In April 2015, I was heading back to my quarters at the naval base in Pensacola, Fla. I was on a high, riding my motorcycle back to base after spending the night with a guy I seeing.
I suddenly felt a lot of vibrations and it wasn't a bumpy road. It was the phone in my pocket, buzzing with Instagram messages.
"Explain this," one said. "Curnick, are you gay? Don't lie to us," said another.
My heart pounding, I pulled over to the side of the road. One of my friends had been going through my Instagram photos and found one of me with another guy on the back of my motorcycle. Their messages wanted to know the truth. I realized my biggest fear had come to fruition.
I was alone at the time and in tears, and I decided to come clean — yes, I'm gay, I told them. The reactions started coming in and, to my relief and surprise, they were overwhelmingly positive. While I did lose a few friends, the ones closest to me became even closer, because I no longer had to lie about who I was and for the first time they knew what was really going on in my life. Pensacola will always hold a place in my heart for changing me in the way it did.
After I came over that final hurdle, I began to live openly, and my life as a gay man flourished. That's not to say everyone in the military is supportive. This past spring, in combat training before my deployment to Afghanistan, someone found out I was gay, walked up to me and said, "I'm glad I'm not deploying with you, I wouldn't trust a fag with my life." This despite the fact I was one of the better marksmen and performers in my class. I use comments like that to fuel my fire to succeed in everything that I do.
If you're wondering why a Sailor is writing a story for Outsports it's because I have been a water polo player in high school and college and still play competitively. I am now in the U.S. Navy, serving in Afghanistan. I have lived in two countries, four states and on both coasts of the U.S.
I grew up in a medium-size conservative town in Southern California. I started playing water polo in 7th grade, eventually playing at Great Oak High School in Temecula. My life got interesting after high school. When I was 18 I moved halfway around the world to Madrid, Spain, to attend college and play water polo at an elite level. After a year in Spain I returned to Southern California where I played water polo for another year at Palomar College.
I didn't come out until I was almost 21. I grew up thinking that being gay was wrong — that being gay meant you fit a stereotype. It meant that you were a pathetic, weak, purse-toting excuse for man. I now know that's not the case.
The day I first came out to anyone in February 2014 was the most emotional experience of my life. My hands were shaking and voice was cracking. I lived in Florida at the time, and my two best friends — both girls — were at college in different parts of the country and my family was in California. I was scared. I sent my two friends a group text. They responded with nothing but love and affection. One of them even Face-timed me, and saw me in tears, right next to the guy I was dating at the time.
Next up was my mom. She was at work, so I sent her a text: "Mom, I have something to tell you ... I'm gay." She immediately called, telling me how much she loved me. She had asked me many times growing up if I was gay, but being afraid of who I was, I never could admit it.
My struggle came with growing up in the closet and learning to love myself. I built a wall and never let anyone through. It was really tough at first, leading me to very dark places mentally. Reading coming out stories like the one I am writing — and how people were greeted with love and open arms — was what kept me going.
The hardest people to come out to were my fellow military members. I originally enlisted into the most hyper-masculine program possible, the Naval Special Warfare Program. I enlisted in 2014 to serve a purpose greater than myself. There, instructors and fellow trainees constantly threw homophobic slurs around. I distinctly remember one day when an instructor said, "Oh look at those faggots," and then turned to us saying, "Wait, it's OK to be gay, YOU just can't be gay."
This prolonged my life in the closet and I could not be seen as gay to the rest of my class. I ended up getting injured and washing out of training, at which point I was given a new job in the military and moved to Florida. The state is where my life changed forever. It's where I came out, and I learned to live an open life and grow as a gay man.
Many of my fellow sailors washed out of the training alongside me and ended up in Pensacola, where the outing took place that fateful day. I feared I would be rejected by people I once was friends with, terrified that the leadership above me would look at me as less of a man, or that any accomplishment I have will be attributed to me being gay, and not my merit. I was completely and utterly wrong. In fact, some of the most vocally homophobic people ended up being my biggest supporters.
Conner Curnick has competed in several Reebok Spartan Races — 13 miles of running through hills and obstacles such as climbing over walls, crawling under barbed wire and through mud.
Since coming out, I have become a much happier, productive and successful person. I have since been to the Middle East twice and been awarded accolades for my achievements. I have received letters of commendation from leaders at Combatant Commands and won Sailor of the Quarter at my command of 2,300 Sailors.
Since coming out, I have fought to defeat the very thing that caused me to not come out any sooner: stereotypes. I want to be the gay man that I wish I met when I was younger. I want to prove that the gay community is just as strong and capable as the straight world. If I can make one person's life better, all my efforts and struggles will have been worth it.
I still face discrimination, and I understand that it is an unfortunate reality of living openly and fighting for equality. I am currently working with fellow LGBT sailors to start an organization at my base for LGBT service members to promote understanding and ensure equality in the workplace. I hope that in the future, people won't have to "come out," but they can simply say this is my boy/girlfriend and be accepted by everyone.
Conner Curnick, 22, is a Petty Officer Third Class in the U.S. Navy on assignment in Afghanistan. When not on assignment he plays competitive water polo in Washington DC. He can be reached via e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org), on Instagram (cdcurnick) or on Facebook.
Story editor: Jim Buzinski