"Faggot." "Queer." "Homo." "Gay." "You need church."
These are just some of the few homophobic slurs I experienced in high school and in the athletic community. These words weren’t just directed to me by my high school peers in Southern California. I’ve also experienced this negativity from fellow competitors at triathlons. Rather than letting these words hurt me, I used them to motivate me to perform better.
My name is Tristan Jay Bunch. I am 18, a San Diego resident, and an openly gay triathlete. Coming out was very hard for me, not because I was ashamed of who I was, but because the students and athletes around me made being gay a negative thing to be.
I grew up in Murrieta, California, but by my high school years we moved to the beach city of Carlsbad. I knew nobody in Carlsbad, so I thought it was the perfect opportunity to finally be out and free for the first time in my life. On my first day at Carlsbad High School, a girl was being very flirtatious with me and she began asking me questions. "Do you have a girlfriend?" she asked. Pausing for a second, I knew this was a perfect chance to start fresh so I replied, "Nope, I’m gay." The whole room just stared at me. Just like that, I was out and finally comfortable being who I was. After that I slowly began feeling more comfortable being open with my lifestyle and my relationships online, with my family, and even my teammates.
In my high school and in the triathlon community, many of the athletes I’ve competed with aren’t very open minded. I believe the first thing about being a gay athlete is that I’m just a regular athlete. The only thing that makes me considered different is that I’m attracted to the same sex. That shouldn’t change the way I am viewed as a person or even an athlete. But I’ve experienced that being gay is something many people look down upon. If someone didn’t accept the fact that I am gay, that’s fine. If someone just didn’t like me as a person because I act "gay," that’s also fine. But if someone judged my athletic ability because of the fact that I am gay, that is not fine. All athletes are there to compete and they all train really hard for what they want, and treating gay athletes negatively is something that needs to change.
I grew up in a household where being gay was OK. My parents always knew I was gay, they have never cared, and they treated me the same after I came out to them. High school was another story. I was openly gay there and people to my face said they were very accepting and that my sexuality didn’t bother them. But then I would hear that I wasn’t invited to a few hangouts because a guy who I barely knew thought I liked him.
I was also told that the track and cross country team used to act "really gay" with each other before I joined and they stopped because they thought it would be awkward. Being in high school also had its share of ignorant students who yelled "faggot" or "homo" when I walked by. Since I felt they didn’t respect me as much as they would have had I been straight, I always tried working extra hard in practice. In a way, their discrimination was a blessing in disguise because even though I was hurt, their homophobia made me a stronger and a better athlete.
Triathlons are in my blood. My father is a competitive Ironman triathlete and my mom is a recreational marathon runner. I ran track and field, cross country, was on the swimming team and raced triathlons. Triathlons were always just a fun thing to do growing up until I was 14 years old, when my parents put me on a youth and junior elite triathlon team called TriJuniors. I was pushed to new athletic levels that I would have never imagined performing at. I competed at the Youth and Junior Elite National Championships and was selected to compete at the North American Junior Championships and the Pan-American Championships representing the U.S.
The coach of the Youth and Junior Elite team, Jim Vance, was really intelligent and had a lot of knowledge about the sport because he has also competed competitively. Jim knew how to coach me and he saw so much potential in me as an athlete. He helped me get a Top 3 finish and a Youth Elite cup when I was 15. With his coaching, I even placed eight at Youth Elite Nationals despite an unfortunate bike crash. At the Junior Elite division (16-19 years old) in 2012 I was ranked ninth in the country and I was gearing up for next season.
The start of the 2013 triathlon season started extremely well when I placed sixth at an Elite Development Race in Clermont, Florida. I was sixth overall but I was the first Junior Elite athlete to cross the finish line so I was extremely proud of my improvement from the previous season.
Sadly, tragedy struck my home when I found out my parents were getting a divorce. Their divorce had nothing to do with me, but the news got me very stressed and depressed. I was too upset and mentally exhausted to go to practice or even get a lot of my schoolwork done. So I decided to take the rest of the season off. At the time, I was still running track and field for my high school, even though the stress at home made it hard.
I had planned to resume triathlon training with an eye to turning pro. But I'm kind of burned out from the sport right now and need a break. I have been training since the fifth grade and participating in sports was my life even if it was hard for me to keep it up. I think it was just my natural competitive mindset that had me doing so well in 2011-2012. Now that I've grown older I realized I can pursue what I want in life. I'm attending Palomar College, majoring in Journalism, and plan on transferring to a four-year university in the future. My schooling, my job and my awesome new boyfriend are keeping me plenty busy. I don't know when or if I will resume racing again, but I am only 18 and triathletes can compete well into their 30s and 40s, so never say never.
I don't think the triathlon community as a whole was unsupportive of me being gay. I was, though, surrounded by many ignorant people at many different events. I know of no other openly gay triathletes and I’ve experienced homophobia in the sport. I consider many of my fellow age group competitors to be close-minded and disrespectful. For example, one triathlete told me "I need church" because I am gay. And I've been called "faggot" and "homo" numerous times by fellow competitors. I learned to grow a thick skin and use these slurs as motivation to work harder. However, there's a Triathlon Club Of San Diego and the athletes a part of that club are very nice and respectful, so it's a mixed bag.
As an athlete who has faced discrimination in sports, the road can be tough and mentally exhausting. But the haters who treated me differently need a reality check. Their hate didn't put me down or make me a worse athlete. All it did was strive me to work harder. I hope that other young gay athletes have that same mindset.
Thomas Edison said" "Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time." Always continue to do what you're passionate about. Don't let anyone bring you down. Use that negativity to strive forward!
Tristan Bunch, 18, lives in San Diego, and is studying journalism at Palomar College. He can be reached via email (firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @tristanrosete and Instagram (tristanrosete).