I remember the first time the words escaped my mouth.

It was summer of 2015. I just turned 30 and had been out of college for five years. I was pulling away from a job at a construction site late one afternoon. My focus was shifting from work to my personal life; my mind was racing. I had been pursuing a relationship that just never blossomed.

Try as I might, he and I just weren’t there. At the time, that crushed me. And part of my trouble was that there wasn’t a soul I could talk to about it. Not one. I felt completely alone with all sorts of emotions: Fear. Disappointment. Shame.

It was right then and there, driving away from that construction site, I looked myself in the rearview mirror and uttered two words, “I’m gay.”

It had taken awhile, but I was finally on the road to self-acceptance.

I grew up on a farm in very rural north central Iowa.

If you could see someone’s house across the sea of corn and soybean fields, they were a neighbor, and everybody knew each other. Even in the couple of small towns that made up the school district, it was a pretty tight-knit community. And it wasn’t uncommon that most people knew about everyone else’s dirty laundry.

These are some of the most genuine and kind people you’ll ever meet, and to this day I consider them friends and good people. But you might say there was a lack of respect for diversity. Anyone who was different stuck out.

Landon Streit, with (from left) brother Connor, sister Kim, stepdad Ron, mom Ann and sister Nicole.

Gay slurs like “queers and fags” along with racial slurs were all words I commonly heard. And regrettably, were words I used. Those words were often as much of a punchline to a joke as they were an insult.

My entire high school only had a couple of hundred kids. And nearly everyone was involved in some type of extracurricular activity.

As for myself, I was a three-sport athlete in high school, playing football, basketball and track. I excelled in football, where I received all-district and all-state honors as an offensive lineman.

One winter morning while getting in some basketball shooting drills, I remember being described by my football coach as a basketball player trapped in a football player’s body. I wasn’t nearly as good at basketball, but I probably enjoyed it more. Even so, I still received some all-conference basketball awards.

But I wasn’t only involved in athletics. I was on the student council and was student body president my senior year. I was elected prom king my senior year. And I even participated in the fall play. I absolutely stayed busy.

I went on to play football at Iowa State from the fall of 2004 to the spring of 2007. We found some success in those years, including victories over Iowa and Nebraska, as well as a victory over Miami Ohio at the 2004 Independence Bowl and a close loss to a highly-ranked TCU team in the 2005 Houston Bowl.

We transitioned through a coaching change between the 2006 and 2007 seasons. I was excited for the possibilities that a new coaching staff might bring. I thought I would finally break into the two-deeps and start contributing on game days.

But after spending winter workouts and spring ball with the new staff, it felt like I wasn’t given the chance I thought I deserved. I thought long and hard about it. In the end, I decided it was time to move on from football, and focus instead on my degree. I did just that, and completed my B.S. in Construction Engineering in spring of 2009.

Would being gay have been a distraction? I would never know for sure.

One of the big things the coaching staff at Iowa State pushed was team unity. Get noticed for doing good things. Don’t let your actions detract from everything good the team was trying to accomplish.

Too many members of the football team were making a name for themselves for the wrong reasons — alcohol, fights, drugs, suspensions. We needed less of that. Fewer distractions. Would being gay have been a distraction? I would never know for sure.

My entire high school and collegiate career, I hid my secret from the world. I had tried to fool even myself by dating women. I only managed to disappoint myself and hurt others in the process. I knew I was attracted to guys for quite some time, of course. But I never pursued guys as more than just friends until after college.

As an athlete, there’s a certain persona I felt I had to live up to. I had to be tough, invincible and stalwart. What would my teammates have said? How would they have reacted? Would I still be accepted?

Too much fear and doubt were in my mind to even consider the possibility of being out. I had to be what I was expected to be. I feel the same expectations in sports come with my professional life in construction and also in my choice of hobbies in outdoor sports like hunting and fishing.

Landon Streit with brother Connor and stepdad Ron.

In the weeks and months that followed my initial self-acceptance that summer afternoon leaving the construction site, I thought back to one of my favorite quotes that I had heard back in the lunch room in high school early one morning.

It was before the school day started and I was sitting doing homework in the commons area of the high school. My high school PE teacher told me, “You have a lot of decisions to make, but you don’t have to make them all today.” Those words inspired me then, and they continue to guide me today.

I ultimately decided that I needed to tell somebody I was gay and clear my mind. But before telling anyone, I essentially had to convince myself of the consequences if the conversation didn’t go well. I prepared myself for rejection. I was prepared to lose friends and lose family. It was a tough place for my mind to be.

I started with some of my best and closest friends. Teammates and classmates. Each time I said the words was difficult and terrifying, but the responses I got were so supportive that I felt empowered and more confident to tell the next.

But even today, it’s not always easy. Last December, I brought a guy I had been dating, to my company Christmas party. It was the first time any of them would know about my sexuality. I was incredibly nervous. What would my co-workers say? Would they treat me differently? Would I still be accepted as “one of the guys?”

I never got a single question or comment that was less than supportive.

I also made a Facebook post in June announcing to everyone else that I’m gay. I had thought of it several months prior and began thinking about what I would say. The night I posted it, it still took a lot of courage, and a couple beers, to hit the post button. My fears were unfounded. I never got a single question or comment that was less than supportive.

I think my friends and co-workers’ response was much the same as what my football teammates would have been. I’m sure they would have had some confusion and have a few questions.

After the initial response, though, their concern would not have been with my sexuality, but with my responsibility to my team — just as my co-workers were concerned that I was fulfilling my work duties, and not who I was dating.

Between athletics, construction, outdoors, and the rural community, I’ve been involved with groups that haven’t traditionally been the most accepting of the gay community. But since coming out, I've been shown a lot of love and support from people who are in those groups.

I had my doubts how everything would transpire at times, but even those individuals who I thought may not be as understanding and accepting have been some of my greatest allies.

The moment I knew I would still be accepted sometimes came in the same conversation as when I came out. It was when my friends cracked jokes about my sexuality. It was just like old times. We shared a beer, a tear and a laugh; man, was I relieved!

Between athletics, construction, outdoors, and the rural community, I’ve been involved with groups that haven’t traditionally been the most accepting of the gay community. But since coming out, I've been shown a lot of love and support from people who are in those groups.

My relationships with friends and family have improved dramatically since being out. I can now be myself without feeling so guarded all the time. Knowing what I know now, I wish I hadn't spent the time or energy trying to hide so much.

When it came down to it, I needed to live my life. What I once perceived as my weakness has now made me stronger. Accepting myself and coming out were the most difficult things I’ve ever overcome.

Landon Streit, 32, is a 2009 graduate of Iowa State University where he majored in Construction Engineering and was a member of the football team as an offensive lineman. He currently resides on his farm near Indianola, Iowa, and works in nearby Des Moines as a project engineer, building bridges. He can be reached by email at [email protected] or on Facebook.

Story editor: Jim Buzinski