There was a moment in 2009 when coach Micah Porter's lifetime of struggle finally came to a head.
He had what some might consider the perfect life. He was a four-time state champion head coach in Colorado for cross-country and track & field. He had won awards for excellence in teaching, including being named Teacher of the Year at D'Evelyn High School in West Denver. He was married to a beautiful woman, and the two had a pair of wonderful children. Porter's life was a postcard from the American Dream.
Inside, he struggled with depression. He had been seeing a counselor regularly. He relied on medication to stay on course. It was affecting his marriage and his relationship with his children.
"I knew why I was depressed," Porter remembered as we talked on the phone, digging deep into those dark days. "I knew it was because of my sexuality. I felt incredibly guilty for continuing to have the feelings while being married.
"I felt like a fraud."
Something had to change. By now, nearing 40, his life was intertwined with his wife's at every point. Not only did they teach at the same high school, they were also the head coaches of the school's cross-country teams. In trying to bury his feelings for men, he had wrapped his life around his relationship from sunrise to sunset.
Despite years of dating women and 13 years of marriage, it was obvious to Porter that his sexual orientation was an unmovable force. If it hadn't yet, that piece of him was never going to change.
He knew he had to tell was his wife, and he had to tell her first.
It was at the pool in the summer of 2009 that Porter finally found his way. He and his wife sat watching their son swim laps as Porter's stomach twisted in knots. Eventually, he found the words.
"I think I know why I've been dealing with depression and haven't been able to fix it," Porter told his wife.
Her reaction was silence. That was followed by disbelief and concern. Over the coming months, they would tell their children, separate and divorce. Her concern would understandably turn to hurt, then anger. Like so many women before her, she had spent over a decade of her life married to a gay man who would eventually break her heart.
Like so many closeted gay men before him, Porter reached the point at which he simply couldn't live a lie anymore.
"It was hard to see her in pain because of that," Porter said. "In many ways, the guilt I'd been harboring for years for being gay was replaced by the guilt of hurting her."
After years of marriage, building a life and family with his wife, Porter was suddenly living in an apartment by himself, financially strapped due to the divorce. With two children and working together on a daily basis in the classroom and on the track, their intertwined lives would for years forward be a daily reminder of the repercussions of Porter living life deep in the closet.
But for the first time in his life, Porter was himself.
* * *
In Porter's 17 years leading the cross-country team at D'Evelyn High School, and 16 years as the school's head track & field coach, Porter has built a stellar resume. His teams have won four Colorado state championships; He has been named the state coach of the year once; He's won 12 Jefferson County coach-of-the-year honors for his sport and was the county's coach of the year for all sports once; He has coached 33 athletes to individual state titles.
"That's pretty impressive," said D'Evelyn High School athletic director Jerry McWhorter. "He's well-respected throughout the state as a coach. He gets a lot out of his athletes."
He's also respected in the classroom. A social studies teacher at the high school, Porter was named D'Evelyn's Teacher of the Year in 2004; He won a large "Excellence in Teaching" Award in 2002. Even with his academic success, it's when he talks about coaching that his passion comes through. His excellence in motivating young athletes isn't lost on the AD.
"Cross-country is as tough a sport as there is, and he makes it fun for the kids," McWhorter said. "He changes it up and challenges the kids. He's always looking for the best in all of his athletes, and they all love him. They'd break through a wall for him. They know he has their best interest at heart always.
"I've never heard a negative thing about him from anybody."
Despite the warm embrace by the school, there was plenty of trepidation from the administration when Porter told them he was gay just before the 2010 season. After lengthy conversations, Porter was advised not to go into the boys locker room anymore; If he needed something from the locker room, he should have an assistant coach take care of it.
Both Porter and McWhorter said the decision had nothing to do with any concern about Porter's behavior, but rather the potential for false accusations leveled at Porter. The school, by all accounts, is a conservative institution. It was feared that a parent or student may use Porter's sexual orientation against him by falsely accusing him of improprieties in the locker room. The administration decided - for Porter's own protection - that he should stay well away from the locker room.
"You never know when you may come across a family that's against this, and somehow they find out [he's gay] and they want to get back at Micah by accusing him of something," McWhorter said. "But never once did it cross our minds that he would do something inappropriate with our students. Never."
The consequence of the decision has forced Porter to change in school bathrooms. At the end of class each day, he enters a bathroom by himself and slips into his uniform for that afternoon's practice.
"Every day I have to go into a bathroom to change," Porter said. "It's a reminder that I'm a second-class citizen in a school I've given so much to."
The administration also advised Porter to keep his sexual orientation to himself. While many of the staff and teachers at the school were aware of it after his divorce from a fellow teacher, they did not want his student-athletes to know.
"We have a general rule that our teachers and coaches don't discuss their personal lives with their students or athletes," McWhorter said. "The kids don't want to hear about your personal life, and neither do the parents. They just want you to coach or teach their child.
"I support Micah 150%. I always have and I always will. I don't have a bad word to say about the guy. He's a great coach, he's a great teacher."
Despite the school's concerns, Porter's sexual orientation has slowly become one of the worst-kept secrets in West Denver, where the school is based.
Shortly after the divorce, Porter began dating Brandan Rader, a psychology student at the University of Colorado at Denver. The two met when Porter came across a talk by Rader at a nearby school encouraging youth to accept their sexual orientation. Porter asked Rader to lunch, they hit it off, and they have been together since.
That was over two years ago. In that time, they've been seen together around town. A lot. Porter has introduced Rader to parents and friends. Various students live in their neighborhood; Some have asked "who was that man" they saw with Porter. Between that and a high-profile divorce in the high school, there are likely few adults in the area who didn't know Porter's poorly kept "secret."
The buzz has trickled down to the student body. Porter said his daughter, now a freshman at the University of Denver, was asked by a runner if her dad was gay. The school's head basketball coach told Porter he was asked by his team about Porter's sexual orientation.
"When people ask, I tell them," Porter said. "My closest friends at school know, and I tell them they can tell whomever they want. It's a major part of who I am as a person, but it's not the defining part. I'm a coach, I'm a teacher, I'm a dad, I'm Brandan's partner. I happen to be gay, but it's not something I need to put on a billboard."
Yet Porter has been reticent to tell his team, largely because of the warnings and concern from athletic director McWhorter.
"He said it could bring a lot of unnecessary attention," Porter said. "And he asked me, 'do you really want that?'"
Porter has struggled with the answer to that question for two years.
Porter (middle) with his 2011-12 4A boys cross-country Jefferson County League Championship team
* * *
Porter was the model child for Norman Rockwell long before his professional career began. Growing up in rural Stockbridge, Mich., he was a star three-sport athlete, the son of a principal; He was a Boy Scout and eventual valedictorian of his high school class.
Being the perfect kid put more pressure on him to be, well, "perfect" and to have the "perfect life."
"It wasn't something my parents projected on me, but I felt the need to live up to some standard that wasn't rational," Porter remembered. "I was an athlete, I would go to college, and I'd get married and have kids. Being gay is such a foreign thing where I grew up that there wasn't any model for me to base my life on. All I could base my life on was the traditional family structure. Man meets woman, and they have kids. I thought that was the way life was supposed to work."
After graduating from high school, Porter attended nearby Hillsdale College. Porter dated women and ran track at Hillsdale on what he called a "sizable" scholarship.
Hillsdale isn't just a conservative school; It is, as the National Review once called it, "a citadel of American conservatism." He remembered Hillsdale as "the most fundamental conservative school in the country." In retrospect, it was the last place a teen struggling with his sexual orientation should have sought a degree.
"I didn't feel normal even then," Porter said. "I knew I was attracted to men, but I felt like there was something wrong with me, as opposed to something wrong with the society I was in. Homosexuality seemed so taboo in that environment."
Porter came face-to-face with that dogma again recently. A private high school was recruiting him to be their new cross-country coach. It would be a step up in pay and prestige, and the offer was enticing to him. Because the high school was private - and because it was a Christian school - Porter was worried that they could fire him for being gay.
After consulting an attorney, Porter decided to tell the school he's gay to stave off any problems down the road.
He never heard from the school again.
* * *
Despite teaching at what he and McWhorter described as a "conservative" school, with a closed campus and strict dress code, Porter is now excited about taking a proactive role in making D'Evelyn High School a more welcoming place for gay students. Virtually the entire staff knows he's gay, and some of them have met Brandan. School guidance counselors have asked if they can send students to him if they are questioning their own sexual orientation. He's begun the process of reaching out to other local, state and national organizations to see how he can get more involved.
Late last week, against the advice of school administrators, he decided to come out to his team.
"Ultimately, I need to take charge of the decision," Porter said. "That's been a change in personality for me since I came out. I'm not going to let others decide how I should embrace who I am as a person. I let that happen for too long in my life."
Porter called his team together before practice a week ago and told them he had some news. He let them know that an article about him would be coming out this week, and that the article discussed him being gay and would talk about his partner, Brandan.
The news was met with the same silence that stared back at him when he came out to his wife four years earlier.
After a few seconds, one of the team leaders - who Porter says could end the season as a conference champion - stood up, shook his hand, told him it didn't matter to him, and asked what that day's practice had in store for them. The rest of the team laced up their shoes and followed suit.
"It was a positive moment for me and for them as young men and for us as a young team," Porter said. "After all that worry, it was a non-issue for them."
Despite his concerns, McWhorter said he hasn't heard a word from Porter's athletes about their coach being gay. In fact, he hasn't fielded a single complaint from any staff member or parent in the couple of years Porter has been drifting out of the closet. Not a word.
As time has gone by, and more people know the worst-kept secret in Denver, Porter has loosened up. Lately he has even asked Brandan to attend track meets.
"I wake up every day excited about life and my job and my relationship with Brandan," Porter said. "We bought a house together. We're building a life together. There are parts of my life I hope to repair, but I take better care of myself, I have so much more confidence than I ever have in my life.
"For the first time in a long time, I've had people tell me I look happy. For the first time in a long time, I am."
You can find Micah Porter on Twitter. He is also available on email at email@example.com.
If you're an LGBT coach or athlete and would like to tell your story publicly, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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