"So what if I want to spend the rest of my life with another girl? I know I have everything I ever wanted but I’m not the same person I was when I wanted those things in the first place. I’m just not happy living my life while pretending that I’m not hiding a part of it"
These are the words I used when telling my cousin, Caroline Johnston, that I was ready to come out of the closet. My cousin has been my best friend my entire life. She was the first person who knew that I was gay. I had never decided to be open about my sexuality before, but I had reached a point in my life where not being myself was holding me back.
I’m currently finishing my first year of swimming at the University of Arizona as a transfer junior. Since the end of my first semester, I’ve been an openly gay NCAA athlete. It was a long, internal battle that I fought to get here, but since then I’ve found much more meaning in my life.
Being an athlete added extra pressure to coming out of the closet because I feared teammates might start to look at me differently. They’re the first people I see when I wake up and go to the pool in the morning. I see them in classes during the day, again in the afternoon for practice, and I hang out with them at night. I had a constant fear of what it would be like if my teammates knew I was into other women. I kept thinking, "What if I turned around in the locker room and someone thinks I’m checking them out?" While that kind of attitude is starting to become less common, and my teammates have never acted that way towards me, it’s definitely still an issue in a lot of places.
It was also hard to think that I might miss out on getting to know some great people because they might not accept me for who I am. I’ve been swimming for more than a decade and I’ve been lucky to train alongside some of the best swimmers in the world. I always thought I was a better athlete for having them as part of my experience.
Prior to coming to the University of Arizona, some of the people I trained with were pretty vocal about their negative views regarding gay people. I would think to myself, "If the people around me really hate gay people that much, could they be better off if I wasn’t here?" Deep down I knew there was a huge part of me that they would probably never be OK with. It was painful to be around people that I cared for so much and to think that none of the good things mattered because if I were ever really being myself with them, I would cause them so much discomfort. It was exciting to talk to some of the world’s best athletes, but when some people expressed interest in getting to know me, I would worry.
If I opened up and admitted to being gay, there was a possibility that I would have to face some pretty hurtful rejection from people I looked up to. There were multiple times when someone I really wanted to get to know would express interest in spending time with me. I remember wondering, "I want to give myself a chance to have this person in my life, but am I burden because I’m not someone that this person would truly approve of?" I would come up with some other reason in my head about why they wouldn’t like having me around. If I thought someone was rejecting me for being annoying, or if I thought maybe they just plain didn’t like me, it was easier for me to deal with than the realization that someone could reject me because I like other women. This brought me a lot of pain, uncertainty and resentment towards myself. There were some really open-minded and non-judgmental people that I could have spent time with, but at the time I was too afraid of the possible consequences to see that.
There was also the possibility that people who looked up to me would see me differently if they knew I was gay. All of my motivation for my swimming career has come from inspiring other people and investing in my teammates. I love helping people that I care about, and doing little things to help make them better or even just to brighten their day. In the back of my mind, I knew that the fact that I’m a lesbian may impact the way a lot of people look at me or interpret the things that I say or do. At one of the highest points in my swimming career, people would come up to me and say things like "That race was incredible and gave me goosebumps. We are all proud to see how far you’ve come." As a couple of years went by, and I witnessed the hate towards people of different genders and sexualities, the encouragement faded into the background. Every fear I ever had about being myself was running through my head louder than thunder.
Over that time, my self-doubt reached a point at which it was impossible to suppress.
"The overwhelming emotional damage that I’m inflicting on myself by holding all of this is in taking too much of a toll on me," I told my cousin. "I feel physically drained and I can’t think clearly or focus on anything. This isn’t a healthy way for me to live."
I stepped away from swimming for a while, and contemplated what life could be like with a fresh start, far away from the home I had for 20 years. It was then that I decided to give myself a chance at living an open life. I decided that even though the past few years had been an emotional rollercoaster, I wanted swimming to be a part of that fresh start. While taking recruiting trips as a transfer athlete, I looked for a place that I felt would be a comfortable environment for me. I knew that I wasn’t going to come out to my team at first, but I decided that wherever I went I would eventually be an openly gay NCAA athlete. I saw a lot of great places, but Arizona was everything I wanted. The coaches were amazing, and the chemistry on the women’s team felt right. It was far away from home, which made it feel like a new adventure, and I had a clean slate with my new swimming family. I instantly got that feeling that it was the right place.
At the end of my first semester here, I felt comfortable enough to go through the process of coming out. One day in December, I talked to one of the team captains, Margo Geer. I asked her if I could have a meeting with the team before practice. When she asked me what it was about, I told her with a shaking voice, "There’s no easy way for me to say this," followed by what felt like a forever long pause. "But I’m gay. I need to stop hiding that and I want to do it right now." I couldn’t tell you how this conversation looked from her eyes, because it was a hard moment for me and I was all but crawling back under the rock that I had been hiding my real self under. Margo showed support for me and said, "Dude it’s OK. You should just do whatever makes you happy."
Within an hour, we were all in the locker room before practice and people were waiting to see why we were meeting. I’m generally a person of few words and I don’t show a lot of emotion. What happened in that meeting is a little bit of a blur. I remember sitting across from my friends and trying to find the right words to say. Sure I had been over it in my head a million times, but that didn’t matter. I forgot every last word of what I wanted to say. This was one of those rare moments when I actually have to say what I’m feeling and not what I think would be the most appropriate.
Lauren Elizabeth Neidigh, second from left, with teammates Emma Schoettmer, Taylor Schick, and Elizabeth Pepper.
"This is really hard for me but at this point I have to stop pretending that I can hide this forever. I don’t know what I’m doing anymore and I keep putting myself in really hard situations. I just want to live my life. There’s no easy way to tell you that I’m gay and I just hope it doesn’t change anything. You’re all beautiful, but you can’t have me," I choked out a laugh with a red face and tears hot on my cheeks.
I buried my head in my knees for a couple of seconds, and then I heard a voice tell me, "It’s OK Lauren. We’re happy for you. It’s been hard for us to watch you go through this and nobody wants to see you struggle anymore." It was Bonnie Brandon, one of the kindest people you will ever meet and a friend I am lucky to have. I remember getting a lot of hugs, and at one point everyone started clapping.
Shortly after that, I decided to tell my family. "Really," my sister Ashley asked. "It’s OK," she said, "I’m proud of you." I had made jokes about being gay in the past. I’m sorry Ashley, but Martha, my wife who owns six cats and teaches karate, is not a real person. It really was just a joke. My brother Josh teases me but he is very accepting.
Three of my best friends have also made this process a lot easier -- Emma Schoettmer, Taylor Schick, and Elizabeth Pepper. From the beginning of my time at the U of A, they’ve really taken me in. I knew that no matter what, I would have a place with them. They’ve helped me through any fear I had after coming out and are always there to keep me in check. Except Pepper, she mostly just makes fun of me. What are best friends for after all? Are you reading this, Pep? Go back to playing with your horses.
There are a lot of reasons why it’s important to come out and I realize that now that I don’t have weight on my shoulders to keep my head down. What most people don’t understand is that being in the closet doesn’t just restrict your love life. It can impact your relationships with your teammates, friends and coaches. People throw around some really hateful words without realizing what they’re doing. The harshest impact though, can be the strain on your perspective of yourself. I used to lie about my sexuality and even express the same hateful things about homosexuality that other people talked about in front of me. I felt like it was the only way to avoid being a target. It confused my self-image and put me in a bad place for a long time. That’s why it’s important to me to try to reach out and help people. Since coming out, I’ve had a lot of friends express interest in making the NCAA and the swimming community a more accepting place.
Harrison Curley, a close friend that I made while swimming at the University of Florida, reached out to me and offered his support. He said:
"I believe that the importance of equality for all LGBTQ athletes in NCAA swimming falls under the same importance that it holds for society as a whole. The student athletes that have the ability and privilege participate in college athletics deserve to have the respect that all people deserve to be treated with, no matter their sexual or gender identity. There are instances now where student-athletes are discriminated against based on their association with LGBTQ organizations and feel that they cannot be themselves in their entirety based upon the scrutiny that their fellow student-athletes may give them. The fostering of a culture of acceptance for all people, no exceptions, is an ideal that the NCAA likes to present, but without action and without sanctions to protect the rights of LGBTQ athletes this fostering does not fully exist."
At 21, I have plenty of time to live out the rest of my life the way I want to. And yes, I want the person that I share all of that with to be another girl. I feel at peace with the fact that being openly gay will present challenges for me. It’s time to shake hands and move on from anyone that can’t deal with that, and I won’t bother looking back to see which bridges have burned because of it.
Things that used to seem like a big deal don’t bother me as much anymore. If somebody is complaining about a set and says "that’s so gay," it doesn’t bother me. Cool, I’m pretty gay. Guess that means I’m in for a good time. If somebody looks at an outfit someone is wearing and says "Wow that sweater is gay," it probably isn’t. I’m gay as hell and I probably wouldn’t wear said ugly sweater even if everyone around me was blindfolded. I’m comfortable enough with myself to accept that not everyone talks about "gay" in politically correct terms. I will probably always have to face negative remarks about being gay and others’ negative opinions. Everyone has freedom to express their own prejudice whether I agree with it or not. I won’t shove my beliefs down your throat, but I might still hit on your sister.
I think it’s sad that people are afraid to be who they really are. I used to be terrified and think, "What if I do something nice for my friend and they think I’m flirting with them?" I care really deeply for the people in my life. I would go out of my way on a daily basis to make someone happy. If someone tells me that they’re having a long day, the first thing that crosses my mind is to get up and get them coffee and bring it to where they are. When my friend tells me she’s stuck at class until late, my first thought is to go to her house to make her dinner so she gets home and doesn’t have to cook for herself. Sometimes I’ll see a total stranger who is visibly struggling, and I’ll make my way over to her and say, "Is everything OK? Can I do anything to help?" I’ll sit at my desk and write letters to my friends that I haven’t seen until my hand hurts because I think it’s nice to get a handwritten note every once in a while. I like to give my friends random hugs and a kiss on the cheek and tell them how much I love them.
Did I do those things because I have a big lesbian crush on all of these people? No, but everyone who believes that can keep on flattering themselves because they obviously need the self-esteem boost. You’re welcome. One day, I will have a big fat lesbian crush on a girl. When I do, I’ll be sure to do these things tenfold and you will know because I’ll be proud of it. It should never matter who you love or why. It should only matter how you love them, and I know damn well I have more love in my heart than I know what to do with.
Lauren Elizabeth Neidigh is a junior swimmer at Arizona majoring in Psychology and Criminal Justice. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter at @L_E_Neidigh. Or on Facebook.