To introduce himself to his new college teammates, Cory Moreno performed a Beyoncé song.
Carol Withus, the Old Dominion University swimming and diving coach, instructed the freshmen to recite a poem that told the team about them. One by one, the 11 new Monarchs stood in an assistant coach’s backyard with the team in front of them sitting in patio furniture. Each freshman read four to six lines of poetry, and near the end, Moreno took his turn. With slightly revised words, the 5-foot-6, 141-pound diver sang “Partition” a capella.
“I like to be fierce like Beyoncé,” Moreno said. “That definitely set the tone of me as a person and my free spirt.”
The response exceeded his expectations.
“They were hooting and hollering, cheering and screaming,” ODU diving coach Noah Scully said of the team’s reaction.
“We gave him a standing ovation,” said Hannah Kristan, an ODU swimmer.
Many of his teammates learned during Moreno’s recruiting trip that he identifies as gay, and he showed during that performance his comfort with himself as a man
“I try to be myself 24/7,” Moreno said. “That’s just been very hard for me. … I still struggle a little bit trying to remember to be who I am and to not be afraid of what people say about me or think about me and to not let it hold me back.”
Starting to blossom
When Moreno’s parents asked if he was gay for the first time, he lied.
As a fifth-grade student, Moreno was bullied and called names. He doesn’t remember being harassed for being mixed race. Instead, the taunts related to calling him queer. Moreno, who grew up in the Phoenix suburb of Avondale, Arizona, says he adopted the persona of Buffy Summers and physically fought back multiple times.
The fighting led to his parents’ involvement and Moreno transferring schools. During this ordeal, his parents asked if he is gay. But at 11 years old, Moreno said he wasn’t. It took four years until he felt ready to tell them.
As he reached high school, Moreno, who started diving at age 8, joined the Kellis High School swimming and diving team a couple weeks before he started his freshman year. A senior diver was openly gay, and it’s the first time Moreno knew someone else gay.
Being around another gay male increased Moreno’s confidence, and that fall, he told his parents that he is gay. He broke the news with a letter he wrote on notebook paper that he threw toward his dad while being dropped off at school.
His dad responded with a text message a couple hours later: “I love you, and God loves you.”
That evening, Cory and his parents talked, hugged and cried together. Frequently in the letter, Cory apologized to his parents for being gay, and one of the lasting sentiments was his dad, John, telling him to never apologize for who he is.
John Moreno says he never felt embarrassed or disappointed about his son’s sexuality. John and Cindy Moreno took Cory in as foster parents when he was a toddler, and they adopted him when Cory was about 5 years old. John says he knew he would love Cory unconditionally from the moment he saw him at the Arizona Department of Child Safety office.
“He was walking away from me,” John said of Cory, who was about 1 year old at the time. “When he turned around, because I called his name, he had a bruise of a handprint on his face. It was really — it was really at that point that I knew I wanted that little boy and nothing was going to happen to him anymore.”
The blunt force trauma at the time caused blood clots in Cory’s eyes, but Cory says there are no lasting effects of the physical abuse he endured from his birth family.
Becoming a Monarch
The support of the people most important in his life allowed Moreno’s self-acceptance to grow throughout high school, especially as he captured second place in diving during his senior year at the Arizona high school state championships.
In high school, Moreno heard secondhand about people calling him homophobic slurs, but he never experienced mistreatment to his face. Those stories always involved straight men, so heading to Old Dominion University in August 2014, Moreno felt hesitation being the only gay man on a team with 15 straight guys. The first weekend on campus, the men’s and women’s teams held separate team dinners, and Moreno went to the women’s dinner.
“Girls tend to be a lot more accepting than the typical straight guy. Guys are so bro,” Moreno said. “I’ve always just been a little more comfortable around girls than I am guys.”
A conversation with Logan Teal, a men’s team captain at the time, eased his concerns. Teal checked nothing had made Moreno uncomfortable, and Teal encouraged him to join the men’s dinners to learn more about each other. Moreno said the conversation made him feel included, and after that first dinner, Moreno attended dinners with the men.
Moreno says he never heard teammates make negative comments about him or the LGBT community, but diver Brant Knoblauch has seen what he perceives as teammates acting uncomfortable with Moreno’s flamboyance. Knoblauch, a junior, hasn’t heard anyone voice discomfort, but he has seen them squirm, particularly at Moreno’s suggestive dance moves.
“We have such standards of how a guy should act,” said Moreno, whose major is dance, about Knoblauch’s comment. “I don’t adhere to those standards. I act how I want. I express whatever I want that day or in that moment. It can be masculine one moment. It could be feminine one moment. … For the typical straight guy to be around me, to see me expressing all kinds of femininity and masculinity, that definitely could probably make some guys uncomfortable.
Reaching his truth
Like a score from a diving judge, Cory Moreno puts himself on display for anyone to see, and he is real, if you like it or not.
And when people judge him, Cory’s diving experience allows him to move on.
“One of the things we had to learn early on in diving was that just because you think you dove well that doesn’t mean the guy scoring you thinks that you did well,” John Moreno said. “You have to learn to accept that and to move on.”
Growing up, Cory wanted every person’s observation of him to be positive. Until he came out to his parents, Cory lowered his voice, dressed like the rest of the guys, and changed his personality, even if it felt wrong.
“It was upsetting to see him not be goofy, outgoing when we would be around certain people,” said Jordan Brown Warner, who has been friends with Cory since sixth grade and she was the first person Cory told that he is gay.
His parents accepting him allowed Moreno to accept himself. He learned to love his voice and personality, and developed his own sense of fashion.
“No one should feel like they have to put on a mask or costume or some kind of masquerade to fit in,” Cory Moreno said. “It’s definitely a very, very lonely feeling, and it was one that I was tired of feeling.”
Now, he feels unencumbered, willing to dance on the pool deck while listening to Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj between diving. In February, his confidence helped him take second place at the CCSA Conference Meet in all three diving competitions (platform, 1-meter and 3-meter springboard) and broke the school-record score on 3-meter.
“I was born the way I am,” Moreno said. “There’s no changing me, and there’s no point in trying to be anyone else.”
Cory Moreno is starting his junior year at Old Dominion University, which is a member of the CCSA Conference for men’s swimming and diving. Old Dominion joined the CCSA in 2015-16 for men’s swimming and diving after Conference USA stopped holding a men’s swimming and diving championship. Moreno won the 1-meter springboard title at the 2015 Conference USA championship, where he finished second on platform and 3-meter springboard. Follow Cory on Instagram (@CoryMoreno1) or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Erik Hall received the 2016 Excellence in Journalism award for sports writing from the NLGJA. He can be reached on Facebook, Twitter (@HallErik), or by email: email@example.com