(This story was published in 2003).
By: Ryan Quinn
Every athlete reaches a point when they realize that sport is no longer an external activity in which they merely participate, but an actual part of their life. But for an athlete to be his best, the sport can be no more or less a part of their life than any of the other parts. But I haven't always known this.
|Had someone asked me five years ago if I knew myself, I would have laughed, naively believing I did. But the laughing stopped when I discovered an inconsistency around me: I was attracted to other guys, and somewhere, a voice that I could never really believe, was saying, "I'm not supposed to want this." The confusion was not that the attraction felt strange or different. It did not. But I was reminded constantly that it was different. I was an athlete and I was not attracted to girls - as society clearly intended.
My response was to concentrate even more on athletics because it was the part of me that I understood. I was good at sports, and like all good athletes, I was accepted for that. For my final two years of high school it was easy to push aside anything that contradicted that existence. I never went through a period of doubt or depression. I enjoyed skiing and running and I enjoyed the friends and teammates that came with it, so it seemed pointless to challenge that despite what I knew was under the surface. I did not even say the words "I'm gay" to myself until my first year in college.
But once I did, I saw everything differently. I discovered that I did not fully know myself. And that thought was more disturbing to me than the fear of appearing different against the norms of society and sport. I came to Utah to ski; to win a national championship and to develop into my best. Somewhere in the confusion and self-isolation of the coming out process I realized that to be my best was not just to ski but to live. And not just to live but to live as myself. Suddenly I saw that I could not approach my potential as an athlete if pieces of myself were scattered. I had left some behind before, but this time they would all be faced equally.
Coming out to family and friends is terrifying. Coming out in the environment known as Division I athletics is numbing. Honestly, I don't remember many of the details from two years ago, but the resulting effect of coming out to my team is very real and continues to awe me.
I was met not with hostility or even the surface-level gestures of tolerance. From my teammates I have received genuine interest, support, and mutual respect. While I give enormous credit to the secure and independent thinking people on my team, I also am beginning to see that my positive experience as an out college athlete is not entirely an accident, nor a stroke of luck.
A Unique Position
Gay athletes are in a unique position because of the inevitable isolation. We are forced to constantly think about ourselves, making us acutely aware of our surroundings and our role in them. For me, this at first led to fear and uncertainty, but ultimately the introspection brought advantages that I now would not give up for anything.
A common question I'm asked is, "Do you ever wish that you were straight?" No, not ever. "But wouldn't that make it easier?" Maybe, but not better. There is a value in such a high level of self-awareness that cannot be appreciated unless it is experienced. My greatest accomplishment is that, upon discovering that I did not know myself, I was not afraid to learn. Unfortunately, many people turn away from themselves and settle for what society will give them. But once I began to think about myself, I began to see that there was no contradiction, that I - all of me - was fully capable of being an athlete.
I am bothered by two misconceptions that define the role of gay athletes today. The first is that they do not exist. Fortunately, this myth is being dispelled more and more each year as athletes come out and the mainstream media presents their stories.
The second is a barrier that cannot be overcome until more athletes are out. It is the notion that if there is an athlete who is gay, and he or she does come out to their team, they will be met with homophobia and will experience such a struggle that is not worth it. These were my perceptions before I came out. Now I see that there is something larger at work that transforms the struggle into an advantage, not just for the gay athlete, but for the entire team.
The heterosexist stereotypes and assumptions about athletes in our culture are very powerful, but I've found that the image of a person who has self-respect and honesty is far more so. Think about the people who are your personal role models - not distant people who have achieved this and that but people who you know, like, and admire. They are probably the people who are secure with themselves, who do not hide pieces of themselves because of what others may think, and would not ask others to hide.
New Level of Respect
In my experience, coming out to my team did not evoke homophobia, but rather inspired a new level of respect, both as friends and as teammates. I told them that I was gay. But what that really said was that I was committed to the team and the sport so deeply that I was willing to risk the honesty because it might make me better. My teammates did not waste any time stepping up to meet this gesture.
In the two years since, I have become so accepted by the team that my sexual orientation is discussed often and mentioned as having the same impact as the lives of my straight teammates. What impressed me the most is that the people around me did not shy away from the knowledge of me being gay. Everyone seemed to understand that in college sports, it's not about sex but about the skiing and about the team (the format of college skiing makes it very much a team sport).
I have heard the theories that individual sports are more accepting than contact team sports. Perhaps this is assumed true, but I think that's only because there are so few examples of athletes coming out in those sports. Either way, there is nothing inherent about team sports that make them more homophobic than individual sports. The latter still often has a team environment based around willful respect and the maximum performance possible from each team member.
The ski team at the University of Utah is historically a favorite among the nation's top ski programs. At the start of this season, Utah had won the NCAA Title 10 times, but none of them had come while I was on the team. This March, after experiencing the disappointment of falling short for three years, our team won the NCAA Championship by the largest margin of victory ever.
To win a National Championship is awesome in itself, but to do it with your closest friends makes it that much more meaningful. At our team's celebration banquet that followed the final race and awards ceremony, the senior toasts and speeches began, as per tradition.
As it came to be my time to speak, I could only think about the last two years - the years that I had been out to them and watched the environment around me rise to a new level of commitment. The other years - times of introspection, isolation, and fear - were not forgotten, but they had faded away. At the end of my toast I thanked them: "As skiers and teammates you all have been good. But as friends you have been amazing."I believe that every athlete - gay or straight - on every team should be able to say that. It is one of the most valuable outcomes that we can take from sport.
Since coming out I have had the opportunity to connect with other gay college athletes, both current and former. The overwhelming majority of them have had positive experiences with their teams and families. It is amazing to meet these people and to hear their stories, which are not unlike mine or the many other athletes who will come out in the near future. Many have received a flood of emails offering encouragement and asking for advice.
While this community is tremendous in its support and influence, it is not so in size. There is room for many more to be a part of what is the beginning of the end of homophobia and ignorance in sport. The greatest changes will occur not because of media stories or prominent athletes coming out but by individuals being themselves - their complete selves - and thus making an impact in the immediate environment around them. The following is from one of my favorite essays from one of my favorite writers:
"You will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude."
--Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ryan Quinn , a native of Alaska, was a cross-country skier on the school's National Championship ski team. He is now an author living in New York City with his partner.