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Gay swimmer Brian Goldthorpe on being gay-bashed by varsity athletes

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Former Denison athlete talks about staying silent after the attack and why he got involved with GO! Athletes

Brian Goldthorpe
Brian Goldthorpe

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By Brian Goldthorpe

Some athletes choose their sports. Swimming chose me.

As a rambunctious boy around the age of 5, my parents had a hard time keeping track of me during my older sister's swim practices and meets. Their solution to keep me from falling through the bleachers was for me to join in the aquatic fun.

My tenure as a competitive swimmer lasted until my final NCAA Championship meet for Denison University when I was 22. I wasn't blessed with the most natural ability, but I was an incredibly hard worker. In retrospect, my dedication to the sport of swimming was exceeded only by my commitment to academics. The two pursuits supported one another and prepared me for many of the challenges I've faced throughout my adult life.

Yet there was one challenge -- my coming out as a gay man -- that I had to figure out on the fly.

I'm 34 now, and I've thought long and hard about whether my story is one that should be told. I waited until my athletic career was nearly complete in 2001 before I started to discuss my sexuality with family and friends despite knowing my truth since early teens.

I was a college senior when I told some of my closest and most progressive friends about my sexuality. I felt their support would give me the strength needed to reach out to my family soon after graduation. But the story of my coming out spread to those beyond my inner circle on campus in the weeks before graduation. I assumed that I could endure any idle gossip for a few weeks, so I kept my head down and marched on towards my future.

Late one Saturday evening in April 2001, I was headed back to my room on campus when three male student-athletes from a different team confronted me. They hurled homophobic slurs, and though I tried to diffuse the situation and continue walking, they surrounded me. One of them hit me in the back forcefully enough to knock me to the ground where I was kicked and punched in the stomach, arms and back several times.

Then, as quickly as it started, the attack stopped and they ran off. I made it to my feet and limped back to my room.

In the weeks, months and years that followed, I chose not to disclose the truth about my homophobic attack to anyone. I can't explain why, and I've spent a great deal of time over the past 12 years trying to figure it out. Despite unflinching support from my family when I came out to them after graduation, and from the coaching staff and administration at Denison throughout my college career, I was embarrassed, ashamed and desperate to move on with my life. If I had the opportunity to do over it again, I would have taken action.

I've had to live with the consequences of my decision to not take some action. One of my biggest regrets is the fact that this incident kept me from being completely open and honest with my college friends, teammates and coaches. Though I came out of the closet, I left some baggage behind.

I wanted to put the experience of physical trauma as far in the rearview mirror as possible - and as a result, I put many of the strong, positive and life-affirming relationships with those from my collegiate career behind me as well. I threw the baby out with the proverbial bathwater - and I didn't give a lot of people the opportunity to embrace me as an openly gay man.

Only in the last year have I started to reconcile some of those relationships. If any of my former coaches or teammates read this, I hope it helps to explain some things. You taught me to live my life with integrity, but in this moment, when I had a chance to speak out, I chose to remain silent.

I've been trying to make up for that decision by becoming an advocate and activist supporting LGBTQ athletes through my work with GO! Athletes. I couldn't be more proud of the work that we're doing. Without this organization I would have likely remained silent for years to come.

I'm compelled to tell my story now because as much as the culture towards sexuality and gender identity in sports has changed since I was in college, we still have a lot of work to do. LGBTQ athletes need to be supported and empowered to act when their physical, mental or emotional well-being is at risk.

So if you take something away from my story, let it not be pity, sadness or fear - let it be hope, inspiration and encouragement. Nothing is gained from remaining silent or backing down in the face of discrimination, hate and violence. To every LGBTQ athlete -- whether out or closeted, in high school or a professional -- know that you are supported and loved. Give the people in your life the opportunity to embrace you.

Now is the time to use your voice and join a growing community of out athletes!

You can reach Brian at brian.s.goldthorpe@gmail.com