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Gay Muslim athlete embraced by two different college teams, even if mom was a struggle

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When Saieed Rihan came out to his teammates on two different college teams, it wasn't a problem. But when he came out to his Muslim mother, that was more difficult.

Saieed Rihan ran for Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo.
Saieed Rihan ran for Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo.

I was having a particularly bad day one December and I just wanted to get away from things. I needed to get away from my family and just be with friends for a bit. For months I had been contemplating telling my friends the truth about me but couldn't bring myself to do it.

I decided that tonight would finally be the night.

I was attending a junior college in the area at the time, and they were at UC-San Diego, so I gave them a heads up I was coming down and that I needed to talk to them. The whole way down I was nervous, possibly the most nervous I had ever been. I had known these two people for years. They were fraternal twins, Jessie and Junior, who I had met in cross country, and they were my best friends.

When I arrived at their dorm they were with some friends I knew, so we hung out with them for awhile. When I finally got them alone in my car, I had my head down, was breathing deeply, and couldn't look at my friends. They kept asking me if I was OK; They were getting scared themselves. Finally I told them that I hope nothing would change between us, I closed my eyes, and spoke the words that haunted me for years: "I'm gay".

It felt like an out of body experience. It was like it wasn't me who said the words, I was watching someone from a distance. I didn't recognize the voice, but it was me. I looked up at my friends.

"That's it?" One of them asked.

I was confused, what did they mean by that?

"Yeah," I replied.

They exhaled; I didn't realize they were holding their breath as well. They thought that I had been using drugs or was very sick, or something else terrible had happened to me. So when it turned out to be that the news is just that I was gay, they were relieved as well. After that I had the confidence to tell the rest of my friends.

At the time I was getting ready to transfer to a new school, and I told myself that I wanted to be out and not hide this secret anymore by the time I began at my new school. This meant that I needed to finally tell my current cross country team at Palomar College.

I was good friends with all the guys on the team since we spent hours together just running and talking, but the person I was closest to on the team was also the person I was most afraid to tell. My friend Cameron stated many times his thoughts about gay people, and each time I was too scared to speak my mind. He didn't think poorly of them or any less of them, it was more a feeling of being uncomfortable, but it wasn't from an experience he had. His dad had told him how awhile back he was in San Francisco and headed out for a run, and shortly into it he received some whistles and promptly went back to his hotel. This was enough to spook Cameron, and enough to keep me from telling him the truth.

Finally, I received what seemed to be a perfect sign, and just the help I needed. I was checking my favorite running website, and the cover story was about a runner from Michigan who came out to his team and had a positive experience. As I read the story, I couldn't believe how well things went for him and how awesome it would be to have a team like his. I sent him an email and we spoke for a little. I felt like I had the confidence to finally tell my team.

A few days later we were on our warm up run and I decided that would be the day. During the warm up and the workout it was all I could think about, but I couldn't quite figure out how to tell him. We were doing our cool down back to campus, and it was now or never. We were ahead of the other guys so it would just be us two.

"You know what sucks?" I casually asked. He asked what it was.

"Wanting to tell you that I'm gay, but not knowing how to do it."

I looked at him and he was silent. I told him I would run ahead or fall back if he needed a little time, but he said it was OK. Luckily we were nearing school so we were almost done. He didn't say much, and I was hoping this wasn't a mistake. He went to the coaches office and I went to the locker room to grab my things. As I was heading out, a few other guys were there, so I looked at them, quickly mentioned that I was gay, and left the locker room.

By the next day I hadn't heard from my teammates yet so I had no idea where they stood, so I did a run on my own. The following day was a workout though, so I had to see them. We proceeded with practice as normal, and at the end I tried to leave as quickly as I could. I was leaving the locker room and walked past the showers where some of them were, and I heard the talking quiet down as I passed.

I was right by the door when Cameron came running out, soaking wet in spandex. He said he wasn't sure if I was kidding or not the other day, to which I replied I wasn't, and he assured me that things would still be the same between us and nothing changed. He the said he would hug me if he wasn't half naked and soaking wet, and I knew things would be fine between us.

Things couldn't be going better I thought, and they were, until it came to family.

I was raised in a Muslim household, which is not the friendliest religion to be in if you are gay, so in July, I told my mom that the following Saturday I was planning on going down to pride with a few friends to hang out. When that Saturday morning rolled around I found a list of household items to be completed, which would be impossible to do before I left.

This turned into a big argument. Why was I going, who was I going with, why did I want to go, was I secretly involved....

"Yes! I'm gay! Is that what you want to hear?"

She just said she knew and left. I was broken hearted. My brother was there for the whole thing and instantly texted my sisters, so now the whole family new.

The rest of the summer my mother and I barely spoke. I finally confronted her a few days before I was leaving for school, and this time was no better than the last. Things escalated quickly and two days later I was driving five hours away to my new school.

I had already mentioned to my new roommates that I was gay, but now I had a new team to tell. A few found out on a run when we passed a girl and opinions were asked of her. I said I didn't find women attractive so I wouldn't be much help.

The rest found out when they learned that I knew a nationally ranked runner and they asked if she was my type, but I mentioned that I wasn't interested in that gender in general. A few of the guys were surprised, but everyone was fine with it and it has never been an issue with them.

I am happy to say that after a few years and some work, my mom and I are at a good place. She has come a long way and we are better than we have been in a long time. I have been lucky to not have experienced much negativity, except for that bump with my mom. But I also realize I am luckier than some others to have been with two different teams who were both accepting of me.

Saieed Rihan was raised in a Muslim household but is now on a journey questioning his faith. You can find him on Facebook and on Instagram @saieed.