As an alpine ski racer at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana, I am very comfortable being gay. Even in high school, being a gay skier was never an issue. But it was my own internalized fears that nearly caused me to give up another passion of mine.
I’ve been skiing since I was 8 and racing since 14. I always loved skiing because it was something my older brother (now 23) and I had in common. I love racing because it allows me to use my competitive side.
I had never really stuck with competitive sports before. I joined the high school ski team at Concord-Carlisle High School in Concord, Massachusetts, not expecting to like it, but I caught the racing bug. Ski racing, being an individual sport, allows me to compete against others, as well as myself. You are trying to be the fastest athlete down the hill, and you are trying to be faster than your last run. It’s about bettering your own time, as well as advancing on others.
Alpine racing is an individual sport, and in high school not much interpersonal interaction takes place when compared to larger team sports like football or basketball. During my high school racing career, I didn’t talk much to my teammates and just focused on being the quickest down the hill I could be.
The bulk of my teammates barely knew me to begin with, and frankly, if they knew I was gay, I didn’t really care. When it came to ski racing and my teammates, I never really had an issue being gay because I never cared about what they thought.
I only realized and fully accepted my sexuality sophomore year. I had a crush on a guy in my class, who would become the first person I came out to. He handled it well and became a helpful ally. He kept my secret. He and a few of my closest friends were the only people I told. I never fully came out until the end of senior year.
Where my sexuality was a problem — at least in my mind — was with my other passion: sports photography.
As a photographer, I was at most sporting events. I attended basketball, football, hockey and lacrosse games. I got into sports photography as a high school sophomore when one of the players on the boys ice hockey asked me to take photos for the team. I ended up loving the challenge of sports photography, especially in low-light situations. Before that, the only sports event I took photos of was an international ski jumping festival in Brattleboro, Vermont.
I was hooked. I didn’t cover football and basketball until junior year and then it became incredibly nerve-wracking. Despite me not really being friends with the athletes themselves, I was still very much concerned about them finding out I was gay.
I was especially afraid of the football players. They were the most built young guys I had ever seen and they could easily beat me up if they wanted to. I was a pretty small guy — 5 feet 11 and only 150 pounds with hardly any strength. It wasn’t until senior year that I really started lifting weights, but I still couldn’t defend myself against a football player if one picked on me.
There is the image that society creates about football players being the alpha males of high school and I bought into that image. They’re the guys you don’t want to mess with. You don’t want to talk to their girlfriends, and you don’t look them in the eye. You don’t talk to them unless they talk to you first. I never really communicated with them.
I just took their pictures, but I was afraid they were going to find out the guy taking their pictures was gay. I didn’t want them to humiliate me or bully me, and particularly stopping me from doing what I enjoyed.
I didn’t take their pictures as a form of stalking them or being creepy as I feared they would perceive. I did it because photography gives me a creative outlet and shooting sports gives me a challenge as a photographer. I was terrified of them finding out.
In the spring of senior year, something gave me the indication that the athletes found out I was gay and I panicked. That ally from sophomore year was an athlete. I asked if rumors were floating around about me. He said no, but I was still paranoid.
I went on my Facebook photography page and made a post announcing that I was quitting sports photography. Not many people saw it because at the time my Facebook page had a very small following. None of the athletes asked why I stopped taking pictures. I guess that was a good thing, as I wasn’t trying to draw any attention to myself.
The weird thing is that all of my fears were internal. Not a single athlete ever said or did anything negative to me. I just took photos of them and tagged them in the photos. All most of them did was hit the “like” button or make one of my photos their profile picture. A handful told me that they liked the photos, which I actually came to appreciate. But if I was not at any events, it was no big deal. No one asked me where I was. I bought into the idea that had they known I was gay they would have harassed me.
After the frustration of hiding it from everyone and all the social paranoia, I was planning to come out the day of my high school graduation ceremony. I figured I would never have to deal with my peers again.
I typed up a coming out message weeks in advance and posted it on Facebook at a friend’s graduation party the day after the ceremony because I forgot on the actual day of graduation, as I was busy. I clicked “post” and slammed the laptop shut and figured my classmates would either love it or hate it, and there was nothing I could do about that.
What I discovered an hour after posting was an overwhelming amount of love and support. In my four-paragraph post I cited athletes specifically as one of the reasons I hadn’t previously come out.
Five or six football players commented on it or messaged me directly saying that they were fully supportive, and that I had nothing to be afraid of. One even said, speaking for the whole football team, that they appreciated my photos, and, although it can be hard, it doesn’t matter what other people think as long as I am happy. He personally admired my coming out.
It made me realize that even though not everyone is totally accepting, the ones that you are most afraid of may be the people who are the most accepting. They may just surprise you. And obviously the jocks aren’t big idiots who hate people that aren’t “normal” or “like them.” Love and acceptance can come from where you least expect it.
I do not advertise my sexuality, and at college I only tell people about my sexuality if they ask. With regards to my college ski team, they know I’m gay and have no issue with it. It feels more like a family. We all get along and we have team functions and team dinners. Just as in high school, when I’m on the hill, I don’t think about my sexuality at all. Nobody really talks about it, and that’s just fine with me.
I take photos at our college’s football, basketball, volleyball and soccer games. I went to one of the football players and told him about my sexuality, just in case, and he told me that I shouldn’t have to worry about it. He said if that if others aren’t accepting, that’s their problem.
My worries came from a similar place as when I was in high school, even though the severity was not on the same level. It was more of a reality check. I have shot every home football game and one away game each season. One of the offensive linemen on the team thanked me for the photos, saying that the guys appreciate the pictures of themselves.
I learned that that having preconceptions about others is not fair. It’s hypocritical to be afraid to be who you are around people because you assume they are going to disrespect you, bully you or think the worst of you. Don’t generalize about a group of people based on popular belief or media.
For those LGBTQ+ athletes, there is no need to worry about who you are biologically or who you love. Your teammates are teammates for a reason. They are there to support you.
I know from experience that athletes, as scary as they might seem, are some of the most accepting and respectful people out there. When you play your sport, whatever it is, don’t worry about what your teammates or even the spectators think. You are an athlete out on the field. You are there to compete and have fun. Sexuality or orientation should not be of a concern.
For sports photographers like myself, if you’re LGTBQ+, the athletes don’t hate you. They don’t think any less of you. They appreciate the work you do for them, as do their parents. And you shouldn’t change your hobby because you’re afraid of what they think.
You are there because it’s something you love to do. Don’t give it up because you’re afraid of what the athletes think, like I initially did. They may surprise you.
Liam Moya, 20, is a junior in the Class of 2019 at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana, part of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) Frontier Conference.
He is majoring in Aeronautical Science (professional pilot), with minors in Business Management and Aviation Dispatch. He is a member of the Battlin’ Bears Alpine Ski Team. He can be contacted by email at email@example.com; on Instagram @l_moyaa and Facebook (liam.moya). His photography page can be viewed at www.facebook.com/LiamMoyaPhotography
Story editor: Jim Buzinski