A photography project at St. Louis University artfully shows that campus' support for LGBT people. The project is called the All of Us campaign.
The Rainbow Alliance, a student organization, photographed LGBT people and allies for All of Us. Each person held a sign that said why they support the LGBT community. Allies wrote the words "I'm an ally because ..." and explained why they support LGBT rights. Gay individuals tweaked the phrase to say why they need an ally. The photos will be displayed around campus near the end of the semester.
Nick Jessee, a St. Louis University swimmer, took a red marker. He picked nine words to write on the dry erase board that he would hold for his picture.
"I need an ally because there ARE gay athletes," Jessee wrote.
Jessee is a freshman freestyle swimmer. He did not hesitate to show he is gay and be photographed for the project in the university's Busch Student Center. On a campus with about 290 varsity athletes, Jessee says he does not know of any other openly gay athletes. But he never felt like an outsider since beginning school in August.
"Sometimes there’s not the straight allies that gay people need in the athletic department, but since coming here, I’ve had the best people support me," says Jessee, a native of Hoffman Estates, a Chicago suburb .
Jessee chose St. Louis University, because it provided the best opportunity for him athletically. Reservations existed about attending a Jesuit university, but he was not going back in the closet.
Starting his freshman year of high school, his friends learned he was gay. He received support immediately from them and his family. Jessee gained even more confidence from that support about being an openly gay man.
That acceptance continued this year from his St. Louis teammates.
It starts at home
Fourth of July for many people is about the Boston Pops Orchestra and fireworks. But Christine Jessee received explosive news on July 4, 2010.
"I was feeling gutsy that day," Nick Jessee says.
A female friend of his came back in town for the holiday and some friends planned to stay the night together at a girl’s house. Nick Jessee wanted to do the same thing. He called his mom, Christine Jessee, to ask for permission.
She said that he could not stay the night at a girl’s house.
"But, I’m gay," Nick Jessee said.
Her response: "We aren’t talking about this on the phone."
Nick Jessee started telling friends he was gay about April 2010 about a month before his 15th birthday. The first family member he told was his mom.
Nick Jessee with his parents, Christine and Russ
She came and picked him up that night after the fireworks in their blue Toyota minivan.
"She was crying a little bit," Nick Jessee says. "She just said that she accepts it, but she’s worried about my happiness and everything."
Unknown to Nick Jessee at the time, his mom went through this 22 years earlier. She was 25 years old when her 45-year-old brother told his family that he was gay. Now, her 15-year-old son said the same words.
A major difference was that her brother told the family about his sexuality because he was dying of AIDS. Her brother died in 1988.
"The thing that made us sad is that … he lived all 45 years feeling like he had to hide his true personality or true self until he got ill and then got to a point where he had to tell us what was going on in his life," Christine Jessee says.
It was only after Nick Jessee told his mom that he was gay that she told her son about her brother’s sexuality. But it is not something they have discussed much. Nick Jessee says he doesn’t know his uncle’s name.
Both of his parents have been supportive, but his mom has been more outgoing in her support. A few years ago, Christine Jessee told the priest at their Catholic church that the family would be leaving the church because of the church’s views on homosexuality. She joined Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, and that led to her walking in the 2013 Chicago Pride Parade with PFLAG.
2013 was also Nick Jessee’s first trip to the Chicago Pride Parade. As his mom walked past, he was not embarrassed of her just like she was not embarrassed of him.
"I didn’t know how he would feel being with his friends and around some of the other people if he would want to acknowledge me," Christine Jessee says. "I was very happy that he sought me out and hugged me, and I was very happy to see him there and let everyone know that we have a close relationship."
And later in 2013, Christine Jessee took a step to acknowledge her brother. She participated in the Chicago AIDS walk for the first time. It coincided with the 25th anniversary of the disease taking her brother’s life.
She never got to embrace her brother’s sexuality the way she now does for her son.
"My mom is definitely one of my heroes," Nick Jessee says. "Ever since I’ve come out to her … she’s just completely embraced everything about me. I just love that she does that for me."
At home in Hoffman
Nick Jessee learned how his high school classmates felt about him during the fall of his senior year: His peers elected Jessee the Homecoming king at Hoffman Estates High School.
"I thank my high school so much for being so open and accepting," Jessee says. "I went to one of the most diverse high schools in the country, so I guess that helped a lot."
Hoffman Estates’ 1,900 students are ethnically diverse. The school is 39 percent Caucasian, 26 percent Hispanic, 18 percent Asian and 14 percent Black, according to the 2013 Illinois School Report Card.
The school also offers diverse sports options with 28 varsity teams. Jessee excelled at swimming and water polo. He started on the water polo team. For swimming, he was a three-time state qualifier, and Jessee was the swimming team’s MVP and captain for three years. He earned all-state honors as a senior becoming his school’s first all-state swimmer since 1992.
Jessee says he never experienced negativity for being gay from his high school teammates. Occasionally, someone would say the word "fag," but Jessee says it was never directed at him.
"I had the same teammates basically for swimming and water polo," Jessee says. "We were all good friends."
Jessee felt comfortable enough with his sexuality that his senior year of high school he became president of the school’s Gay Straight Alliance.
It showed significant progress from how he felt in junior high when he started to think about being gay.
"The hardest part was initially accepting yourself," says Jessee, who now says he is an atheist. "I spent so many nights praying to God, ‘Don’t make me this. I can’t be gay.’"
But Jessee knew his crush on Zac Efron felt different than the way Jessee felt about the girls at junior high that liked him. He only liked the girls as friends.
When Jessee got to high school, he saw other gay guys for the first time. They were regular guys and had friends.
"Nobody was beating them up," Jessee says. "That was definitely something for me that was positive. That helped me realize that this is fine."
So one spring night his freshman year, Jessee sat in the upstairs living room on a dark red couch, and he sent a text message to his friend Morgan Spiegel. The text to her said he was gay. It was the first time he told anyone.
"I was nervous," Jessee says. "I remember sitting there for a few minutes having it typed out and was like, ‘Do I send it? Is this the right time? Do I do it?’ I sat there for a while just thinking about it. I just hit send, and that was that."
Jessee describes the day he sent the text message to Spiegel as one of the three happiest days of his life.
"I feel like that was the first day of my real, new life," Jessee says. "I started the process to be who I am. … That day set up the rest of my life."
The other two happiest days of Jessee’s life: The first time he qualified for state swimming during his sophomore year, and the day he signed a scholarship to swim for St. Louis University.
"We were extremely proud of everything he did through high school. Swimming to us was just a part of his success," Christine Jessee says of her son. "He’s a pretty passionate person about life and everything he is going after, whether it’s swimming or whether it’s school or just what he’s doing by being out."
Nick Jessee with fellow St. Louis University swimmer Bre Anderson
Becoming a Billiken
Nick Jessee never wanted to be in front of a meeting when he joined the St. Louis University swimming and diving team. He saw no need for a grand proclamation about his sexuality.
"I don’t feel the need to just go up to people and say, ‘I’m gay, by the way,’" Jessee says. "I’ll just be myself. I will be like, ‘There’s a really cute guy’ or say something like that. That’s my way of coming out."
Siblings Dustin Anderson and Bre Anderson swam on the same club team with Nick Jessee during high school in suburban Chicago. They were the only St. Louis swimmers that knew about Jessee’s sexuality when he joined the team. The rest of the team eventually found out.
"Being gay really is not a big deal. It’s just him," Bre Anderson says. "We all really love him."
The St. Louis swimming coaches showed Jessee their respect for him at the team’s postseason banquet. Jessee received the award as the team’s hardest worker.
St. Louis distance swimming coach Maggie Kroemer says Jessee received the award because of the way he handled the coaches’ request that he transition from a sprint to a distance freestyle swimmer this year.
"Distance races aren’t the most exciting thing in the world, but he had a good attitude about it," Kroemer says. "He accepted it. He didn’t complain. And he trusted us, and it worked out for him really well."
Jessee placed in conference in the 200-yard and 1,650-yard freestyle events, and he helped set a school record in the 800-yard medley relay.
The 1,650 free was his final race of this year’s A-10 Conference meet and the final race of his freshman season. Being inexperienced in that race, Jessee entered the conference meet with a low seed. But he finished 15th to earn an all-conference spot.
"All my teammates were just excited for me," Jessee says. "I remember all of them coming up and giving me hugs. It was one of the most gratifying races I’ve had in my swimming career."
His teammates really show how they feel about Jessee when he is not around. T.J. Decker says that one of the team’s upperclassmen said the word faggot in the locker room when Jessee was not there.
"Quickly after, he was just like, ‘Damn, why’d I say that. I feel so bad,’" Decker says. "That just shows you how much Nick means to all of us."
The first gay athlete that Nick Jessee paid attention to was Olympic gold medal diver Matthew Mitcham. But Jessee found appreciation reading about soccer player Robbie Rogers announcing he was gay. Rogers was 25 years old before he told his family and the world about his sexuality.
"It was kind of like a reality check for me that I’ve been so fortunate in my life to be out at such a young age," Jessee says. "For some people, it’s not as easy. So many people don’t have it as easy. It was really a reality check for me that made me rethink the blessings in my life and how good I have it."
It was a blessing that Spiegel accepted Jessee being gay. It was a blessing to receive support from his high school swimming coaches Josh Schumacher and Joe Arce. It is a blessing the encouragement from his parents, Russ and Christine Jessee, and his brother, Alex. It is a blessing the inclusion shown by his teammates from club swimming, high school and college.
The people around him made it easier but joining his first club swimming team in sixth grade played a significant role, too.
"That’s where I found myself," Jessee says of starting swimming. "Before that, I was pretty introverted and didn’t know where I belonged. … Junior high is that awkward time everyone is going through puberty. Having swimming there was big for me."
Jessee says his confidence from swimming allowed him to tell people about his sexual identity.
"I’m not afraid to be who I am," Jessee says. "I feel like I came out at a pretty young age being 14 years old. Being that young and actually having the confidence to say, ‘This is who I am.’ That is something I am really proud that I did."
Even with four years of experience being out, Jessee knows he still has maturing to do as a gay man. Part of that development will be finding his first relationship.
Some of his role models are other openly gay athletes. In addition to Mitcham and Rogers, Jessee says he has been influenced by Olympic diver Tom Daley and University of Southern California swimmer Sean Mulroy, who is from the Chicago suburbs, too.
Jessee says he wants to help give other athletes the confidence that he has obtained. He wants them to not be afraid. He wants to be their ally.
"I’m hoping that maybe somebody here (at St. Louis), another athlete who’s afraid to come out or thinks that they can’t be out at a Catholic school on a sports team, maybe it will give them the courage to come out," Jessee says. "I don’t think anybody should have to struggle with it."
Nick Jessee can be reached via Twitter @NickXPaul or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Erik Hall is a journalism master’s student at the Missouri School of Journalism. He can be reached via Twitter @hallerik or by email at email@example.com