RALEIGH, North Carolina — When he graduated high school in Texas, Hudson Rains ranked among the best divers in the state. During his final three years at the Texas high school diving championships, he progressively improved, finishing sixth, fourth and second.
Universities clamored for him to join their programs.
One school Rains visited he quickly ruled out, not because of facilities or the coaches, but as a result of language. During a recruiting visit to the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, a swimmer made what Rains called a threatening, violent comment about the LGBT community.
“Right then and there, I decided I wasn’t going to go to that school because of the comment that was made and because everyone laughed at it because it was just a joke to them,” Rains said.
Instead, Rains chose to attend North Carolina State University.
Rains, who three times finished top 10 in diving at the ACC Championships from 2009-13, enjoyed a college athletic experience in which he always knew at least one other teammate was gay.
With the negative reputation North Carolina has gotten since the passage of House Bill 2 this year, you might not expect one of the country’s queerest teams in recent years would be in the Tar Heel State
From 2006 to 2013, the NC State men’s swimming and diving team included at least five gay men. And in the four years from 2008-12, at least three gay men were on the team each year.
For comparison, no university that competes in a Power Five Conference has had more than four athletes come out publicly in a team’s history, based on Outsports and The Advocate archives and contacting university LGBT centers.
Though five gay men from the team have acknowledged they are gay in interviews for this story, four have allowed for their names to be used — Derek Ernst (swimmer 2006-09), Jimmy Ross (swimmer 2008-12), Hudson Rains (diver 2009-13), and Chris Arcara (diver 2009-14).
None of them have previously talked publicly about their experience being an LGBT athlete, though Rains’ photo appeared in Jeff Sheng’s “Fearless” project.
‘Stop hanging out with the girls’
Ernst, Ross, Rains and Arcara attended NC State during the 2009-10 school year, and they should have been teammates that year. Ernst’s decision to leave the team after his junior year prevented that from happening.
Knee and shoulder injuries played a role in Ernst’s decision to stop competing, but he said he might have pushed through them if he felt accepted on the men’s team. During his sophomore year of 2007-08, Ernst said teammates started bullying him. He felt harassed about his weight, people called him gay (though Ernst had not come out), and some teammates spread lies about him hooking up with men.
“The people who I thought were supposed to have my back and have trust in and run to for help were actually the people making me feel bad about myself,” Ernst said.
When Ernst, one of the team’s top butterfly swimmers, told a coach about the bullying, he received the instructions “to stop hanging out with the girls and be more like the guys,” he said. He declined naming the coach.
Ernst started telling people he is gay as junior in 2008-09, which was Ross’ freshman year. Ross, a distance freestyle swimmer, said close to half a dozen times he heard teammates mock Ernst for his sexuality. Ross, who started coming out in high school, felt concerned about his ability to tell his new team about his own identity.
“When I observed that behind his back, it made me feel very upset because I kind of felt they were indirectly ridiculing me,” Ross said.
In December 2008, Ernst invited Ross to go with him to a Raleigh gay bar, giving Ross his first opportunity to tell a member of the team that he’s gay. Ross didn’t tell any other teammates until the following April, but by his sophomore year, Ross became comfortable in his sexuality to briefly date the fifth gay man on the team during this time.
“Progressively over my freshman and sophomore years, I was able to develop that confidence within myself that this is who I am and I need to stop being so passive and take control of my life,” Ross said.
When Rains arrived in Raleigh in the fall of 2009, he and his high school girlfriend remained in a relationship.
“Growing up, I just thought that [being gay] was a bad thing and it was not normal and it was something that you should avoid being and you should avoid interacting with,” Rains said.
In the summer of 2011, as a test before he told the rest of the team, Rains started broaching the topic of being gay with Arcara (who was Rains’ roommate but not out yet), Ross, and Ernst, who still lived in Raleigh at the time. His junior year, he came out to the rest of the team and became involved with the campus GLBT Center, later assuming treasurer duties as a senior. Rains said all his teammates were “phenomenally supportive.”
Arcara, who arrived in fall 2009 with Rains, missed the 2011-12 season with a broken leg. Early in the 2012-13 season, he made Rains the first person on the team that he told he is gay.
“I wish that I had let myself be myself sooner, knowing that I would have had a great experience,” said Arcara, whose best ACC Championships result was 15th on platform as a freshman. “At NC State, I felt incredibly supported.”
Ernst, who is engaged to get married this month, likes that the team environment improved after he left, and he wonders if a speech he gave when he quit caused the athletes and coaches to evaluate their demeanor.
He told the team, “I’m leaving. I’m not happy on this team anymore, and I wish you guys all the best luck but I’m just done.” Several people applauded at the end, according to Ernst.
“At that point, I felt like I got some respect from them,” Ernst said. “I wouldn’t take back my experience at NC State, because it made me who I am. The good, the bad, and the ugly.”
Moving events not enough for ACC
Arcara, a native of New York, is the only one of the four still living in Raleigh.
He called the recent decision by the NCAA and the Atlantic Coast Conference to move events out of North Carolina because of HB2 “bittersweet.”
“I’m so proud that the ACC and the NCAA recognize the injustice aimed towards a large number of their athletes whom are affected and victimized by hate and prejudice,” Arcara said. “On one hand, this is a huge step towards acceptance and equality. On the other hand, it’s too bad that we had to retreat to go forward.”
Though the ACC took that step, the universities that comprise the ACC are not leaders on LGBT services for students. No ACC schools made either the Princeton Review’s 2017 Top 20 LGBTQ-Friendly list or the Best College’s 2016 Top 25 schools for LGBTQ students, and Louisville was the ACC’s only school that made Campus Pride’s 2016 Top 30 LGBTQ-Friendly Colleges and Universities.
Arcara, Ernst, Rains, and Ross recognize their fortune to have multiple LGBT athletes at NC State simultaneously, but they know most athletes are not so lucky. The four of them want to see the ACC as a whole do more for LGBT athletes.
Ross wants the ACC to add an annual or semi-annual retreat for the conference’s LGBT athletes to meet, share experiences, and bring ideas to their campuses. An action like that would help both current athletes and attract new ones.
“That would be really great for potential recruits or people in high school who are LGBT student-athletes to see the ACC has an organization, a formal group of individuals who are LGBT athletes … to show that you’re not alone,” Ross said.
Erik Hall is a member of the Associated Press Sports Editors. He can be reached via Twitter @HallErik or by email using firstname.lastname@example.org.