It was October and my Lawrence University men's soccer team was playing a local rival. Late in the second half, I got in a tackle at the top of our box, and when the opposing player and I got up, he yelled: "What the fuck? You fucking faggot!"
I struggled mentally through the rest of the game, trying not to let anyone see that I was shaken. I felt like I was in a haze, and I couldn't stop replaying what had happened.
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I had not come out to my teammates yet, so it was difficult trying to play it off like that word didn't hurt me. I wished I could talk to a teammate about how I felt, and that they would be there to back me up. In tears, I called my mom as I was leaving the field. My parents are my biggest supporters, but at that moment, there was not much my mom could do to help me.
It was amazing how this one word hit me like a bullet, and I deflated. I had become much more comfortable in my own skin since I had come out to more friends and arrived at Lawrence. Hearing that slur, it brought me back to when I was 10 and my soccer coach asked the team who the "gayest" player was and everyone pointed to me.
Being called a "faggot" stung but it was my motivation to seize control of my situation. College is a difficult time, and it is even harder when you do not have many people with whom to share struggles with. I wanted someone I could talk to, whom I could vent to about how I felt. This desire to be true to myself and those around me led to me coming out.
The first Lawrence teammate I came out was a fellow freshman, and one of my best friends. We were sitting in his room, and I said, "Ry, you know I'm gay, right?" to which he replied, "Yeah" and our conversation continued like nothing happened. Although it was not a big coming out event, I got that feeling of support and understanding that I was craving ever since I got to college.
As our season progressed and we to struggled to win games, our captains called a meeting. We all crammed into a player's dorm room, and had a talk. We were all there to listen and share the reasons why we played. We had lost sight of the fun and joy that the game brought us, and we needed something to change that. As people around me shared their stories and reasons, I sat frantically thinking about whether I should come out to my teammates.
The room fell silent as it came to my turn. In a shaky voice, I read them a short letter that I had written to myself:
It's sad to look back and think about how I manipulated myself as a child. I denied myself the ability to be me, and I like being me. It's always just been a part of who I am, but knowing and accepting are two different things. I like to think that I did not let it affect me.
I always knew those around me would respect and love me regardless, but I did not love myself, which makes things pretty hard. I remember thinking I was sick. I just wanted to be normal, and as a middle schooler, gay is not normal, or at least it wasn't. I remember thinking how much I hated hearing the word. I hated that the word made me hate myself. I remember this one kid always called me gay. We were in 5th grade, and had no clue what we were talking about, but deep down the word still hurt. I remember my under 11 soccer team calling me gay, and crying about it lying in bed at night. I just wanted to play soccer. I just wanted to be a kid. I hate knowing that I put on a front for 18 years.
You only live once, and I have spent a large part of that time hiding and being ashamed of an aspect of who I am. I am ready to live, to not have to always make sure what I say isn't "too gay". I am ready to help kids who are just like me find their place in this world.
I hate that I felt so lost, and I don't want another kid to ever feel that way. I want to live in a world where no one cares if I like girls or guys, where coming out is obsolete. I am so many things. I am a friend, brother, son, soccer player, artist, teammate, chef and comedian, and I just happen to be gay. It's sad that today I still hear gay used as a derogatory word. Every time I hear someone say fag, I feel that pain again. Think before you speak. Words can hurt.
I hope that this letter means nothing to people. I hope no one cares, as they shouldn't, but because we live in a world where people are still killed and isolated for being gay, I hope people care. I hope that you realize that there are kids just like me all around you.
Look out for us, support us, love us. If this changes the way you think about me, that's your own issue. It speaks more to your character than mine. I know there will be bumps along the way, but I am ready to start a new chapter of my life. I am ready to be me, happy (gay, lol), goofy me.
After I finished, my teammates started congratulating me on being comfortable enough to share with them. Something that I had worked so hard to hide was out in the open, and it was so liberating. I finally felt understood and accepted by a team, something 10-year-old me could never fathom, and that feeling is one of the best feelings in the world.
We lost our next game, but that was not what was on my mind. I was happy with the fact that for the first time, I was playing on a field with teammates who had my back. I could be the true me without fear of being seen as gay in a negative way. I was gay, and they could not care less. Having the support of my team and my family reminded me that I was loved by those around me, and they just wanted me to be happy.
I come from a very accepting family and neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. My parents, two sisters and I live a block from campus at the University of Chicago, where my mom coaches women's soccer. Although I felt like something was different while I was growing up, I never thought I was gay. I denied a part of who I am for so long, and that makes me sad. It was not that I did not think I could tell my parents or those around me, it was that I could not even tell myself.
My self-acceptance started in high school. I realized that I was gay, and I began the process of trying to understand what that meant. This was happening and I started high school, at a Catholic school. I had to numb myself to words like "fag" and "gay," which slipped normally into my high school teammate's dialogue.
It was August right before of my senior year of high school when I came out to my parents. We were home alone, and after not being able to muster up the courage the night before, I decided that night it was time. They were both on their way out of the kitchen when I very quickly said, "I just want you guys to know that I am gay."
We sat at our kitchen table and talked for over an hour. I distinctly remember my mom crying as we talked, which was almost comforting to me. It reminded me that my parents were right there with me in my battle for self discovery as well as all the challenges I would face because of my sexual orientation. I will remember that night for the rest of my life. We were eating peach cobbler. Now whenever we eat peach cobbler, we laugh.
I then began my coming out process. I told many of my close friends, who all welcomed me with open arms. I then decided to come out to my co-captain on my high school soccer team. He is a great friend. I was so nervous, and could not even say it to his face, so I called him while driving home from school and told him. His response will stick with me forever. He said "Taylor, you are my best friend and nothing could ever change that." Those words were so comforting, and it was an amazing feeling to know my teammate had my back. Coming out has been powerful for me and I wish I had felt so empowered last summer.
Like many college kids, I was a camp counselor last summer, and one day will stay with me for the rest of my life. My campers and I were walking, and one of my first graders innocently asked me, "Are you gay?" to which I quickly and almost laughably said, "No." I immediately regretted what I said. I had a chance to impact a kid's life, and show him that being gay was something to be proud about, and I let him and all my campers down. That conversation reminded me of a very impactful thing someone said to me when I was a kid.
When I was 10 years old at my indoor soccer game, my coach asked the team who they thought the "gayest" player was. They all said me. I was 10. I do not think he realized that what he said would stay with me for the rest of my life. I did not even really know what being gay meant, but as a self conscious 10-year-old, the idea of being different was not a positive thing. I remember laying in bed that night crying, telling my parents that I wanted to quit soccer. I can't thank them enough for not letting me give up on my dream. I can only hope that the camper from this summer will not look back at what I said and feel the same way I feel about that indoor soccer game.
I missed a chance to influence that kid but by writing this story, I hope you can learn from my mistakes. The thing I have learned the most through my coming out process is that you need to be true to yourself. I know it is hard, and takes maturity and support from those around you, but try to push everyone else's voices out of your head, and listen to yourself.
Being an athlete makes me happy, and it's scary to think that I almost gave it up when I was 10 because of what someone else said. I want to learn from my mistake last summer, and my coach's mistake nine years ago. I want to be able to show kids that being gay is OK. The pain I felt this summer when I lied to the camper now motivates me. I don't want to sit quietly and let more people make the same mistake me and my old coach made.
For a long time, I worked so hard not to "be gay," which is crazy to think about today. I worked so hard to not be known as "the gay kid," when I wish I accepted it and made it part of who I was, because like it or not, it is who I truly am. I am a friend, brother, son, soccer player, artist, teammate, chef and comedian and I just happen to be gay. When I am all these things and I am true to myself, I am my happiest.
Taylor Reifert is a 19-year-old freshman at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. He is majoring in anthropology and minoring in Spanish. He is a midfielder on the Lawrence men's soccer team. He can be reached at via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and on Facebook and Instagram.
Story edited by Jim Buzinski
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