Growing up gay in Eastern Kentucky was hard, to say the least. I have encountered some of the nicest people and family and friends you will ever meet, but I have also have had experienced a lot of hatred and intolerance.

Many kids were cruel, as their parents had raised them to be extremely close-minded to anyone who was different. Religion was their key weapon and they used it to condemn anyone they say is not accepted by the Bible. Eastern Kentucky is an area that is fueled by coal, littered with die-hard University of Kentucky basketball fans and built on conservative views.

Thinking back, I knew of no “out” gays while I was growing up and the thought of having someone gay in your family was never discussed without shame or disgust. Growing up in Kentucky made it difficult for me as a young gay man but it also provided many rewards. I was given the opportunity to be around many of my family members and the area is absolutely breath taking. The Appalachian Mountains provided many great running trails.

However, in 2016, it is important for me to use my voice and advocate for LGBT youth growing up in Eastern Kentucky and places like it so that I will be able to let them know that there is hope in following your dreams and being happy. In no way am I bashing family and friends I love deeply from the area. I just want to tell my story.

Many people have asked me, “How was it possible that no one knew you were gay?” Considering my love of Cher, the answer is that everyone knew deep down and it was hard for everyone, including myself, to accept. Throughout high school, I was verbally bullied for supposedly being gay, which left me very hurt and confused. During these years, I wanted to feel safe and protected among my peers but sadly, this was not that case. However, my peers were not my main concern. I was terrified of telling my family. What if they hated me? What if they disowned me? What if they loved me just the same?

The first family member I came out to was my sister, Sara. I told her through a Facebook message because the thought of telling someone in person was unbearable. She took it extremely well and warned me to always make sure that I cleared my Internet browser, which was her sly way of telling me that she already knew my deep, dark secret. She helped me understand that it wasn't that dark. I am now 23 and I am out to nearly everyone in life, except my grandfather. I hope that this story will reach him too.
When I was 21, I came out to my father before going on a run in my hometown. I picked my father first of my parents because of the compassion and kindness that he has shown to others and me. Running has always been a part of our lives and we always go on runs together. The day I told him, I could barely breathe and it took every ounce of bravery inside me to say the words.
I did not care about the ramifications that could happen to me if he did not approve; I was just ready. I thought that he was going to have a problem with everything, but he was very supportive and told me that, unfortunately, there would be no life for me in Eastern Kentucky. He also promised to walk me down the aisle at my wedding, which is something I will hold him to when the day comes. He did not see me any differently after I told him. He told me I would always be his son and he will always love me.
I came out to my mother six months later, and she has never faltered in her support, and has become my biggest confidant. She deals with my rants about boys, school and running; topics she will never admit to being tired of hearing about.

I attended undergraduate school at Morehead State University, where I majored in Exercise Science, with the hopes of attending Occupational Therapy school after graduation. The reason for attending this school in Morehead, located in the Daniel Boone National Forest and known for a certain county clerk, Kim Davis, was to run cross-country and track for a Division 1 school. While running all four years at Morehead State, I was exposed to talented teammates, but also teammates who were very kind and open to all people, no matter skin color, sexual orientation, gender or religious views. My teammates were the first non-family members I came out to, and I consider some of them family to this day. I began my collegiate career as a walk-on athlete, but after the first year, I was awarded an athletic scholarship.

While competing for Morehead State, I ran (at the time) the second fastest 10k in school history in cross-country (32:06), and broke school track records in the 5k (14:40) and the 10k (30:31). After graduating from Morehead State, I was accepted into Duquesne University in Pittsburgh to study Occupational Therapy. I live in Pittsburgh now and recently competed in the Pittsburgh Marathon, where I placed 14th (2:35). I also recently competed in the Marshall Marathon, which I won (2:33).
I am very happy with the direction of my life. I am very proud of who I am and am vigorously pursuing my dreams of being an accomplished runner and a knowledgeable occupational therapist. I am also enjoying being in a great relationship with a wonderful person.
My No. 1 goal is to be an advocate for LGBT rights. I hope that if my story reaches any struggling gay teen in Eastern Kentucky, he or she realizes that there is hope that they can accomplish any goal or dream that they may have. They can be senator, doctor, or, hey, they can even run in the Boston marathon.
Chase Ratliff, 23, was born in Pikeville, Kentucky, and attended Shelby Valley High School. He attended Morehead State University and graduated with a degree in Exercise Science Pre-Occupational Therapy. While at Morehead State, he competed in cross-country and track & field. He is now in Duquesne University's Occupational Therapy program, He is a member of Pittsburgh Front Runners. He can be reached via email ([email protected]), Instagram or on Facebook.
Story edited by Kayla Burton, Lindsay Marcum and Sara Ray.