If you're really young, don't let anyone tell you that you don't understand your feelings. You do. I still remember my crushes from elementary school and even back to preschool.

Having feelings for someone who doesn't feel the same way back is very hard, whether you're straight or cis or trans or queer or whatever. But as a gay person, this can be especially painful and exhausting considering most of the people you'll like will probably not like you back.

Liking a straight person, even if they are individually an ally to you, is also liking someone with the sexual orientation that is associated with your oppressor, and that’s painful to realize. But there are also unique advantages that come with being gay, or with being queer. Most people probably wouldn’t want to be gay if they could choose, but I’ve discovered there are reasons gay should be a desirable identity to possess.

I was born in 1994 and grew up in Oregon. I never felt like I was any different than anyone else growing up, but in preschool I began to develop my first big same-sex crushes. I didn't know what they meant at the time, I just felt really good being around some of my guy friends.

I played sports growing up and excelled the most at swimming, competing in USA Swimming-Age Group Swimming (club swimming). I swam and placed in different spots around the country, including meets in Hawaii, New Mexico, Oregon, California, Georgia, Indiana and Texas. Throughout that whole time, I kept a lid on my sexual orientation. I always knew I had a queer sexual orientation but I didn't want to say anything to anyone because sometimes younger folks think gay people are weird. I didn't want to harm myself socially, especially in high school.

‘I didn’t realize there were any advantages to being gay, so I tried to separate myself from my feelings as much as possible.’

There is a specific magic that is lost by being a gay person — the magic of being able to chase after your feelings whenever someone significant embodies them, the magic of being able to flirt with whomever you find attractive. But there is a unique magic we can all count on as gay people that no straight person can — the magic of finding someone really special, another gay person, as if landing on an island you were destined for in a big ocean after a long, experience-filled journey. Nothing compares to the love of two people of the same sex.

During my club swimming years, I didn’t realize there were any advantages to being gay, so I tried to separate myself from my feelings as much as possible. But I was also connected to my feelings at the same time because I had a lot of guilt. I remember feeling guilty for being attracted to certain guys and thinking they had pretty legs and beautiful faces because in our society not a lot of guys would take that as a compliment. The locker room was an awkward guilt-generating machine for me since everyone’s changing in close proximity.

Going to high school dances was hard. I always had to bring a girl. The only guy in my high school who was “out” would always go to school dressed in drag — makeup, dresses and black fishnet pantyhose. While some guys may find that attractive, he was not the type of person I was interested in taking to a school dance. I had friends in high school, but at the same time all of this made me feel very alone.

I wasn't questioned about my sexuality growing up any more than the average white, cisgender suburban guy. Some would say that having a normative gender expression and personality is a privilege because you can blend in, but it's also hard.

I remember having conversations with my friends in middle school and high school, a lot of whom I played sports and instruments with, about gay people through their innocently ignorant perspectives. They spoke to me about gay people from a distance not realizing I was gay myself. This made me feel very isolated from them, because I couldn’t speak the truth.

I finally came out publicly in college to friends at the University of Redlands in Southern California while finishing up my freshman swim season about three years ago. I regret making it so official. I should have just told people individually when the subject came up, but I understand why I did it the way I did given the time and place in my life.

Now I’m three years older, a college senior, with much more patience, wisdom, and experience. I ended up swimming two full seasons as a college swimmer. They weren’t my most successful years of swimming when it came to times but I showed through them what was most important — an evidence of perseverance through a sport as an out gay person. I write this article to mark a year of being finished with the sport.

Swimming was such a big part of my life and will continue to be for a long time. It’s actually the biggest reason why I came to the University of Redlands. The sport introduced me to so many different people in my life and created so many awesome memories. It’s so great to have lived in places where most of the people involved have been supportive. Aside from a few homophobic environments throughout my swimming career, I never had to worry about my safety.

‘It's been a long queer journey for me and swimming was a big part of it.’

It's important to be out. It's essential for our social ecosystem as queer folks across the world. My biggest dream is that we find better ways as gay men to meet, strengthen, and respect one another. Grindr is overrated!

It's been a long queer journey for me and swimming was a big part of it. I'm still not where I intended to be in life in regards to love or social goals, but I haven’t given that up just yet. I hope to fall in love with a handsome gay or bi man, have kids with him and live a happy rest of my life with a lot of experience behind me.

It may happen and it may not, but between now and then, I hope to do proactive things like social activism work, especially given the times. It’s now more important than ever to be outspoken. Article by article, we can help change the future.

Luke Marshall, 22, is continuing his education through University of Redlands. He is currently completing his personally designed emphasis “Entertainment Arts for Social Awareness” through the Johnston Center for Integrative Studies. He will graduate in April. Luke was a USA Swimming Western Zone Champion, USA Swimming Zone Select Camp qualifier and attendee, USA Swimming Junior National finalist, and 2-time USA Swimming Scholastic All-American, among other accomplishments. He can be reached via email [email protected], on Snapchat: lmarshall94 or Facebook.