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A night on an African safari convinced this USC swim captain to come out as gay

Steven Stumph realized that at any given moment, anything can happen.

Steven Stumph swam for the University of Southern California and also competed in the U.S. Olympic swimming trials.

“At any given moment, on any given day, at any given place, anything can happen.”

It’s one of my favorite quotes because it accounts for multiple positive and negative aspects in my life. Luckily, my coming out story falls on the positive side of this spectrum.

I remained in the closet for so long because I thought at any given moment my reputation and my identity would be superseded by the term “gay.” During high school, if someone I knew came out, they then had the reputation as “the gay kid.”

I worked so hard to become a well-rounded Renaissance man. I was a national high school record holder in swimming, a pianist, an Eagle Scout and a polyglot. I didn’t want all my accomplishments to vanish under the term, “the gay swimmer” or “the gay guy.”

Deep down I knew I was gay, but I held it as my biggest secret, even afraid to let myself know. I held onto this secret throughout high school in Moraga, Calif., in the Bay Area. During my senior-year recruitment trips, I went to a variety of schools across the country.

While I was on these trips, I had one thought in the back of my mind: “Can I see myself coming out here?” Fortunately, I found a school and a team where I felt confident enough to come out. So, I committed to swim for the University of Southern California.

During my time at USC, I stayed in the closet throughout my freshman year. I felt like I had a clean slate to become the person I wanted to be. I didn’t want to be known as the gay guy from outside Berkeley. I wanted my teammates to get to know me as the guy from outside Berkeley who had a passion for learning, swimming, food, travel, different cultures and friends. So I remained in the closet throughout my sophomore year too.

Steven Stumph is a proud graduate of USC, where he is now in graduate school.

After the summer of my sophomore year in 2015, I had an amazing opportunity to go on a crazy adventure.

I flew to London with my best friend, then met my swim team in Rome to train for two weeks. After Europe, I flew to Lusaka, Zambia, and drove to Livingston, Zimbabwe, where I met my dad. We continued on to Botswana and eventually made our way to South Africa.

During our time in South Africa, we headed to the Kruger National Park game reserve, the most rural place I’ve been in my life. We flew to an airport which only had a handful of flights a day. We got off the plane, drove 2.5 hours on a dirt road, then went off-roading to reach the hotel. To paint a picture of how rural it was, the hotel could only accommodate 12 guests and didn’t even have a landline phone.

During our visit, we had a male safari guide. One night I was star gazing, admiring how I could see all the constellations in the amazingly crystal-clear sky. The safari guide came up to me, took my hand, came real close and pointed out all the Southern Hemisphere constellations.

He proceeded to say, “I totally understand if you don’t want to answer, if you give me no tip, and report me to my boss, but I want to ask you something. By any chance are you gay?”

In this moment, all I wanted to do was say yes. I was in the middle of nowhere, literally. I could tell him I was gay, and no one else would have to know. I could finally let out my secret. But what if he told my dad?

I was not ready to tell him, let alone in the middle of nowhere halfway across the globe. I told the safari guide no. He responded, “aw, all right man. My mate thought you were cute.” He motioned for his buddy to come around the corner and out walks this extremely handsome man. I told myself, that’s it, never again am I going to lie about being gay.

After my grand world tour was over, I flew back to Los Angeles. The very next day I went over to my friend’s house and we were talking as normal. But this time I wanted to share my secret.

At the time, I really enjoyed watching Vines. I casually brought up the subject of some of my favorite Viners. I told her that I had a little crush on this one Viner. My friend wanted to see some of the videos the Viner made. When I showed my friend that it was actually a guy, she continued on the conversation like nothing out of the ordinary happened. Success! It was such a relief to finally tell someone that I was gay and have it be such a positive reception.

My best friend was flying in the next day to visit and I had a little surprise for her. Very cliché, but in order to celebrate coming out, I made a delicious rainbow cake. I picked her up from the airport and we went back to her apartment. I showed her the rainbow cake and told her, “I am very gay …. for you to be home.” She laughed, hugged me, and said, “about time!”

Thankfully, I had an amazing, positive response from my parents too. They told me that nothing had changed, and that they still loved me no matter what. I could not have asked for a better reaction. I feel incredibly blessed to have amazing friends, have my parent’s love and be courageous enough to come out.

Over the next few weeks I came out to my teammates by telling them in casual conversation. I was greeted with nothing but excitement, hugs and smiles from all my teammates. I never felt the need to hold a meeting, tell the team collectively, or make a big deal of coming out. I felt like coming out shouldn’t be a big deal. I’m the same me, I’m just attracted to men.

Coming out was a way to bring me even closer to my teammates. They pushed me every day in the weight room, the pool and the classroom.

Steven Stumph on the medal stand in 2017 after winning his third consecutive Pac-12 200-yard breaststroke title.

Thanks to their motivation I was able to become the first three-time Pac-12 champion in the men’s 200-yard breaststroke for USC. Without their constant support, coming out would have been more difficult, and accomplishing my achievements in the pool would not have been possible.

I have also found support and new friends through the gay athlete network. While I was in Seattle, San Francisco and Denver, I connected with other out gay athletes. We got to chat about our experiences of being gay athletes and share our coming out stories. This positive network only confirms that coming out was the right choice.

The reason I waited to come out was because I was afraid of what other people thought of me. I was sacred their perception of me would supersede the person I wanted them to see.

But all this time I was hiding the real me and living a fake life for other people. I had enough courage to come out because my teammates were some of my closest friends. They encouraged me to be the best, authentic me and not care about other people’s perceptions of me.

Without the love and support from my teammates, I don’t think I would have felt confident enough to come out. Besides my parents and family, they’re the best support group that I have.

Now that I am an out gay man, I have found a new passion. I am currently in graduate school studying East Asian Language, Culture and Linguistics. I research social perceptions of the gay community in China via social media. Through my research, I have come across more horror stories than positive ones.

I believe the internet has a lot of negative coming out stories because people don’t share the positive coming out stories.

I’m sharing my story to show that positive coming out stories exist. Coming out was the best decision of my life. I have been much happier and been able to live authentically ever since. As a result, every day I strive to be honest and live for myself instead of others.

Now I look back on my safari guide in South Africa and my Vine crush, and as my favorite quote says, at any given moment, anything can happen.

Steven Stumph, 23, is a graduate student at the University of Southern California and was team captain of the Trojans swim team, where he competed from 2014-17. He finished a BA in Linguistics and East Asian Language and Culture and is currently pursuing a MA in East Asian Language and Culture. He can be reached via email at stumph@usc.edu, Instagram (@swimls358), or Facebook (Steven Stumph).

Story editor: Jim Buzinski