It took me 19 years to finally admit to myself that I am not, well… straight.
Before I ever joined a Queer-Straight Alliance, walked in the Boston Pride Parade, adorned rainbow t-shirts, or even kissed a boy, I was a high school athlete with a dream to compete at the collegiate level.
When I discovered the sport of lacrosse it was love at first sight. I became hooked on the sport and played it whenever I got the chance.
Lacrosse gave me a rush of adrenaline, something that put my mind at ease. Along with my two brothers and my sister, every spring revolved around academics and lacrosse. By the time I reached high school, I was the only freshman who consistently got playing time at the varsity level. It made my parents proud and challenged me to be that much better on the field.
As the only freshman on the team, I subsequently became a target. This meant that I was in charge of fetching balls, carrying the water to practice and more.
This also meant that I was verbally harassed by teammates about everything, from the cleats that I wore to the way I called for a pass. Even though I tried to ignore the abuse as much as I could, over time it started to take a toll on me both as a player and as a student.
Every player on the team was there for one goal: win another state championship. Everything that we did revolved around that shared mindset. We played every game with the mentality that we would win. We fought hard on every play.
This meant that we couldn’t be a bunch of “faggots over there on the baseball team” or “gay-ass soccer players” as my teammates would put it. There was no room for a gay guy on the lacrosse field. That was our mantra.
Although public homophobic remarks by my teammates were rare, it was no secret to anyone on the team that this “lifestyle” did not belong. I constantly tried to fulfill the stereotype of a “jock,” because that was the easiest way for me to fill the role of a good lacrosse player.
As crazy as it seems, lacrosse was my escape from the bigoted comments made by my teammates. In my junior and senior years, my dreams of potentially competing at the college level became a reality. I played on one of the top club teams in the state and received interest from college coaches across the country. Coaches from NCAA Division II and III programs recruited me for their lacrosse programs.
I chose to attend Bard College, an hour down the Hudson River from Albany, N.Y. When I first got to Bard as a freshman, I was still fighting to uphold my “jock” persona.
Throughout my first lacrosse season at Bard College, I spent almost half of my spring semester with the team. I thought this meant that I would be exposed to even more bigoted moments and get harassed even more for the way that I played and acted. However, I did not experience the same verbal abuse from teammates that I had experienced the last time I was a freshman. Not even close.
In fact, I had almost the opposite experience.
During the course of my freshman year I formed several close friendships with my teammates, and a couple of us had an inside joke where I had been deemed the “team mom”. As a result, I was required to say I love you. Part of the gag meant they never said it in return, which my coach thought was hilarious. This newfound camaraderie was something that was so foreign to me, and it showed me how the differences between high school and college lacrosse extend far beyond the playing field.
Although I was still fighting to appear more straight every day, I knew deep down that this was not something I could do forever. Even though my college teammates were some of my closest friends, I was never comfortable enough with myself that freshman season to tell them. No matter who I was with, I still had to play the part so that no one knew my secret.
After the season ended I decided I didn’t want to bear the weight of my secret anymore.
I had spent one particular day studying in an empty classroom. I just couldn’t focus. On impulse I opened up a window on the computer’s browser, went to Facebook, and started typing. I wanted it to be clever, but at the same time real. I was coming out via a Facebook status, and I wanted it to be something I wouldn’t regret.
As I typed, all the comments and verbal abuse and attacks that I had experienced in high school came back, pestering me that I would not truly be a college player if I came out. Moments of self-loathing, regret, fear and sadness came flooding in, but I kept typing.
Ten minutes later, I felt satisfied with the status. I clicked the “post” button and immediately closed my computer. I turned off my phone. I was scared. I was an athlete. I had been taught to not show emotion, and this was the most emotional and personal thing I had ever done.
I sat there in that empty classroom staring outside.
After what felt like hours of waiting, I turned on my phone. My heart was pounding and my palms were sweating. At first my phone was silent. It was the most deafening sound I had ever heard. Then, one pleasant chime broke that silence, and I glanced at my phone. To this day I won’t forget that instant when I looked at my phone, and it was from one of my teammates. This guy was one of the leaders on the team, and one of my closest friends.
“I love you,” his text read.
I read the text probably three times over before it finally sunk in. Here was someone I had admired as both a player and as a friend, showing me that he was comfortable enough in who he is to be there for me when I was most vulnerable.
I didn’t know if my team would still accept me as a player once I came out. I didn’t know how my friends would react to the announcement. I didn’t even know if I could be able to face my family.
That text message was all I needed to know that things were going to be okay.
I was most grateful for how little my world changed. Having the support of my family, my friends, my team, and my coaches Tucker Kear and Alex Stone helped me get through those moments when I needed their support. I wasn’t back in my high school where I would have been ridiculed and isolated. I was simply a lacrosse player who happened to not be straight.
For years I thought that I could either be true to myself as a person or true to who I was as an athlete. There was no possible way that I could be both, because I didn’t know anybody else in my lacrosse community who was part of the LGBT community.
Boy was I wrong. I am a college lacrosse player, and I am part of the LGBT community. I have not regretted coming out for one second.
I am free, and it feels so damn good.
Bradley Whitaker is now a student at Dartmouth College. You can find him in Facebook, and on Instagram @urmamalovesme. You can also reach him via email at Bradleyfirstname.lastname@example.org.