One year ago today I was sitting on the couch at my sister's house in complete silence. It had been a couple hours now, but there I was not talking. I couldn't carry on a conversation, it was just small talk. Thoughts were running through my head, I was shaking, sweating and terrified. I wasn't comfortable and I thought there was a chance I would have to leave after talking to her. On August 15, 2014, I told my sister, the first person in my life, that I was gay. Everything has changed for me from that point on.
In the last 21 years of my life I have tried to live up to the expectations others had for me. I was living my life to make others happy even if that meant dying on the inside. I always had a smile on my face which seemed to do a hell of a job covering up the pain I was going through.
I am at the point in my life where I have realized a few things: 1) this is MY life; not one to be dictated by others. 2) I have control over my happiness. 3) God made me this way, I can't change who I am. With these few things being true, I no longer need to hide the fact that I am gay.
I grew up in Kimball, South Dakota, a small town with a population of about 750. Some people there tend to be close-minded, and the stereotypes they carry can be brutal. If you were to hear someone talk about the LGBT community, it was surely never positive. Sadly, I also said many things I am not proud of; I internalized homophobia because I wanted to distance myself from that part of my life. I have learned that sometimes people say these things because they simply don't know anyone who is gay or it has just become part of their vocabulary and they don't actually mean what they say.
At the time I believed everything I heard. When I was growing up these words stuck. I thought every negative thing I heard was how they actually felt about it and me. It got to the point where I thought I was a terrible person for having these feelings that I could not control. At a very young age I learned to hide these feelings out of fear that I would be labeled as the "gay kid."
I simply wanted to be "normal."
Being a Christian I turned to God for help. For the majority of my teenage years I looked to God and prayed for these feelings to just go away. I was raised Catholic. I was that "sin" I had learned about in church and religion classes. I constantly prayed to be straight, hoping that one day I would wake up and this would all be a dream. As I grew older I knew these feelings I had were never going away and I needed to start accepting myself for who I truly was. Although church is where I learned this is a "terrible sin," the church also taught me that God creates each and every one of us uniquely and he never makes mistakes; he has a plan for each and every one of us. Why would he create me this way and not love me? In the last couple of years my "make me straight" prayers transitioned to me praying for others to gain understanding and compassion.
In junior high and high school I excelled in football, basketball, and track. Plus, I killed it in the classroom. I worked hard in those aspects of my life in order to take my mind off of the struggles I was hiding. My father was my football coach in high school and I was the starting quarterback for four years. We were state runner-up my junior year - We were good. My senior year of track I placed second in the 110 hurdles at the state championship track meet. I started in basketball from eighth grade through my senior year. I stood out in basketball and it was my favorite sport. I hold every basketball career stat record for my high school.
For most people, these sound like great high school experiences and accomplishments, but none of those accomplishments made me feel that great about myself. Breaking a record didn't cover up the fact that I couldn't accept who I was.
For the longest time I didn't understand how I could be gay and be an athlete. I had never heard of a gay athlete growing up. I didn't think it was possible. People defined me as the "nice guy" who always had a smile on his face. Well-liked by everyone. Caring. Great athlete. You name it. Parents and teachers would tell me how great a role model I was for their kids and the younger students at my school.
Would they still think that if they knew I was gay? I had everyone else's stereotype of a gay man in my head and I didn't fit that. I also didn't feel like I fit the stereotype of a straight man.
I denied the fact that I was gay throughout high school and told myself I was straight. I dated beautiful girls hoping that I would gain attractions and emotions toward them...but for me that was impossible. The only feelings I had for them were feelings you would have towards a good friend, nothing more. For the longest time I planned on living the rest of my life as a straight man. I was going to fall in love with a girl and marry her and eventually raise a family. I would never tell someone that I ever questioned my sexuality. Live the rest of my life a lie. "Happily."
In the spring of my senior year of high school, I signed to play basketball with Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, South Dakota. Just two weeks before my freshman year of college, I dislocated my shoulder at an open gym scrimmage. Surgery was needed and the full recovery time would be six months, which resulted in a redshirt to prevent the loss of a year of eligibility. I was shattered. Growing up, basketball was my therapy and a way to try forgetting about reality. This was a huge test for me emotionally.
During those six months of rehab and first months of freshman year of college, I came to the conclusion I needed to figure things out. I was trying to live my life by the expectations of others. I was emotionally drained and unhappy with the way my life was going.
Toward the end of my freshman year I realized that I was never going to fall in love with a girl. For the first time in my life...I was ok with that. I knew my attractions to men were natural, and there was nothing I could do about it. For the first time in my life, I wasn't ashamed. This was just another unique thing about me that doesn't define Jesse.
My family made me the man I am today. They have been my supporters since day one. We had always been a close family, but sadly I felt myself slowly pushing them away during the summer before my sophomore year of college. I had trapped these feelings and thoughts in my head for as long as I can remember. They were finally coming to the surface. I couldn't do it anymore. I had been hiding who I was for too long. That is when I came out to my sister.
Her reaction made me realize just how much she loves me. She didn't care that her brother was gay. She didn't kick me out of her house. Instead she cried with me and hugged me, letting me know just how much she loves me.
Coming out to my parents and younger brother was a surprise to them but they handled it very well. They said how much they love and support me no matter what. I was still their caring son that they love. It took them a while to come around and understand but the important thing was: I didn't lose them. It took me about nine years to fully understand my sexuality; I didn't expect them to completely understand overnight. Coming out to my family was a breath of fresh air that I have been gasping for my whole life. For the first time in my life, I was able to tell my family how I felt and didn't have to hide it anymore.
Some say once you accept yourself and tell your family, telling other people in your life gets a little easier. However, the anxiety and the feeling of not being accepted by my friends and teammates was ever present. I wanted so desperately to tell people but couldn't find the courage to actually do it. I would say I had trust issues. For so many years I was digging a hole where I could bury my secret. The hole got deeper and deeper with time. When it came time to dig that secret out of the hole, it was hard to trust my friends with it. My secret felt like it was permanently attached to me.
Friendships are built on trust. It wasn't until this spring and summer that I slowly started sharing who I was with my close high school friends. Then I told a few friends from college. All of the reactions were positive. Our friendships have become stronger than ever since sharing my truth with them, something I thought was impossible.
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After realizing just how lucky I was to have people like my family and friends in my life, I wanted to take the next step and tell one of my teammates. I started off telling a senior on the team who is one of the captains. I have lived with him for a year and knew this would be a good starting point. I never thought I would be able to tell a teammate that I was gay, but I am glad I did. His reaction was amazing and one I will never forget. He didn't care if I was straight or gay. I was his teammate. Hearing him say how he has my back if anyone on the team was to say anything negative reassured me that everything would be ok.
I have a great coach, and for me to grow as a person and player, I knew I needed to have that conversation. The last two years I have been worried about what he might think and if I would be looked at differently or not given an equal opportunity.
My fears were completely wrong. My coach reassured me that this would not be an issue for him and that it will not be an issue for the team. He wouldn't let that happen. I am very thankful to have a coach like him. Looking back, I should not have even thought twice about what he might think. He stresses family and that we are always there for each other no matter what.
Once my coach knew and I knew everything would be OK, I started telling other teammates. I figured news would spread I counted on it. Once again, there were no issues. We still workout together and go to the gym to get shots up like we did before. How they treat me has not changed. What has changed is my feeling of comfort around them. I am no longer walking on eggshells and pretending.
It wasn't until a few weeks ago at open gym that I was honestly able to make it through an hour of scrimmage and not have a single thought about being gay or what someone on the team might think of me. It was refreshing having my focus completely on basketball for the first time in my life.
Before coming out to anyone on the team, I was trapped in my own thoughts. I was constantly worried about what my teammates would think. I was never able to fully focus in practice or games; there was always the constant fear in the back of my mind that someone on the team might find out. I thought my teammates would treat me differently and think less of me. To me, these thoughts were real and terrifying.
Now that I don't have those thoughts and fears in my mind, I am very excited for the upcoming season. Since coming out to my coach and teammates, I feel more relaxed on the basketball court. Even though it has only been a few weeks since I started sharing who I am with them, my confidence has grown and I am enjoying the sport more than I ever have.
If you were to tell me a year and a half ago I would be where I am today I wouldn't believe you. In fact, I would think you were crazy. It is still hard to believe that this is all real. I used tell myself I would never be able to be an openly gay man and still be loved by friends and family and be a part of a team. To me I didn't think it was possible-it was only something that I could dream about. Here I am today living that dream and I am proud of it. My happiness since first coming out to my sister has grown every day as I become more confident and comfortable with who I am.
A lot of my confidence and being able to truly be myself started once I discovered Outsports. Before discovering this site last summer, I felt alone and as if I was the only one going through these things. After reading countless articles and being able to relate to so many of them, I finally felt like I knew who I was and where I belonged. I was able to reach out to a few athletes that have shared their stories. After getting to know them and sharing what I was going through, I no longer felt alone.
I honestly don't think I would be where I am today without Outsports and the athletes that have opened up their life to help others. These individuals have helped me realize that I am normal and shouldn't be ashamed to be who I am. If I can't be myself then who am I? One individual that I would like to thank is Conner Mertens. Conner is a humble, caring and genuine individual whom I am lucky to call a good friend. He has been instrumental in my progress these last few months and I can't thank him enough.
For me, sharing my story is a way to give back for what these athletes have done for me. I am hoping that individuals out there who are struggling with who they are will be able to relate to my story. Even if it is only one person, it will be worth it.
My few pieces of advice would be to simply love yourself for who you are and know that you are never alone. Never let someone tell you that God doesn't love you because of your sexuality. We all have our own relationships with God and no one can interfere with that. Life is short so just be you and enjoy life.
You are worth so much more than a label.
Story editor: Cyd Zeigler