Throughout my tennis career, I've had too many injuries to count and too many trips to the X-ray or MRI machines for being a 21 year-old. When another body part is damaged, there's always a way to fix it. Always a path to change, repair and improve what's been damaged. This was the same approach I had about my sexuality. But how can you change, repair and improve something you have no control over?
The answer to that is simple: You can't. But more importantly, why should you ever want to? That was the question my coach, Brian Kalbas, asked me when I sat in his office two days after I had a meltdown during a match. It was the middle of my sophomore season and I had gone in with the intention of coming out to him and explaining my on-court outburst.
He usually doesn't coach me during matches, but for some reason that day he ventured to my court. I had just lost the first set when he came over and started jabbering about some strategy that I didn't want to hear. He realized that I was more irritated than usual as I spat out a torrent of ambiguous passive-aggressiveness.
"I don't even know what I'm doing with my life," I said.
Coach replied with, "What can I do to help you?"
"I don't know. I don't even know how to help MYSELF!!!"
To which he got in his power stance squat, arms flailing, blue eyes popping and intensely said, "Don't play life! DON'T PLAY LIFE RIGHT NOW!"
He then proceeded to watch my match from a court away, which for the record I ended up winning in a third set super-tiebreaker.
That's a match I'll always remember. Not because of the tennis, but because it was the instant that I realized how suffocated I felt even in a place that has always been my haven. How very lost, confused and alone I felt even in the space that has nourished so much of my identity. Furthermore, it was clear that my inner conflicts were seeping into an area of my life that I had always thought should be separate from my private life. Tennis was business and my sexuality shouldn't have had anything to do with how I was playing.
How completely wrong I was.
Now back to this meeting with coach. I think I sat there for 15 minutes trying to work up the courage to squeak out the two syllables — "I'm gay" — because the three extra syllables of "I'm a lesbian" just seemed unfathomable to conquer at the time.
As time passed I thought my nerves would subside, but my stomach just kept turning into knots, my throat felt like it was closing in and my heart was pounding faster than I thought possible. I think I was more nervous in that moment than the four national championship title matches we've played in. Alas, he finally gave up trying to guess what was bothering me and I finally let the two terrifying words slip out of my mouth.
His reaction surpassed all my expectations. It was probably one of his least awkward moments in a time where I expected him to freeze up and not know what to say. I had been nervous because he was the first man that I was coming out to. Not only a man, but a Catholic-raised, Notre Dame alum, middle-aged, Southern gentleman. The stereotypes surrounding his identity squirmed into my mind and built up the situation to be much more daunting than it played out to be.
As we continued talking he posed the question that I mentioned before: "Would you want to change yourself right now?" At first I answered with a sheepish yes. Upon his look of exasperation I corrected myself and answered no. His smug grin made me chuckle a little.
Ashley Dai, second from left, with her Tar Heel teammates.
What I had to come to terms with was that this wasn't something I could change nor was it something that I should want to change. I had thought that I was handling my gayness pretty well before that, but by late fall of my sophomore year it all started going downhill when I was thinking about telling my roommate.
That's when the "why me" questions played on repeat in my head. Why can't I just be straight like everyone else? Why can't this part of my life just be easy? Why did I leave Los Angeles for the South? Why is my coming out process never ending? Simply put, the thought of coming out to someone who wasn't on my team was even more daunting.
My teammates have to love me, support me, deal with me, and accept me if we want to be successful. At least that was my thought process. More than anything though, I was afraid of losing control of the situation. The more people I told, the more power I was relinquishing. So taking the next step to tell my roommate, Paige Neuenfeldt, who's on the volleyball team was enormous and made things very real. Real in the sense that once this gets out that means the 700 other student-athletes would probably catch wind of it soon. Was I ready for that? Nope. But where's the thrill in life if you don't do the things that make you want to sprint the other way?
Maybe that's just how many athletes are wired. Staying in one spot for too long just makes me itch. I feel stuck. I hate not improving and progressing.
In this case, I couldn't improve upon my sexuality but I could progress in how confident I was in myself by opening up more to others. Paige was a funny one to tell. I remember pacing back and forth in front of her room before she asked, "Why are you acting so weird?" Once I eventually fumbled out "I like girls" amidst tears, she bounded over to give me a hug and said, "bet you feel a lot better now, huh?"
Absolutely. It felt like I was taking off a 100-pound weight vest. As I had more and more of those tough conversations, the lighter and freer I felt in all aspects of my life.
Over time it has also gotten way easier to come out. I used to roll my eyes at people who told me that it gets better, but it does. It really does. I know that I am extremely lucky to have such an outstanding support system of teammates, coaches, friends and two amazingly understanding parents.
For me though, coming out wasn't enough. Being comfortable for too long makes me feel like I'm not pushing my boundaries enough. So during the summer of my sophomore year I reached out to our student-athlete development assistant director, Cricket Lane, and a few out athletes to form a student-athlete LGBTQ group.
The feelings of uneasiness and nervousness washed over me again during this process. This time I found myself asking, are you really ready to wave that rainbow flag? The answer was the same. Nope. But I knew this was the next step in my journey and I relished the challenge. I just knew that I didn't want anyone else to feel alone or ashamed like I did. That was and still is what drives me to keep fighting for a more knowledgeable, inclusive and rainbow-friendly community.
Even if I now live in what is arguably the most homophobic state in the country, that's just even more reason to keep pushing forward. When North Carolina's House Bill 2 passed, I was absolutely crushed and beyond frustrated. It made me question whether or not I could actually make a difference. What's the point if a discriminatory bill can be passed and signed within a single day?
But since then I've seen an incredible amount of support for the LGBTQ community that has reinvigorated me while also making me even prouder to let my rainbow flag fly high. Seeing that has given me much needed motivation to keep my head up and charge on. Because if the people who are working to spread hate aren't letting up, then why should I let up on trying to spread more love?
I am hopeful that what I've put my heart and energy into is worth sustaining and growing for many years to come. I am also hopeful that the Tar Heel state I've grown to love will become what I know it is capable of. The incredible people here have shown me what's possible and HB2 is not that. It's not what my teammates are about, not what my coaches have exemplified, not what our athletics department has demonstrated, and not what our beloved school stands for.
This time, instead of asking why me I'm saying why not me, I ask: Why not us? It's a deeply hurtful setback, but it's also an opportunity to be a part of history and ignite change. Most of all, it's an opportunity to show what the Carolina Way really is and that we are most definitely not this.
Ashley Dai, 21, is majoring in Media and Journalism with a specialization in Graphic Design at the University of North Carolina. She is pursuing an MFA in Interior Design at the New York School of Interior Design this fall. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter (smASHinDAIhouse) or Instagram (smashindaihouse). She is also a member of Tar Heels for Equality (Instagram: tarheels4equality Twitter: @Heels_4Equality Facebook: facebook.com/tarheels4equality).