A gay Iowa coach comes out to homophobic friend
Evan Risk is a jr. high school track & cross-country coach in rural Iowa. When his friend talked about killing the queers at an Iowa basketball game, he knew he had to come out to him.
I met Mark Kroll in the spring of my freshman year at Coe College, a small liberal arts college in Iowa, smack dab between Des Moines and Dubuque in Cedar Rapids. I play baseball there. Mark plays tennis.
It was in an education class that freshman year that I first saw him. I was deeply closeted then, so nothing came of it at first. I think we only ever talked once or twice, though I knew I wanted to talk to him a lot more. After the semester ended we went our separate ways for the summer, but when we came back in the fall-last fall-things changed.
We're both sociology majors and had two classes together that semester. A couple days into class our professor asked everyone to partner up for an activity. Mark turned around and asked if I wanted to be his partner before I even realized he had turned around. I couldn't say ‘yes' fast enough.
For the next month Mark would subtly flirt with me - Still in the closet, I didn't reciprocate. Yet we would constantly tweet at each other about the most random of things. At one point Mark direct-messaged me on Twitter and told me to text him because twitter "wasn't working"...despite the fact that he was using Twitter to direct message me. For me, just the simple act of texting a guy I was interested in was a big step. Honestly, it was kind of scary. But I wanted to text him just as much as he wanted me to text him, so I did.
That night we texted back and forth for hours. Mark was sort of out of the closet to his close friends and family, but it wasn't a widely known fact. During that conversation, he told me that he was gay, and later I told him that I was gay too.
For the next month or so following this conversation, Mark and I were constantly studying together (we really were studying!), and just simply hanging out. I wasn't out of the closet and wasn't nearly ready to come out. People saw us hanging out all the time - Their curious looks told me they were wondering what that was about.
One day Mark and I were hanging out in his dorm room before class, and when we left to take the elevator down to the main floor, the elevator doors opened and there stood one of my teammates.
"What are you doing here, Ben?" He asked.
"Mark and I were working on a group project,'' I lied.
Later that day, Mark told me that that encounter had made him feel awful because I had lied about him while he was standing right there. It became suddenly clear we wouldn't be together very long if I was still in the closet.
One night soon after, I was hanging out with a few of my teammates at one of their apartments. When Mark texted me about coming over to his place, I quickly came up with another lie to tell my teammates.
Ben and Mark with a couple friends at a Colorado Rockies game last summer.
"Hey guys, I am really tired so I'm going to go to bed."
Then I left and went up to Mark's room where he had a pile of dirty laundry on his bed. We headed down to the laundry room on the elevator, but before we reached the bottom floor it stopped at the main floor to pick up some people...including teammates I had just ditched. It was dead quiet in that elevator. It was pretty awkward. I wanted to be real with them, especially since they had to know what was going on at that point. But I just felt I couldn't. It was disheartening.
That was the last straw. Mark and I couldn't go on like this. It wasn't fair to him. Heck, it wasn't fair to my teammates. Mark and I could either end whatever we had, or I could come out to my teammates and we could continue our relationship together without hiding anything.
My plan was to come out to one of my good friends on the team, Jake, and then tell a larger group of them later, and then have those guys take care of the rest. That proved to be difficult, though. I constantly texted Jake asking to hangout, where my plan was to tell him that I was gay. I never went through with it, though. One time I even texted him, "Hey, can we talk?" to which he replied, "Yeah. I am in the library, come on over."
I went and sat with Jake in a small, empty study room. It was an ideal setting to tell him. But I couldn't. Jake and I were in a class together so I made up a question that had to do with the class we were in, and then I left. I felt like such a coward.
At that point, I really didn't care if people knew that I was gay, I just dreaded actually having a conversation with them because I was afraid of the awkwardness that would follow.
Finally one night I just decided to text Jake. Shielded by my touch-screen I found the strength to tell him I'm gay and that Mark and I were...talking. Jake quickly responded thanking me for coming out to him.
"Nothing is going to change between us," he texted.
I felt relieved that I could finally tell someone, even if it was over text message. Now, it was time to tell a larger group of guys. That process gave me a whole new understanding of the term "gut-wrenching."
One Saturday night last December, five or six of us were hanging out in someone's dorm room, drinking and playing video games. My heart was set on coming out to them, and I was going to make myself do it one way or another.
Of course I panicked and left abruptly, running to Mark's room only one floor above us. I was on the verge of tears. I just couldn't do it. He comforted me and told me it was ultimately my choice, but that he believed in me.
An hour or so passed and I decided to go back down and finally tell them once and for all! This time I was going to do it!
Soon I was back in Mark's room, still in the closet. I vented to Mark for a while telling him how scared I was and how much of a coward I felt like. Mark was a little upset that I couldn't find the courage to tell them. It made me feel terrible, but it actually gave me some courage.
Well past 1 a.m. I left Mark's room. Three of my teammates were still hanging out. I stood in the doorway as we all made small talk. I was emotionally spent from the night of ups and downs, spinning between confidence, optimism, fear and worry.
"You guys probably already know this," I finally mumbled, "but I'm gay."
I don't remember their exact words, but I remember one of them told me that he thought that I was bisexual. Another one asked me why I had waited so long because I could have told them a long time before that. They were extremely supportive and were all really proud of me. By the time we were done talking, it was well past 2 a.m. They each shook my hand before I left.
Ben Larison (right) at one of his baseball games with Coe College head football coach Steve Staker.
I do not think that I have ever experienced a moment in my life where I felt as relieved as I did in that moment. To be completely honest, coming out has been one of the best decisions I have ever made.
Shortly after I came out to my teammates, my coach called me into his office. He sat me down, looked straight at me with a grin and said, "This is uncharted territory for me.'' I knew exactly what he meant. From there he told me that he had grown to love me and that I could have told him long before I told anyone else. Further, he said that if I were to go through anything negative related to this issue that I could always come in and talk to him. He told me that he was proud of me and that absolutely nothing would change now that I was open about my sexual orientation.
I never thought in a million years that I would ever have that conversation with my college baseball coach.
Mark and I are still dating. In December we will have been together for one year. I can hang out with my teammates with Mark right by my side and feel completely comfortable, and I can be with Mark around his teammates and feel just as comfortable as well. I love him very much, which has made the coming out process that much more worthwhile.
I now feel like I am free to be who I am, and that feels absolutely amazing.
Ben Larison is a fourth-year junior playing baseball for Coe College. You can reach him via email at email@example.com or on Twitter @Bennyy_Lair. Mark Kroll is a junior playing tennis for Coe College. You can find Mark on Twitter @MarkJKroll. Editor: Cyd Zeigler
Photograph by Rachel Tabron of Araya Photography