I remember sitting in the corner of the University of Arizona locker room one day in early December of last year. There was a moment of clarity after I had told my teammates that I was gay.

An unfamiliar feeling came over me amid all of the anxiety and fear I had held onto before coming out of the closet. As the days passed, I recognized that it was empowerment I felt after coming out.
Power is the ability to influence others or direct a course of events. I think this definition has been lost and distorted over the years. Some people think that power is money or popularity because you can buy anything or have your way. The real meaning of power is using your opportunities to influence others to make a positive change. If you are truly powerful, you use that power to benefit others. Coming out is a powerful experience because it shows that you are willing to be different despite any discriminatory outcomes, and stand up for everyone’s right to be equal. We do it because we believe in honesty, truth, and genuine character above the conventional norms of society. We want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves and build a bridge to a better future.
Being in the closet keeps people from having pride in their true selves and being completely happy. If you’re trying to live your life within the boundaries of what is considered "normal" then you aren’t really living. If you lose friends or family when you come out the closet, then you never really had them in the first place. If they can’t accept and love you for who you are after coming out, then they aren’t meant to be a part of your life. For most of my life, I wanted to believe that I could learn to be with a man and not have to put myself through the pain and fear that coming out of the closet would bring. I denied myself the right to live and be happy. The image that I tried to uphold lead to shame, helplessness, self-doubt, and depression. There are many things that I could have done better if I hadn’t been wasting my life trying to be normal.
After coming out, many people in my life started to learn and become more educated about LGBTQ issues. Not everyone will respond in a supportive manner, but those who do can make a difference by learning about the fight for equality and supporting your equal rights. Now that I had finally come out of the closet and had support in my life, I thought I was ready to live with the challenges that being an openly gay NCAA athlete would bring. I realized when I felt the power of coming out that I was wrong. I am not living with the fact that I am labeled as "different" for being an out lesbian. I am not living with the fear of people who may not accept me and people who have disrespected me in the past. I am not living with the prejudice and discrimination that I may be faced with. I am not living with these things. I am living in spite of them with power, freedom, and love in my heart.
Sometimes it gets hard and I wonder if things would be easier if I hadn’t come out and chosen this path. Then I stop and realize that the powerful feeling I got after coming out wasn’t all about me. Yes, I did this for myself so that I could live without hiding and wasting energy trying to be someone that I’m not. However, that reason alone was never enough for me to face the fears I had about coming out of the closet. When I start to feel down on myself, I remember all of the loved ones I have in my life now because I made the choice to come out. I remember countless members of the LGBT community and allies reaching out to me and embracing me. These were people that I had never even met, yet we shared a common bond.
By coming out and choosing to be yourself, you become a part of a family. The bond of a family is one of the most powerful things in the world. I was lucky enough to attend the Nike LGBT Sports Summit this past summer, and I was able to meet some of the people who had sent me messages to show me support after I decided to share my story. I would have never been blessed with the opportunity to meet some of the members of the summit if I hadn’t come out. I met Lypheng Kim, who is now a freshman at USC, for the first time. I felt like I could talk to him about anything after just a day of knowing each other. My roommate at the summit, Eliana Yankelev, is an athlete at UPenn and embraced all of my weirdness. I was able to meet Anna Aagenes, Rose Pitkin, Sean Smith, and other members of GO! Athletes who have since given me the opportunity to network with LGBT athletes around the country. I met more amazing people than I could possibly list without writing a book.

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Lauren Neidigh, second from left, with her Arizona teammates.

I could’ve cried when Sean, a former swimmer at the University of Arizona, hugged me goodbye on last night of the summit. He told me that I was his new little sister and that big things were coming. This was something that brought tears to my eyes when I boarded the plane home. I thought about all of the amazing new people I had in my life. Even if they are far away from me physically, they are always close to my heart. Meeting those people and having the opportunity to be a part of these things are reason enough to lift my spirits when things get tough.

On top of that, there is another result of the coming out process that I have yet to experience. In the bottom of my heart, I always know that when the time comes, this part of my life alone will be enough to keep me fighting and knowing that everything will be worth it. This experience is true love.

Out there somewhere is a girl that I probably haven’t met yet. Not to brag, but I already know she is beautiful and has the best personality. I don’t know when we will run into each other, but when we do, I will know that every struggle was worth it. When other people criticize me and are hateful towards me for being gay, among other things that make me different, it won’t matter. Not only will she accept me for who I am, but she will also love and appreciate me. At the end of the day, I remember that is all that matters. Love is the most powerful thing in the world. Whether it’s a guy, girl, or anyone in between, we will all have that special someone that we would do anything for. That is where I stand now, ready to fight for equality and acceptance, so that one day I can marry the woman that I love and know that the world is a safe space for us.

Coming out of the closet doesn’t make you a different person. It makes you a stronger and better person. It can be the most rewarding experience you have ever had and is more empowering than you could imagine. The LGBT community will embrace you and love you for who you are. I will always be here for anyone that wants to reach out and talk about coming out of the closet, and I know my friends from the summit would be here for you as well. After coming out, anything that you are afraid of will seem so small compared to the benefits that living an open life can bring. It will give you power over your own life that conventional norms will only stop you from having. Life, love, and respect for one another are waiting outside of the closet door. These are the things that give us power and make our lives whole.

Lauren Elizabeth Neidigh is on the University of Arizona swimming team. She wrote this story leading up to National Coming Out Day Oct. 11. She can be reached via email ([email protected]; Twitter: @L_E_Neidigh or on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/lauren.neidigh).