gay Pride with me around the Puget Sound area and she didn’t understand why I wanted to go. I made a comment about rainbows not really being my thing because I hadn’t become that comfortable with myself. That summer I made it to the three major prides in the Puget Sound area: Olympia, Tacoma and Seattle. At the parade in Seattle I marched with the Human Rights Campaign. It was one of the best experiences of my life. From the parade and other experiences of the summer I learned what it was to be comfortable with myself.

That summer I also taught myself that being gay was a part of me but it wouldn’t define who I was. On the mirror in my room I wrote, “I will not let part of me be all of me.” Every morning I looked at it and tried to work out how I wanted to be defined as a person as well as how I wanted to define myself.

I spent the fall of 2004 hiding from the world. Being an only child I have mastered the fine art of escapism and I fled to France to continue to work on myself. While I was in France I heard whispers of what was happening at school and that more and more people were finding out that I was gay. At first I was furious that people would feel that it was their duty in life to tell others something about me. As time went on, I came to realize that it was for the best that people were finding out when I was not around. In my mind it would give them time and space to process the fact that I had always been gay, but that I was being redefined in their eyes.

When I came back to school this January, I had no idea how I would be treated. Once again I ditched out on my January workouts as I hid once again. As the end of the month drew close, I sat down with my two captains individually and talked to them. I told them that if my sexuality became an issue, I would walk away. Their response was that it wouldn’t be an issue and if it ever was that they would take care of it.

As the season went on, guys I was dating would come by and meet several members of the team and they were treated with respect and loved as if they were any of the girlfriends of the rest of the guys. I was so proud of my teammates for the way they treated people I was dating, but I was always slightly uncomfortable.

I thought that I could get away with just having my teammates meet just the most important of whom I was dating, but this past summer I moved into the Crew House and with that, my old captains and other five housemates wanted to know every guy I went out with and every guy that I brought home.

My Teammates Meet My Dates

During this time they met one of my ex-boyfriends and a couple potentials for new boyfriends. My housemates also witnessed the start of new relationship as well as its breakup in the last couple weeks. It was with this relationship that they have learned that gay relationships are just like straight ones.

I had one of my old captains, now a housemate, sit me down and said, “PLU Crew is a family and you are part of that family. That means that we care about you and what to know who is involved in your life.” It was with those words that my life with the crew team changed. We had always been taught that to be a member of the team was to be part of a family that was greater than you. We were also taught to be a member of the team was to be part of a legacy that started with nine guys and an unbreakable will.

It was on that day that I decided that no part of my life was to be held in shame when I was around them. They are my family, an endless chain of brothers and sisters to call my own. I know that every step I take I take it with them at my side and with them I can do anything I set my mind to.

This past summer, the guys, my teammates, my brothers got to know me as I am. They had the opportunity to know me as a gay rower who is just like all of them, and works his heart out for something greater than himself in the hopes of making the world a greater place. I have always had my doubts about whether I was considered different from the rest of the team; however, when it came to electing our captains for this year I was honored with being selected as one. I was shocked and so pleased.

I now have a passion for telling other gay athletes to do what is right for them and be honest not only with themselves but with those that care about them. Your team will love you no matter what and if they don’t, then you really aren’t on a team and your presence isn’t as valuable as you think it is.