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Gay Oklahoma Sooners pole vaulter drives 553 miles to marry his husband

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Tanner Williams grew up a Southern Baptist and struggled with his sexuality. He says pole vaulting and God saved him. He celebrates his wedding anniversary in June.

Tanner Williams, right, and Scott Williams with their marriage license in Santa Fe
Tanner Williams, right, and Scott Williams with their marriage license in Santa Fe

On June 19, 2014, I got married. To a man. And both of us live in Oklahoma.

It was something I wouldn't have thought possible a couple of years ago. But on June 16, 2014, my future husband, Scott Williams, and I got up at 5 a.m. and drove my 2012 ruby red Yukon Denali 553 miles in 8 hours and 16 minutes to the Land of Enchantment. At that time, it was not legal to marry in the state of Oklahoma. We decided we were not going to wait on someone else’s agenda and decided to get married legally in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Our ceremony took all of 10 minutes in front of a judge and two witnesses who worked in the Santa Fe Municipal Court. We said our vows and told each other how much we were in love and how nothing, not even family, would come between us. Just like that we were legally married.  

We were in Santa Fe for three days for our honeymoon. We went horseback riding in the mountains for hours and spent a lot of time by the pool drinking jalapeno margaritas. We became used to restaurants asking "red or green?," referring to the type of chilis we wanted.  We shopped at Navajo art stores and watched Native American dances. We drove to the top of the Truchas Peak (13,102 feet), where it was the first time this Oklahoma boy had seen a true mountain. It was the trip of a lifetime and quite a journey for me in accepting my sexuality.

Scott and I met at an OU football game on Sept. 7, 2013, against West Virginia at Gaylord Family Memorial Stadium in Norman. We began dating the day after celebrating the win. It was not until I was 19 that I finally decided to be true to myself and love the way love was meant. I dated many girls in the past, but knew that it would never work out. It only encouraged me to want to open up and be who I believe God created me to be. At the game, I met Scott, an amazingly gorgeous and sweet man. He was my first real boyfriend. He treated me like a king and began to love me like anyone could ever want to be loved. Then and there I realized that I would spend the rest of my life with him.

On May 7, 2014, he asked me to marry him. I was so excited but also so scared. It wasn’t even legal in Oklahoma for two men to marry yet. All these thoughts went through my head: What would my family think of this? Even more so, what would my teammates and coaching staff on the University of Oklahoma track and field team – where I am a pole vaulter – think of me? I hadn’t told any of them other than my three best friends at the time — one whom was very unaccepting and said he was only trying to "protect me."

I think that being gay doesn’t make you any less of man. If anything, it makes you a better man.


With a tap on the screen of my iPhone, I posted the engagement news on Facebook and my secret was out to the entire world. Within five minutes, I had 10 people calling, even more texting me asking if it was real or if it was a joke. I had never even seen myself coming out to anyone. Now I was known as gay to everyone.

That same day at practice I was nervous. Nervous to walk through the doors, nervous to walk into the locker room, and even more nervous to make eye contact with anyone on the team. I felt that I would be judged and ridiculed. But the opposite happened. Congratulations came to me from almost every person that I saw. I even received hugs from some of the guys on my team, including from one who I thought might bully me. All of my coaches were incredibly happy for me and so were all of my teammates.

The relief that overwhelmed me was incredible. I was a little nervous when competition came around because I knew how quickly that the news of the engagement spread. But I went on to score fifth at the 2014 outdoor Big 12 track and field competition, jumping a personal record height of 17 feet, 1 inch. What a difference from earlier in the season when I did not clear the bar five times out of six track meets. After coming out, I was a completely new man. I think that being gay doesn’t make you any less of man. If anything, it makes you a better man.

Within the months to follow, the University of Oklahoma’s Athletic Department set up training for LGBTQ allies, known to us as "Sooner Ally."  Athletes and faculty were given the opportunity to train themselves on how to stop discrimination and hate and create a culture of inclusion. Stickers for the Human Rights Campaign began to appear, and they even created stickers for the Sooner Ally.  I got to step up and be heard with other Sooner student-athletes from other minorities in a group called Bridge Builders — becoming friends with football player and rights activist Eric Striker, women’s basketball player Kaylon Williams and others who stand together "OUnited."

My coaches see me as brave and as a leader to our team.  They treat me with more respect now than they did when I was in the closet. Sometimes I feel like they do not take my marriage seriously, but after a few talks I made it quite clear that my marriage is just as real and just as legal as any of theirs.

Tanner pole
Tanner Williams set his personal best vault after coming out to his team.

Almost a year into my marriage I can report that it is very challenging, but also very fun. Because I did marry early, I get to grow up with my husband. I get to learn from him, and he gets to learn from me. We are at different places in our lives (he's 30), but that just makes the marriage even more exciting.  My teammates trust me and, even more, they love my husband.

I have never felt more comfortable in my skin. I would not be where I am today without the help of my best friend and teammate Alex Morgan, who is a beautiful woman from California and who has been there through every step of my coming out and marriage. If it were not for being an athlete for the University of Oklahoma, I would not have had the courage or the ability to come out and be true to myself and to everyone around me.  Coming out was the greatest thing to ever happen to me, and I wouldn’t trade a single second for anything in the world.

I was also blessed to have Chloe Thompson — whom I consider to be my sister from Ardmore, Oklahoma (where I was born and raised) — and her family throw us a belated wedding shower. Some of our closest friends made the trip to celebrate our marriage, where we shared laughs, memories, wine and cake. Before this celebration, we were planning to have an actual wedding ceremony, but thought better of the idea, since some in our families disapproved (one called the idea of a reception "silly for two men"). We told everyone at that shower that they were also celebrating our reception as well. It was crushing to find the lack of family support, but it only made us a stronger couple. If we could handle the negativity, we could handle anything.

Growing up in Southern Oklahoma was a challenge. I was raised in a Southern Baptist family and always had to hide my feelings while putting a fake smile on my face. I was bullied as a child because I was quiet. Others teased me, calling me "gay" or a "fag."  The impact on me was almost beyond repair. 

I was depressed beyond belief, and even considered suicide at times. These times led me to find a savior of any kind. I found God and pole vaulting, and to this day I still say they both saved my life. I found peace with who I was in pole vaulting, and also leaned on God’s shoulder during some of the darkest times in my life.

It wasn't always easy attending church. The pastor and congregation would lecture us on things such as: "Homosexuality is not funny, it is not a joke. Why would we find ‘Will & Grace’ funny? We need to save them from hell." I would beat myself up trying to hide those feelings. I dated any girl that would have me. I tried to build up a relationship with God so strong that I would just simply eliminate the gay feelings inside. But I learned you cannot pray away the gay. You cannot convert a gay child to be straight.

I was never true to myself or to any of my friends and family. I grew up in a household where family members wouldn’t even watch Ellen DeGeneres because she was a lesbian and it "disgusted" them. Other family members would call each other "fags" and throw the word around like it was going out of style.

Most of my family was very homophobic. It even seemed as if every one of my friends in my school (class size of 83) were homophobic as well. You are not born hateful, racist, or against any person or race in this world. We were simply taught that it is "wrong to be gay" or that "black people deserve police brutality" and even telling women that they belong in the kitchen.

Everyone deserves to be treated equally, and to use the Bible against us is hypocritical to what a Christian should do. Love is the answer; love is what God wants us to share together as brothers and sisters in Christ. As is says in Romans 13:10: "Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law."

It's basically impossible when people get treated the way they do just by the color of their skin, or who they want to spend the rest of their lives with. In southern Oklahoma, it is seen as right to hate because others don’t conform to the same religious beliefs.  But this kind of discrimination and hate does not live only in Oklahoma; it is in every other state, country, continent in this world.

It was not until I was 19 that I finally decided to be true to myself and love the way love was meant. I dated many girls in the past, but knew that it would never work out. It only encouraged me to want to open up and be who I believe God created me to be.

I look forward to this June 19, when Scott and I get to mark our first anniversary as a legally married couple. To celebrate, we are taking a road trip to New Mexico, Nevada and California. I feel blessed. 

Tanner Williams, 19, is a junior double majoring in General Management and Nursing at the University of Oklahoma. He is also a pole vaulter on the track and field team. On June 19, 2014, he married his husband, Scott Williams, and the two live together in Norman, Oklahoma. Tanner can be reached via email at williamstanner21@gmail.com, on Facebook, Twitter (@jtannerwilliams), and Instagram (Will2Tan).

Story editor: Jim Buzinski (kandreeky@gmail.com)

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Tanner did a video for Outsports and the It Gets Better Project along with teammate Alex Morgan: