I'm often asked, "How can you be a college basketball player and still be gay?"

I usually answer with something equally absurd.

"How can you be straight?"

Growing up in Cedarville, a little town of 1,300 people in western Arkansas, was one of the greatest things that could have happened to me. There I developed some friendships and memories that will last a lifetime. I loved my life there except for one not-so-small problem: Cedarville and the other surrounding areas are some of the most homophobic parts of the country.

Growing up I was inculcated with the belief that "gay" automatically meant "going to hell."

Two years ago I told everyone I was against homosexuality, even hated gay people. I'd say gays have no meaning in this world. I uttered hatefulness out of necessity to fit into the community, but I always felt like my words would come back to haunt me.

In junior high, I was always that "weird" or "crazy" kid nobody wanted to hang around, so I didn't have a lot of friends. The other kids frequently called me gay because I hung out with girls and acted as the class clown. (Fun fact: I am now a professional clown, in case anyone needs me to do a gig).

Of course I denied the gay comments, clinging to three things that kept me whole during my lonely youth: 1) God, 2) family and 3) basketball.

At a young age I showed promise on the basketball court, so my parents sent me to camps and gave me resources to develop as a basketball player. Eventually I caught the attention of a few players and coaches. As I became more of a "star," the other kids started talking to me more. Being good at basketball suddenly made me "normal," worthy of their time and attention.

Even with some friends and attention, I felt like an outcast. In high school my loneliness and self-hatred were at an all-time high, while my self-worth plummeted. I didn't know who I was. I didn't know where I was going in life.

After one particularly awful day, I walked to the edge of a steep cliff not too far from my house. I went to that cliff with every intention of taking my life over the edge. Thankfully a will to live hit me the closer I got and, after some contemplation, I backed away from my death.

Yet somehow I slipped and fell right over the edge of the cliff. It sounds crazy, I know. My mind was truly elsewhere in those moments, and I tumbled down. The fall felt like an eternity, but it wasn't bad enough to kill me. My clumsy feet had left me, luckily, alive.

"God," I whispered aloud in a croaked voice, "if you can help me and take care of me, I will live for you for the rest of my life."

Somewhere in my head came an answer, a mandate to "Get up." I moved my legs, sat up, and walked away, relatively unscathed. Surviving that episode, and the emotional roller coaster it put me on, built my trust in God to answer my prayers.

After high school I attended Ecclesia College, a Bible school not an hour away from my parents’ house. There I played my first years of college ball. I was one of the best players on the team and had some semblance of popularity on campus. This was also the first time I had guys hitting on me. Yep, at a Bible school. Shocking, I know. They would ask if I was straight or gay, and I’d always chicken out. Yet I so wanted to be with a guy to see what it was like.

After a year at Ecclesia, I ended up at Bethel College. With a new-found freedom at a new school I decided to explore my identity.

After my sophomore year at Bethel, I worked up the courage to try a gay club, just to see what the gay scene was like. There I met a very nice guy who lived near me who wanted to take me out. We left the club together, my heart beating fast, excited and nervous about what the night might hold.

He drove and we talked. It seemed like this was going to be my perfect first time with a guy.

It wasn't. He wrestled me out of the car. He sexually abused me. He drugged me. He raped me. He changed my life. It's a struggle to just write a few lines about it, but it's part of who I am now.

Even though I never reported the incident to anyone, and this guy was not charged with any crime, I know in my heart that he forced himself on me and that's rape in my mind. It's important to me to share this now because I know many other guys have been in similar situations.

After that episode I went back to dating girls. I had to. I wasn't emotionally ready for what "being gay" suddenly meant in my head after that experience.

It took me another year to find the courage to be my true self. When I told a couple friends that I was gay, word quickly spread at the small Bethel campus. Soon everyone would know, which forced me to tell the people I consider my second family: my teammates and coaches.

I've always been scared to tell guys about my sexuality. Telling girls always felt a lot easier to me. So I knew telling my teammates would be one of my biggest challenges.

It turned out to be so much easier than I suspected. I spoke to each teammate, one by one, and for the most part they have supported me. My coming out didn't change the way the coaches treat me either; They consider me as any regular basketball player, not "the gay basketball player."

This season I played in every game, usually in the top five on my team in scoring coming off the bench and contributing every way I could to the team to succeed.

Off of the team, some friends at Bethel who once regularly talked with me went silent. Whispers surfaced behind my back. Some students did threaten to try to kick me out of school, damage my truck, and even physically harm me. So far they have not done any of those things and Bethel College has backed me up to prevent those incidents from happening in the future. Back home some former friends have belittled my sexuality, like it's a choice (a choice I don't remember making).

Some Bethel varsity athletes have had a tough time with me being gay. Usually from the rural South, they have always had the worst-possible images of gay people in their minds. I may not fit all of those images, but that hasn't made it any easier for them to accept me.

The best part is that they are trying to understand me, but when you've been raised with one mindset and one set of beliefs your entire first 20 years, change doesn't come easy. It's not easy for me to accept, but I get it.

My parents are on a similar journey. When I came out they were in the middle of a divorce, so I avoided telling them. Sure enough, they found out by word of mouth and I had to find the courage to tell them about my sexuality. They still don’t understand me, but they reassure me constantly that they still love me.

Navigating my sexuality has been a difficult journey, but I thank God for it. He provides me with the strength, courage, determination, heart, and love to live every day knowing some people can’t accept me. I hope to help others find the same strength to deal with whatever struggles they encounter in their lives.

I just wish we could all find the strength to live life by this one motto: Always be you. God created everyone different. He did that for a reason.

Don't waste your life being depressed like I did, to the point where that depression almost takes away your life. Don't let anybody hold you back for what you want to do in life, because it's your life, not theirs. I will never stop fighting to be a better friend, a better basketball player, a better follower of Christ, and a better person.

To those of you who are reading this for the first time, I am still the same Nathan you know. I have been hiding my sexuality for quite some time, and I figured at some point I would have to let the world know. Just like you, my sexual orientation doesn't define me; I'm more than a category. I wish I could have told you sooner.

Am I scared this is being published? Yes.

Will I be judged or looked down upon? Hell yes.

But I am strong, and look to Christ to guide my way until I reach a new life with Him. I hope you take the time to understand what I have gone through and accept me for who I am.

You can find Nathan Fort on Facebook and Instagram. You can also reach him via email at [email protected].

Story editor: Cyd Zeigler