It was something I thought I'd never do -- dance a slow dance with the homecoming king at his high school.
I am an 18-year-old senior all-state high school soccer goalie for Musselman High School in West Virginia. I also have been on the school's football, tennis and swim teams. And I am openly gay. Growing up in rural West Virginia, it's not the easiest place to be a gay teenager and it took me a long time to come out to myself and others.
Yet there we were, Jem and I, on an October night this fall, slow dancing with each other. We attend schools in different counties and met through friends and I was thrilled that he asked me to his dance so we could be together. He was wearing his gray vest and pink bow tie while I had on my black shirt with a gold tie. We danced to "Love Story" by Taylor Swift, which was a perfect song for my first dance with a guy.
We both started the dance with our female friends who were our "dates." The final song came on and Jem and I danced for a brief time. It was my first school event where I was with another guy, even though we came to the dance separately. I held his hand when we went to get refreshments and when we took breaks from dancing. It was a weird feeling for me, since I had just barely started coming out. I was nervous yet excited. After the dance we went to his house. That is where I asked him to be my boyfriend. I posed the question by writing it on the dry erase board on his wall. He quickly said yes.
My homecoming dance at Musselman -- two weeks after the dance at Jem's school -- was the big moment I revealed being gay to my school. Jem was the date of girl at Musselman and her outside guest for the dance, while I went "alone." The girl knew Jem and I were together. I was on the homecoming court, which was a big honor and something I never thought would happen. Only some people knew about me before the homecoming, so it was a shocker for some seeing me dance with another guy.
Jem and I danced all night to the most popular pop songs. But it was the slow dance that I most remember that night at the school cafeteria -- "Remember When" by Alan Jackson. It was the best night ever. Jem and I got asked a lot if we were together and we said yes. "That is so cute!" some girls said. It made us felt accepted.
Word quickly spread and the following week I sensed that some guys were looking at me differently. My friends even told me people were talking about me in a negative way in different classes. "He is a faggot now," I was told some people said. My friends courageously stood up for me and I am so proud to call them my friends.
Michael Martin won All-State honors this year. (Photo by Andrew Martin).
Dancing with another guy in front of my fellow students would have seemed like the last thing I would ever do when I started high school. When I was a freshman I knew I was not like other guys on the Musselman High varsity soccer team. They were always talking about their girlfriends and I always felt that I could never say anything about my sexuality. I was just a freshman, and I was scared of being mocked by my teammates when I was just trying to fit in. The team threw around the words "gay" and "faggot" a lot. I felt I would never be safe if I did come out.
Musselman High School is located in Inwood, W. Va. The school is named for the Musselman applesauce company and we are called the Applemen. Inwood is only about two hours from Washington, DC, and Baltimore but culturally is far from city life. Inwood is a pretty conservative town. The students, however, are very diverse in their culture and beliefs; the range runs from rednecks to foreign exchange students. I live in isolated mountain area, so I didn't have any kids to hang around with when I was younger. I was alone but even at a young age I knew I didn't like girls and found boys attractive instead. I could never tell anyone since my family is really conservative and religious.
(Photo by Jeremiah Carver)
I was silent about my sexuality until my junior year when I told my best friend, Ben, who was a senior at the time and on the soccer team. I waited until after the soccer season so I wouldn't have to worry about him telling any of my teammates.
The cold winter air and the campfire at Ben's house that night made it the perfect environment in which to tell him my news. I was scared to death, but summoned up the courage and was direct: "I hope this doesn't change our friendship but I am gay." His response was simple but it meant the world to me: "There is nothing that can change our friendship." Thankfully, Ben accepted me (he said he had suspected) and promised to not tell anyone until I was ready.
My junior year was a strange time for me. I played football and soccer in the fall (in West Virginia they are in the same season). I punted for the football team, but never felt comfortable. I was always scared about my sexuality on the team, surrounded by a bunch of country boys and jocks who would definitely make fun of me if they knew I was gay. I felt useless, which is why I dropped the sport in the senior year and focused solely on soccer.
Things were better in my favorite sport. My coach for my traveling soccer team laid down the law that there was not going to be any racism or discrimination based on sexuality, which made me feel safe. I still did not have the guts to tell anyone I was gay. My travel coach never knew that I was gay nor did I tell him but he was determined to create a safe environment on the team. We were a very diverse team that played well together and were a state finalist three years in a row.
The experience of coming out was very rough for me to do but it really took off this fall. When I started to talk with Jem I was comfortable with myself and wasn't ashamed like I was in years past. For me to be happy, though, I needed to come out. I didn't want to hide how I really was any more. I didn't want to live every day with a secret hanging over my head. I told my team before my own parents. My family was not accepting at first but is starting to come around and support me. I just had to keep telling them that I can't change who I am and that I am the same teenager that I was before.
I came out to my soccer team one step at a time. Since I was dating Jem, I decided to become truthful with everyone. I never held a team meeting. Instead, I told some players and then they told others and these people asked me for confirmation. They couldn't believe that I was gay, because they said "I always acted so straight."
Teammates were curious and I got a lot of questions. I also got teased by my teammates closest to me making jokes or saying sexual things, but I know they were just kidding. Actually, their joking told me they were OK with things. I also knew that even if someone did say something negative that a lot of my teammates would have my back. Recently I was named captain for the Musselman swim team. They all know about my sexuality and gratefully are accepting.
Despite my fears, I feel very safe at my school when comes to LGBT issues; we even have a Gay Straight Alliance Club. I have made a lot new friends and my previous friends who are girls love me more and we have become better friends. I still get told that girls have crushes on me, before someone then breaks the news to them that I am gay.
As I am graduating next spring, I have been talking to several college coaches about playing soccer at their schools. That will be a whole new level, a whole new school, group of friends, and new teammates. But I won't be afraid of being myself since I am proud to play as an athlete who happens to be gay.
Michael Martin was inspired to come out by Robbie Rogers (Photo by Andrew Martin).
I try to prove myself in sports not just for myself but for other gay athletes. I want to show everyone that I am just as good as anyone else in my sport. Being a two-time goalkeeper of the year for my conference, making the All-State team and being two-time M.V.P for Musselman and defender of the year makes me proud.
I remember a playoff game with the varsity when I was only a freshman. We were playing our rivals and lost 1-0 on a goal with 10 minutes left. The goal was on a perfect shot in the upper corner, but it was so depressing for me. I felt like I let the team down but I kept my head up. It motivated me to become a better player the next three years.
One athletic highlight for me and one that showed I could play on a high level came when I had a tryout for the West Virginia's Olympic development soccer team. I was very nervous during the tryout and I felt like did well. My training paid off and I made the team. It was a great exposure to quality soccer for me and it feels good to say that I was a part of that team.
My soccer hero and the man who inspired me to come out is Robbie Rogers of the Los Angeles Galaxy. I loved how he announced he was gay and did not quit playing soccer. He gave me hope and confidence to be true to myself. Once he came out I started to contemplate doing the same myself and being proud of who I am. He recently published a book, "Coming Out to Play," which my friend Ben got me for my birthday. I can tell you that after reading the book, Robbie should be every soccer player's idol, gay or straight. I am so proud that he recently won a MLS Cup with the Galaxy.
I have learned that being gay does not mean you are a lesser of a human being. If I can come out in a small town in West Virginia and be accepted, and dance with the homecoming king, it shows things are changing. I hope my performances and story help inspire other gay teens to show their true colors and not be afraid to play the sport they love.
Michael Martin, 18, is a senior at Musselman High School in Inwood, West Virginia, and is goalie for his school's soccer team; he was named All-State this season. His hobbies include photography and the outdoors. His career dreams include owning historic hotels or producing sustainable foods. He can be reached via email at email@example.com or on Twitter @martinofcompany. You can also check out his photography on Instagram (@wvnatureboy).
Story editor: Jim Buzinski