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Out college swimmer invites LGBT athletes to come out

"You may not have realized it yet, but we need your help. Each one of us, even those who haven't come out yet, is a unique piece of the LGBT sports movement. Being in the closet is like benching your best self. We need you first-string, because no one else can play your position."

Lauren Neidigh with teammates Shannyn Hultin, Elizabeth Pepper and Taylor Shick of Arizona swimming
Lauren Neidigh with teammates Shannyn Hultin, Elizabeth Pepper and Taylor Shick of Arizona swimming

If you're an LGBT person in sports, we welcome you to share your story on Outsports.

I remember sitting in my room one night declining an invitation to go out with my friends. It was years ago, but I can remember the struggle and lingering resentment toward myself like it was yesterday.

I couldn't get it out of my head that night. What if she was there? She was the only person I wanted to see and I refused to acknowledge the reasons I might feel that way. I told myself it wasn't okay that I thought about this girl all time. I was messed up. I distanced myself from her and my friends because I didn't want anyone to realize that something was wrong with me. I couldn't imagine what judgments I would face if people knew the thoughts that ran through my head. In that moment, I felt like nothing and nobody could help me.

Now I know I was wrong.

The support and visibility of LGBT athletes today has come a long way since that time in my life. Since more athletes have come out and shared their journeys publicly, I was able to do the same. I felt motivated to find the same happiness for myself that these other athletes had found since coming out. I was able to come out to myself and the world around me, as I felt comfort and strength knowing I was not alone. I knew that doing this was not only liberating for me, but it may also help others the way that visible LGBT athletes helped me.

I felt lonely and terrified most of the time for many years of my life. I limited myself in my speech and actions because I was struggling to fit the norm standards set by society. There are still people who experience these feelings. They may struggle, feeling trapped because they have no one to go to with their issues about coming out. They could be surrounded by an unaccepting family or living in a community where people are negative towards LGBT people.

Our visibility can help show them that there is a whole world outside of that community and a place for them in it. Seeing a future in a safe place can make a huge difference in someone's life.

These closeted members of the LGBT community could be our best friends that we haven't met yet. I believe that when an athlete comes out, it opens another door for someone else to come out. It gives them the chance to reach out to someone they identify with and share their journey with them. We can connect with each other through our similarities and learn from each other's differences.

When you show that you are openly gay or support LGBT rights, you show that equality is important to you. Others can see that you value the movement, and share those values with you. It creates a bond between people. These bonds are important to our fight for equal rights and safe spaces. The allies that promote visibility are also important. Our family members, friends and peers learn through us and make us an even bigger force to be reckoned with.

By being visible members of the LGBT community and allies, we are standing up for ourselves and for those who have not yet found the strength to come out.

Often people speculate and make fun of people, using gay slurs or referring to homosexuality in a degrading manner. Standing out and being who you really are is a slap in the face to those who are hateful. It takes the power and control out of their negative hate speech, making it known that being LGBT is not a bad thing.

There are many healthy, happy, intelligent, and successful LGBT athletes who set the standard high above these negative views, simply by being themselves.

I know that becoming visible may sound scary at first because there are many challenges we are still working to overcome. There might be some negative response to LGBT visibility in sports, even when positive messages are being conveyed. For example, I worked on a visibility project with Swimming World Magazine and SwimSwam News this past summer. I had teams from schools around the country posting pictures of themselves with signs that said "No Hate". The photos represent tolerance and acceptance of all athletes. I was happy with the outcome. High school teams, college teams, and alumni from the Swarthmore softball team participated. It felt good to spread the message that there was support for LGBT athletes on these teams.

Of course, this attracted some negativity from people who didn't support the cause.

The SwimSwam Instagram account drew most of the negative attention. We received multiple comments from people who think that homosexuality is a disgrace. We also had people telling us we weren't really doing anything important, and that it wasn't a big deal and we should keep it to ourselves. Commenters threatened to unfollow SwimSwam for posting the pictures, claiming that it had nothing to do with swimming.

I am thankful to the authors of the site for allowing us to share, and backing up our right to share these photos. They claimed that because the photos were posted by swimmers in support of teammates, it did relate to the sport of swimming.

Despite what the bigots may say, we are relevant.

One of the most important aspects of visibility is that it influences the people we love. Often we face the fear of losing people by being openly LGBT because of their views against homosexuality and gender identity. If someone truly loves you and was meant to be in your life, they will know that they can't be intolerant and make you uncomfortable. Sometimes we have to take other people's perspectives into account. We learn and grow through doing so.

Having someone who is LGBT-identified in an anti-gay person's life may cause them to rethink their speech and actions, or even their long-held beliefs. They may or may not eventually change their views, but they can take action to be more inclusive and supportive of you as a person by refraining from using gay slurs and learning to be respectful of you.

Visibility can bring out better versions of the world around us and the people in it.

If you are an LGBT athlete who hasn't come out yet, we will welcome you with open arms. You should have no fear that you won't be met with support. Despite judgments from intolerant people, you will find acceptance, admiration and love from many people.

At the very least, I can promise you that I will be one of those who will support you.

Come out so you can have a positive impact on others who are struggling. You may not have realized it yet, but we need your help. Each one of us, even those who haven't come out yet, is a unique piece of the LGBT sports movement. Being in the closet is like benching your best self. We need you first-string, because no one else can play your position.

Lauren Neidigh is a swimmer for the Univ. of Arizona and is the Director of Social Media & Digital Initiatives for GO! Athletes.

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