It's hard to believe that already a year has gone by since the day I stood up to speak at Augsburg College's chapel service, shaky, sweaty, and excited. In the audience sat my football teammates, coaches, other Augsburg sports teams and students, faculty, staff, alum, and visitors. The occasion was National Coming Out Day, and one of my coaches, who also worked with the campus ministry program, had asked me to speak and share my story. The campus ministry wanted a GLBT student to speak, and Coach Matson had just the guy in mind. I had never formally talked about my personal life like that; let alone standing in front of a group doing so.
As the service was about to begin and people were settling in, a video showed up on the projector. The music video of "Same Love" by Macklemore was playing to an intrigued crowd. Many people had no clue what the occasion was. After the video ended and a short introduction, I stood up and poured my heart out, telling them this:
Last week in football practice, we had a Christian rock station -- which I personally despise -- playing over the loud speakers. We played Bethel [College] last week, and I guess Coach Haege thought it'd put us in a salty mood. Well, it worked. After a few complaints about the music, Coach turned to me and asked if I was an atheist. Before I had a chance to really answer, we moved on to something actually pertaining to practice. But it made me think; it made me think about who I am and what I'm all about.
I had an interesting upbringing. My family was and still are Wisconsin Synod Lutherans. Now, Wisconsin Synod, if you're not familiar, is different from the ELCA, which is what Augsburg College is affiliated with. ELCA is a pretty liberal sect of Lutheranism. The Wisconsin Synod is not. The WELS doesn't believe that you're allowed to pray with other people from different churches, women are not allowed to have any leadership over men, and marriage is only allowed between a man and a woman. I was raised in this strict, very conservative bubble. My siblings and I went to Lutheran grade school, Lutheran private prep school, and a few of us even went on to Martin Luther College in New Ulm, Minnesota, to pursue a career in the WELS ministry. I studied scripture and doctrine basically non-stop for 20 years. To say my life revolved around the church was an understatement. All of my friends, family, and teammates were WELS and affiliated with the church. It was my world. I didn't know much else beyond the small church bubble I was in. But I never really felt like I fit completely.
There is something else the WELS teaches: it is not OK to be a homosexual and live your life as such. Gay people who don't repent of their sin and try to repress any gay thoughts will go to hell. Man is not supposed to lie with another man, and to have a life together is beyond bad. Gay people will burn in the fires of hell along with murders and robbers. These are the teachings I listened to growing up.
For those of you who don't know me or don't already know yet, I'm a proud member of the GLBTQIA community. I've known for as long as I can remember that I was gay. Even though I had these feelings and knew, I was a smart enough kid to know not to tell anyone around me about my feelings. Anti-gay therapy and hours of counseling would have probably followed. So for my entire upbringing, I tried to suppress who I was and just do what I was told. Being preached at that any gay would go to hell scared the crap out of me. I didn't know what to do. I prayed to God to change me, but the change never came. All the hate and the condemnation really made me hate myself; I was not content with myself as a person.
But once I got into college, I really started questioning faith, God, and the Bible. I didn't just lie down and take the beating anymore. After getting to know other people in the gay community (secretly, because I couldn't let anyone at Martin Luther know), I started to become more comfortable with who I was and what I could be: and that is I could be myself. I had to make a tough choice to leave the church and everything I knew, or else stay and suffer. I left Martin Luther, left the WELS church, and suffered through the condemnation and rejection of my family, the rejection of my friends, and the letter from the Pastor telling me I'm going to hell now. My parents hardly talked to me, and my dad signed the letters from the Pastor and church elders that condemned me to hell. Going through that was tough, and I'd be lying if I say it didn't hurt. I do have a thick skin, and I stand strong, but constant words of condemnation are never easy to hear.
In September of 2011, I found the greatest place on earth: Augsburg College. Little did I know it at the time, but this place was a gift from God. I was just coming here to finish my degree and get off to life in the grown-up world, but Augsburg has given me more than that.
When I started here, I had been out for a couple of years. I started off school here, and throughout my classes I met other gay people, and was able to talk about myself candidly and openly. It was awesome. At Martin Luther I could have never done that! I finally felt like I was at a place where I could really be myself.
A few months later, I emailed Coach Haege and asked if he wanted another football player. I've always loved sports and played all through high school. I missed competing and wanted to use my eligibility. He invited me to come on board, and I was happily on a team again.
Now, you don't hear of very many football players who are also gay. Honestly, I was terrified of how my teammates would take it. But I knew that hiding myself and my personality was a) not going to be possible and b) something I told myself I'd never do again. The first year on the team, I didn't make it a big deal, and I really didn't talk about it much. I wanted guys to get to know me for me, as a person and a football player, not just as the gay guy. However, my spot-on lip-sync to Whitney Houston may have given it away.
I couldn't have asked for a greater group of guys to be around. And over the off season, I made it known (if they hadn't figured it out already) that I am gay. Just like true Auggies, they didn't even bat an eye. I have had more support from this group of guys and from my coaches than I could ever imagine. These guys are my brothers; actual true brothers that stand up for each other no matter what, even if he happens to like guys.
Today is National Coming Out day if you haven't heard. That's what brings me up here to tell my journey and my story. This is honestly the first time I've really celebrated this day in any way. This day exists to give people who may be struggling with the decision to let people really into their hearts and head an opportunity to come out and be exactly who they are. I know I struggled for many years with how to deal with the backlashes and the condemnation and the hate. But I stood up for myself, and I found support.
My support is in the form of my friends, my partner, my team, my coaches, and this institution. My fellow Auggies, if you are one of those people who is afraid to come out, I have two things for you: 1) don't let anyone pressure you, and you do it on your own time, and 2) know that if you decide to come out, or already are, you are in a safe place. This college is one of the most accepting and nurturing places on Earth. You are among family here, no matter their sexual orientation, race or creed.
I also believe that this day can be celebrated by everyone. It doesn't have to be about your sexual orientation. Auggies, I urge you to use this day to look inside yourself and find what you struggle with. Find what is holding you back from being your true self. Find that insecurity that causes you to act like someone you're not. Once you find that, meet it head on, and get rid of it. Come out as your true self, and know that no matter who you are and what demons you may face, you have a support system. When I do go to church, I've found the ELCA which accepts me for who I am, and I have a school and a team that lift me up and support me as a student, an athlete, and a citizen. I feel like I can finally have a normal relationship with God. I don't have to fear condemnation and hell. I know I can be loved without changing.
So, who am I? I know I'm made up of many part of my identity: I'm a "recovering Lutheran," I'm a student, I'm an athlete, I'm a partner, I'm an intern, and I'm a gay man. Not one of these defines me as I am, but make up my whole being. And to truly love myself, I had to embrace and love each part of me. That's what each and every one of us needs to do in order to be truly happy in our own skin.
Augsburg, I thank you for who you are, and I urge you to continue being awesome. Auggies are a diverse group of people, and that's what makes us special. Whether you're gay, straight, bi, white, black, Latino, Asian, African, disabled, or whatever makes you unique, you are in a place that is supportive and loving. I couldn't ask for a greater place to call home. Thank you for all the support, and I know whatever crap life deals us, we can stand together. Auggies: Here We Stand.
As I finished the speech and gave Coach Matson a big hug, every person in the chapel rose to their feet and clapped, showing their love and support. Nothing in the world meant more to me than that gesture.
A few weeks later we had our last home football game of the season. For us seniors, it was the last time we'd play in our stadium, The Cage. Before the game starts the seniors are walked onto the field and introduced over the loud speaker. Loved ones and family escort the seniors, and are given recognition along with the player. My partner Dan, who they did announce as my partner, walked me out on the field. We walked out on that field together and received the same applause that every other player did. Augsburg truly supported me as an athlete and as a person.
Back in February, I wrote an article telling my story about being an openly gay college football player. This really wasn't an easy decision, and I actually didn't want to do it. I never made a big deal about being a "gay football player," and I didn't play football at Augsburg to make any kind of social statement; I just wanted to play sports again. But, after thinking about it, I decided that if my story could give just even one person encouragement and inspiration to be who they truly are, it would be worth it.
Instantly after the story went public, I received more positive, thankful and supportive messages than I ever imagined. The notes I received were validation that telling my journey helped and encouraged people, and this warmed my heart. I was and am still so humbled to be able to tell my story and help in any way. Every voice matters, and one day we won't have to talk about orientation, especially in sports.
If someone would have told me 10 years ago that I would someday be speaking in front of audiences about my life, I would have never believed them. I didn't know such support and acceptance was possible. It is an honor to get to represent the GLBT community and be another voice of change that this world needs. I realize that when I came out, I finally became a person who could help others. It instilled the strength in me to help give strength to other people struggling with similar situations.
I miss my Auggies terribly, and being a real grown up isn't what I dreamed it would be. But I have those memories that continue to support me into my next chapter. I get to dedicate more time now to be an advocate for GLBT issues, especially in sports.
I hope there is a little boy out there who loves football and who happens to like other boys too, but knows that it's OK, and that he isn't alone. He can be the unique person he is, without fear of condemnation or discrimination. He can like tackling and rough housing, and can also like Kesha and baking cookies. There is no mold he will fit, and that's why people will love him.
Scott Cooper is a December 2013 graduate of Augsburg College in Minneapolis, where he played football. Since graduating he has told his story to audiences and through the media. Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @shc2112. He wrote this article for Outsports in commemoration of National Coming Out Day on Oct. 11.