As stereotypical as it sounds, I'm a Canadian and hockey is in my blood.
I took my first steps on the ice at the old Greenburg Ice Pavillion on campus at Penn State University while visiting family. For as long as I can remember I have followed the same daily routine: wake up, shower, go to school, come home, do homework, then go to hockey practice.
I've been an athlete my whole life, and I've also been gay for my whole life. After I came out publicly many people have asked me, "When did you know you were gay?" and my answer is always the same: "I have always been gay." But it wasn't until I actually understood what being gay meant that I did anything about it.
As most people know, the locker room is a pretty gritty place, especially when you're a kid. It's where everyone talks about the stuff they aren't allowed to say around their parents. I remember sitting in the locker room putting on my equipment before practice and out of nowhere I heard one of my teammates shout, "that's so gay," with another replying with "no way dude, you're gay." It was the first time I had ever heard those statements spoken out loud and I wasn't really sure what they meant.
The term "gay" was something that no one in the locker room really understood, and yet it was used to label a person or an action. As the years went on I heard those specific derogatory statements used here and there, but not often. When they were, I felt as if the walls were closing in and everyone was going to know my secret. I had only ever heard the term used in a negative way and I felt very confused and isolated.
Starting my senior year at Penn State as a student and a hockey player, I realize that I have done some incredible things since I was that fearful teenager in the locker room. The situations I have been in have made me a better person, and because I was once a freshman, I understand that the underclassmen are going to be looking somewhere for guidance as they begin their college careers. Everyone needs positive role models in their lives — for direction, advice, support, and encouragement. I know I can be that person to others.
For me, one of those role models was my grandmother: she is the one person who has had the greatest influence on my life. She was a 1957 Penn State grad, she was a huge supporter of Penn State athletics, and all of her children — my mom, aunt, and uncles — all also attended Penn State. She is the main reason I chose to attend Penn State, too. Every summer my family would travel from the Great White North (remember, I'm a Canadian, eh?) to visit her. She made sure we never missed a Penn State sporting event, and that includes all my games while a student at PSU. She lived in State College so it was very easy for me to see her once or twice a week once I began my freshmen year. It made her so delighted to tell all of her friends she had a grandson who attend her alma mater and played ice hockey.
My grandmother grew up in a different time where things were not seen as they are now. She had a very religious upbringing. If things were not done a certain way, there would be consequences. My being gay was a heavy burden on me because the last thing I wanted to do was disappoint her. It's a part of myself that I never got to share with her.
The end of 2014 was an especially hard time for my family because she was in and out of the hospital until around Thanksgiving where she had been overcome by two strokes and was put into the ICU, later passing away. I was devastated. The person I had spent the most time with was now gone. This was a turning point for me because I realized she wouldn't have been disappointed in me being gay. In fact, she would have probably been extremely accepting because all she wanted in life was for her grandchildren to be themselves and do whatever made them happy.
Fast forward a couple of months to a clear night in late April 2015. I had a lot going through my head about this secret that I had carried with me, and it finally hit me: I needed to tell someone, anyone.
I reached out to Joe, my best friend on the team, and asked if we could meet and talk. I will never forget this night. We met in front of Canyon Pizza, the best $1 late night pizza in State College. As we began walking he said, "So what's up?" My heart started racing because I had no idea what I was going to say even though I had run this scenario a million times in my head.
Finally, I found the courage to say, "Well, the reason I asked to meet you is because I have something to tell you .... I'm gay." My heart was beating so fast I felt like I was going to be knocked off my feet. He stopped dead in his tracks, looked at me, and said: "I am so happy for you. I am just shocked that I'm the first person you told." A giant weight lifted off my shoulders, a huge wave of emotions hit me, and I began to tear up.
The next thing he said to me caught me completely off guard: "Honestly, I have kind of suspected for a while now and was seeing when, if ever, you were going to tell me or the team." This shocked me because I had always thought I hid my life pretty well. I realized then that being on a team is being part of a family, and it can be pretty easy to spot when someone is not being himself.
After telling Joe, I wasn't sure if I should tell the rest of my team because I thought, "What happens if they don't accept me and I'm not allowed to play hockey anymore?" I wouldn't know what to do with my life if I did not have hockey; it's in my blood.
I thought about the kids I have coached and how much I wanted to be an example for them to be courageous enough to be themselves. I've worked at a non-profit ice rink in Lancaster coaching kids of all ages since I was a junior in high school. Because of them I knew I had to do the right thing and break through the fear of people's opinions of me.
At the beginning of the fall semester in 2015 I decided it was time to come out to the rest of my team. It was a new school year and a clean slate. The beginning of the semester is always a crazy time for everyone because we are all getting settled back into school life and classes are starting up again so it was hard to get everyone in one room together. Instead I decided to type up a mass text using GroupMe that read:
So I have been trying to think of the best way to do this and this is not the best, but whatever. As you may have noticed I have been in a funk lately and this is the reason. I am gay to put it quite simply. I felt like I needed to tell you guys cause you are my family. If you have any issue well I am sorry for that.
The overwhelming support I received from my team blew me away. It could not have gone any better. The freshmen hadn't received my text, and I was worried about how they were going to take it. But as the year went on one by one they found out and as they did they came to me letting me know how proud they were and they had my back.
Being on the club hockey team we are always around the Division 1 team, and I have to say I have made some close relationships with most of them. After I had come out, one of my friends reached out to me and said: "I just want you to know that I overheard a bunch of the guys (on the D1 team) talking about your story and they are all very supportive of you."
Toward the end of the semester one of my teammates messaged me and said: "Once you came out, it had officially become real to me. It wasn't just some issue that was out there, instead it affected me personally. I had no problem with it before but finally I could see it first hand with a friend and teammate. Suddenly I realized how normal it is and always had been. The difference was now I had fresh eyes and personal experience dealing with the issue. I can now see others more clearly for who they are and it's cool."
After my great experience with the team I decided the next step I needed to take was to come out publicly via Instagram to friends and family. One of my biggest fears was that it was going to be made into a bigger deal than it needed to be, but it was really just me coming to terms with who I am. I posted:
Do not really want to make a big deal out of this, but I want to get it out there so everyone knows. This does not define who I am; it is just merely a part of which I Am. Now that I have accepted it, I want to use it to become a better person. Definitely one of the scariest things that I have ever done, not because of the negativity around it, but because of what my future holds. I want to be an example to those who are younger and older to do what makes you happy not what makes others happy. #betrue
The support I received was incredible. The reactions went completely in the opposite direction I had imagined. You are your worst enemy when it comes to what people think.
If I can give someone or a whole group of people a different perspective, then I feel like I am moving in the right direction and making way for others to feel comfortable to come out and be who they are. Who I decide to love should not have any bearing on my ability to play the game that I love. Coming out has pushed me to become a better person both on and off the ice. So before you judge someone just to know that everyone has a story and you cannot make assumptions without walking in their shoes (or skates) first.
As my final year of university begins I still have so many things I need to figure out like where I am going to work and where I am going to live, since I will be an actual adult by this time next year. But one thing I know for certain is that everything happens for a reason.
When fellow athletes or friends reach out to me with questions of coming out I say the same thing: just know it is going to get better. Those scenarios running through your head are worst case. Even though we live in a world where everyone has an opinion, the only one that matters is your own. Be true to yourself and you'll find happiness.
Voight Demeester, 21, is a senior at Penn State University in State College, Pa. He is on the D2 Men’s Club Hockey team all fours years. He majors in Security and Risk Analysis/Cyber Security with a minor in Information Sciences and Technology. He can be reached via email (firstname.lastname@example.org), on Facebook or Instagram (@v_demeester)
Story edited by Jim Buzinski (also a Penn State grad).