I didn't realize it on my high school track and cross-country teams, but I always felt awkward changing in the locker room around other teammates, especially if they saw me nude or vice versa. I never had any sexual interest in women. To keep up a straight façade in high school, I made an agreement with a female friend of mine to be a couple until the end of the year when we both graduated and left.
Once I got into college, I dropped most contact with sports, only occasionally playing Ultimate (Frisbee) and racing 5K's. Where I once had sports, I now spent my time experimenting with my sexuality.
When I turned 21 and was readying to study abroad in England, I became fed up with being a "closeted gay". Arriving in Europe I felt free, like I could start over and figure out who I wanted to be. I found myself gravitating back toward that powerful force I known the majority of my life: sports. Since the university I went to didn't have a running program, I went for what I knew as a second option: Ultimate (Frisbee). I had only played it casually at Fresno State, but I wanted some sort of involvement at the university, not just lie around and do nothing for the year.
The return to sports posed a potential dilemma: I didn't want to just throw away my new-found sexuality; I wanted to be who I was and be proud of it, not having to hide in the shadows.
I quickly decided to come out to my new team. Much to my surprise, they were completely accepting and happy to welcome me in. That was the first time that it hit me: It doesn't matter who you are, it only matters how you play.
The team trained me up into a proficient player, and I was able to travel around the UK playing against other teams. I talked with them about how they deal with gay players on their teams.
In one particular instance, I was actually gutsy enough to wear a "The Gay Team" shirt (a play on the TV show, "The A Team"). No one cared. At ALL. I was baffled. I mean, this was probably the most flamboyant I had ever been. And while I only did it once, it felt strange that no one cared. I did get a few looks, but most of the reactions were positive, especially since I was playing off the TV series. Was it finally OK to be an openly gay athlete in sports?
Moving back to the United States, I was unsure if it would be the same. Looking at our main sports, we didn't have (and still don't) any publicly out NFL, NHL, MLB, NBA, or MLS players. England has had players in cricket, rugby and soccer -- three of the main sports that they consider to be major pastimes for them. There also seemed to be precious few college athletes in the U.S. who were out publicly.
Was I looking at a return to the closet? It was disheartening coming back to a sporting community where it was accepted as nearly fact that gays were in the closet, and that they needed to stay there.
Fresno State used to have an Ultimate team. Connecting back with the former team's advisor after my return to the States, I didn't want to give up the love of Ultimate that had grown on me while I was abroad. So I restarted the club. It was a tough mission at first, but everything fell into place. I had my players and I had recognition from our university and from other universities. We were practicing and we were playing. We became a team, albeit a really young and inexperienced team. But if you talk with any of the squads that have gone against us, we are getting recognized not only for our defensive tactics (we only run zone instead of man marking) but also our ability to tough it out with very few players. I take pride in that.
Despite our team's growth, something still felt like it was missing.
I wasn't being truthful to my new team. Coming out to your team is so daunting, even in a laid-back sport like Ultimate. In truth, one's sexuality shouldn't really matter, but I knew that for me to effectively lead my team I needed to clear the air with them, should I bring a boyfriend around or if they were to see me advocating for the LGBT community. After talking with my advisor and my other executives, I took the plunge.
No one's coming out story is ever the same. While I didn't mean for it to come out so direct, I told my team that I was gay, and if they had any problems, I was willing to talk it over but that was the fact. I wasn't going to change, not that I would if I could. During that same speech, I clearly stated that I will back them to the wall on their opinions, but I would not tolerate bigotry and degradation. I wanted every player to feel welcome and know that regardless of who they were, if they wanted to play they could.
There was no blowback whatsoever.
With the team in order, I volunteered as the treasurer for our Club Sports Council. Then, over our winter break, our president had to resign. In order to keep the council together, someone had to step up. That someone was me. It was a position that I originally didn't want, mostly because I was happy with being treasurer and doing little to nothing, just being there if they needed me.
But with the new position, I suddenly felt as if I could do something to impact not just my sport but other club sports on campus. As a council, we all advocate towards issues that we feel strongly about, and being in a position of power, I suggest topics that needed to be discussed and addressed.
It was January, and the Manti Te'o debacle blew up. Soon after, potential NFL draftees were being asked about their sexuality, both directly and indirectly. I felt this wasn't to be tolerated. And while I may not have had much of an influence on the professional scale, I could do something within my university. I had to start somewhere. So I decided to push the conversation to straight allies in FSU club sports. So far, 11 of our 16 club sports executives have signed on to support LGBT athletes. I could have never expected it.
What I have learned in my year as president of the Ultimate team, and few months as president of club sports here at Fresno State, is to look ahead to what will happen while keeping in mind what has already happened. Complacency is thinking that no more progress can be made in any field, when in fact there is always room for improvement. Each individual athlete has room to grow, to improve, and to learn. It is through learning that we figure how to work out our issues.
My question to you now is simple; Who are you and what do YOU stand for? Whatever it is, do something about it. Inclusion of the LGBT community is something that we must not fail at. And you can help make sure we don't.
You can reach Charles on Twitter or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.