It happens so often I don’t even notice it. I’m sitting in a room full of people that I love. People who love me back. I wake up to my LGBT Sports Summit roommates, Matt Korman and Chris Cassingham, and we’re laughing and sharing stories. I’m sitting at a table with Dalton Ray and Jack Thorne. Maybe I’m not even talking, I’m just listening to what they have to say and feeling so happy to be with them.
As a lesbian, my story is different from theirs. We often hear about inequality for women in athletics and outside of athletics. It’s inspiring to hear other LGBT women speak and to get to meet them. The knowledge and stories that they’ve shared with us has such a positive impact on my life. So why is it that so often I find myself shying away from them and hanging out with guys?
I never really dealt with answering that question. Recently I finished my swimming career. Without the structure and having so much free time, I really can’t avoid it anymore. I thought that after coming out, I had escaped my past. But it’s more complicated than that. I’ve had time to notice all of the underlying factors that have gotten in the way of bonding with my teammates, having relationships, and being more successful in my swimming career. I started to feel bad about just being "one of the guys."
This isn’t an easy story to tell, but recognizing this part of my journey is important to my self-acceptance, and I hope it will help anyone who can identify with it.
When I was in younger, I was nowhere near ready to accept my sexuality. There was a time when one of my best friends started having feelings for me. I couldn’t have feelings for her. I might have, but I wouldn’t allow it. I saw how that hurt her.
I noticed that she started acting weird. Sometimes she clung to me, and other times she froze me out. I wondered if it was because she had feelings for me and didn’t know how to deal with them. Then one day, she sat me down and had a very emotional conversation with me. She told me she was dying of a serious illness, and she was refusing treatment.
I was depressed. I was angry. There were things that didn’t make sense to me that I chose to ignore because she was my best friend and meant the world to me.
I was losing my rock. I cared about her first and forgot about my own feelings. I isolated myself from my other friends. I couldn’t focus on swimming. I was scared every second of every day that something was going to happen to her.
At one point I traveled with her to stay in her home for two weeks. I held her while she cried and listened to her talk about hurting herself. I was desperate to do anything that would help her feel better. That was when I entered an emotionally abusive relationship that I did not want to be in. I felt trapped. I wasn’t ready to be with another girl. But it wasn’t about me. I couldn’t think of myself at the time.
For months I was torn between hating myself and wanting to make her happy. I stayed in a relationship that I had to hide from everyone. There was nobody I could talk to. Then one day, a boy I had met wanted to go on a date with me. I wanted to be normal. I thought it would help me get back to a place where I didn’t have to struggle with who I was.
She wasn’t happy about this. We did nothing but fight for what felt like days at a time. I would yell at her because I didn’t understand how she could refuse help. I started to put pieces together and question how she could do all of the things that she did on a daily basis if she was so sick.
That’s when I found the answer to my question. It wasn’t real. All of the sleepless nights that I had spent taking care of her when she acted like she was in pain were a lie. She wasn’t even sick. She manipulated my trust because she had feelings for me, and she thought I might have feelings for her if I came to terms with my identity. I blocked her. I avoided her until she left. I hated her for what she did to me and I hated myself for letting it happen. I couldn’t trust anybody. My heart was too broken to think about letting myself become that close to anyone ever again.
I realize now that because I didn’t deal with my feelings properly, I still have trust issues with women. Looking back on it, I learned a lot about why I couldn’t let myself open up to teammates even after I came out. I knew that it would hurt me if I started to have feelings for one of them. It would affect my entire life and the team dynamic. I could lose friends who were so important to me. I was scared to ever face a situation like that. Having feelings for other women brings back everything that happened. I always question people’s intentions and whether or not I should believe them.
I don’t want to think that way. I don’t want to feel it. It took a year of therapy to begin to face my past so that I can have a better future. I’m lucky to have amazing friends and role models in my life who are women. I’m still just breaking the surface and being able to find comfort in these friendships. It didn’t seem like a big deal at first, but it is a big deal for me.
I found a therapist that I was comfortable with, and it’s always been confidential. I started making friends with good, compassionate people. People who share qualities with me that I value. I don’t care how different you think you are. If you have a good heart, then I want to be your friend.
Lauren Neidigh with Dalton Ray at the Nike LGBT Sports Summit in Portland.
I wouldn’t be moving forward if it weren’t for my friends. I learn a lot about myself from them. I learn to trust my friends and forget about how scared I am to be myself sometimes. Now it doesn’t bother me that most of them are guys because I understand myself. I am not just "one of the guys." I’m a woman who is still fighting through a hard past. That makes me feel comfortable enough to feel like I deserve to be equal with men. I know I have just as much potential as men to make a difference in the world.
There’s something special about these guys. They’re educated. They’re trying to learn, understand, and make things better. They made me strong again. They care about me and they never look down on me. We love each other. So we forget about our differences. We forget that there are things in the world that could set us apart, and we work on eliminating those things when they come up. We have a long way to go, but it’s a start. For that, I’m beginning to open up and trust people again.
I hope that others will find this story helpful. Maybe you’re intimidated by other women, or you have trouble trusting people. Maybe you feel like facing your past is the worst thing in the world. But pushing it down is worse. You might think that no one can understand you or you have no one to talk to, but maybe some of us can relate. I thought the hardest part would be forgiving her and letting go of the anger. But actually, it was forgiving myself. If you can do that, I promise that things will get better.
Lauren Neidigh is Director of Social Media for GO! Athletes. She was a Division I swimmer at the University of Arizona and is starting her masters this fall in criminology at Florida State University. She can be reached on Twitter @l_e_neidigh; facebook.com/lauren.neidigh; email (firstname.lastname@example.org)or Instagram (/lneidigh).
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