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After being outed, college rower forges his own path

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Chris Kelley's coming out in the macho world of rowing was non-traditional, but he has persevered to create safe athletic spaces at Ithaca.

First thing you should know about me is that I’m not the binge-drinking type — blame my puritanical upbringing, I guess. But there I was, my mouth stuffed with whipped cream, vodka, and chocolate sauce — some girl jumped up and down in a little black dress. She screamed, "Take it, bitch!" She was some sort of Norwegian goddess, thin like a model or an expensive IKEA candlestick. So I swallowed like a good freshman boy. I was at a crew party, and, admittedly, slightly underdressed, misunderstanding the "formal attire" mandate as suspenders over a flannel in a vain attempt to be straight-boy-lumberjack-hot (and failing miserably).

I was next to my friend Chloë — she’s gorgeous, her body is littered with tattoos, most from pop-punk bands. Her hair was streaked with blue, like Kool-Aid birthed itself from her nape. She was next in line for the chocolate-vodka-whipped-cream thingy, and she was slightly impatient. "Hurry up!" I frowned, my mouth on fire from the
alcohol.

IKEA Goddess came up to me and pointed to Chloë. "This your girlfriend?" I shake my head. "Umm…"

Chloë wiped her lips with the back of her muscled forearm. "We’re just friends." "Ohmigodd, no… are you… are you, like, gay?" And before I knew it, IKEA Goddess disappeared into the party, whispering about my lil’ gay secret, spreading that shit like Nutella.

My name is Chris Kelley, and I’ve always sorta known I was different. I like athletic men in the bedroom sense. At 15 I was gay, severely in the closet, and attending public school — and anyone who’s different is the target for bullying. To protect myself, I buried the gay under flannels, mom jeans, and Converse high-tops. And lots of denial.

Around the same time, I stumbled across a pamphlet for a learn-to-row summer camp in the heart of Pittsburgh. After years of trying to force me to play baseball, I told my parents that this sport seemed new and exciting and different. "Maybe I could be, like, OK at it," I repeated under my breath, like a soothing mantra or something. The first time I sat in a boat — my ass contouring to the hard wooden seat that squeezed when weight was applied — was like getting glasses after spending adolescence blind and confused. I felt safe.

I rowed all through high school and chose to continue rowing at Ithaca College, studying film at the amazing Roy H. Park School of Communications. I knew I didn't really want to be out — it was easier to have a secret than to be "that one gay kid." Admittedly, I still feel like there’s something wrong about me for being gay — so frequently, gays are seen as the lesser. We’re portrayed by the media as effeminate purse-dogs for the soy-latte-drinking white women of the world, and coming to a new school, I had no interest in having an effeminate target on my back in a sport that demands an intense amount of physicality. Don’t get me wrong, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with femininity (or masculinity, for that matter). This being said, however, the frat-bro culture of crew demands a sense of hypermasculinity, so if you can't pull a good time while looking like Hercules, you might as well take your training bra and sit on the sidelines.

When I was outed at that party — and then to the head-coach by a super-macho, uncomfortably aggressive rower, just so the coach knows how to "deal with me" — I felt the eyes of the team looking at me like I was some sort of sad freak who likes butt-sex. (In reality, the head-coach said that me being gay was a "non-issue"). I was treated differently by my teammates because of my sexual orientation. A lot of the upperclassmen varsity rowers looked down on me as if I’m some sort of other. They still said "fag" — and most of the time, not in the cutesy 'Oh, it’s totally OK to use it because I have a gay friend' way (note: also unacceptable). All of my flannel-wearing, straight-acting, closet-living was for nothing.

So I decided to own my sexuality. There was no use running from it anymore — especially since everyone already knew. I remember sitting in a movie theater a day before leaving for Christmas break and sending out a mass Facebook message, quoting ‘She-Wolf’ and saying, "…if you don’t like the fact that I’m gay, get over yourself." I decided I was going to be a powerful rower — I was going to prove all my slightly homophobic varsity teammates wrong. I was going to make something of myself. I thought maybe if I could prevent at least one other athlete from being outed to their team, it would be worth it.

Chris Kelley 2
Chris Kelley, second from left, with Ithaca teammates.

For the most part, Ithaca College is a champion for LGBTQ+ student rights. There are four niche organizations on campus created to be "safe-spaces" for members of our community. We have a drag ball, gay theater, an amazingly comprehensive resource room, and free, confidential STI testing. The only thing that Ithaca College lacks is a comprehensive "safe space" for LGBTQ+-identifying athletes.

My sophomore year, my friend Kyle and I founded the Ithaca College Athlete Ally, the first collegiate branch of the international organization that works to reduce homophobia and transphobia in sports. I figured it’s a great platform to restructure the men’s crew team, transforming the team’s dialogue away from micro-aggressions (thinking it’s acceptable to demonize someone for their sexuality through hurtful rhetoric) and towards a culture of inclusivity. I didn't want someone who identifies on the LGBTQ+ spectrum to be turned off from rowing at Ithaca College just because the team has some hate-spewing bros thinking it’s perfectly acceptable to bully someone just because they're insecure about their own masculinity.

Admittedly, we started small, talking with the two head coaches about the importance of respect. We introduced the concept that the boathouse should be a safe-space for everyone to be included. The team needed to be strong and not divided; making fun of someone’s sexual orientation ruins the team environment where you’re only as strong as your weakest rower. Slowly, it started to work. Less people thought it was acceptable to say "fag." Even now, I don't want to take all the credit — maybe, the team just realized they shouldn’t be homophobic dicks or something.

Ithaca College crew is an amazing example of what happens when you decide to speak up. Too frequently, our voices are silenced by people who spew their bigotry like toxic fumes — and it’s especially hurtful in sports, where hyper-masculinity seems to be the only way. We need to be heard. We need to change the dialogue away from thinking that being gay is synonymous with weakness. We are not weak.

Since being outed and working with Athlete Ally, the culture on the crew team has shifted. There’s an amazing sense of inclusivity, that everyone from any walk of life is welcome and appreciated. Every day, we come to practice to pull hard, and our sexual identities are checked at the door. After a while, I didn’t feel like an other — I wasn’t "that one gay kid." I felt comfortable in my spandex.

I remember getting an invite to a team barbecue this past spring. It was after a long day of races, and one of my friends had some of the team over for food and Frisbee. I was standing under a tree, wearing short-shorts that showed off a PG-13 amount of thigh and butt, watching upperclassmen struggle with corn-hole. One of my senior friends, Matt — we’ve been in the same boat for two years, he’s lanky like a knife and just as sharp — shambled over to me, gripping a beer in one hand, a smile plastered on his face. "How’s your love life?" he asked. With that one question, I knew that being gay was no longer some sort of issue, that if I brought up dating a man, the conversation wouldn't devolve into butt-sex jokes or questions on how to prep girls for anal. I felt like I had made it.

Rowing is always going to be physically demanding and unbelievably taxing. You’re always going to have to overcome obstacles, push past the pain and then push harder. This past spring season was unbelievably rough — I never was in the same boat twice, I worked my ass off, lifted extra, pushed myself to the breaking point… and then some. This past May, my work paid off, and I crossed the finish line at Lake Quinsigamond, finishing third overall at the Eastern College Athletic Conference regatta in Worcester, Mass. The bronze medal I won was the first varsity medal for Ithaca College at ECACs since 2008.

And I did it as a gay man.

Chris Kelley began rowing competitively the summer before high school. He is entering his senior year at Ithaca College, where he is working towards a B.S. in Cinema and Photography with a concentration in Cinema Production. He wants to write and direct films that change perceptions of what gay men can do for cinema. He is a fan of Spring Breakers, peanut butter, bad puns, and butts. He can be reached on Twitter (@cadetkelley); Instagram (cadet__kelley) or via email: christopherkelley10@gmail.com