I’ve been out to my friends and family ever since I was in eighth grade. It hasn’t always been easy. I’ve been the target of bullying at times, and I was once headed down a dark path. I was depressed, I hated getting up every day and my smile was always fake.

I kept it all bottled in, never told anyone how I really felt. I was trapped, helpless.

That all started to change when I found high school wrestling.

When I stepped into the wrestling room I felt something I have never felt before. I felt like I was in control of my life. I had been wrestling for three years prior to that and never felt the way I did being part of a high school team.

Still, it came with problems. Some of my teammates in high school would "joke" around about me being gay, making gay jokes and calling me names.

At first I told myself "they’re just playing, it's all good, boys will be boys.” They would tell me that as well.

But it didn’t stop. They kept at it. I did tell some of them to knock it off, but they never did. It hurt. I dreaded going to practice. I hated going into the room and having to experience that same torment every day. I hated it.

I felt like that control in my life I had gathered thanks to wrestling was slowly breaking. I was tumbling back into my dark path I thought I had left behind.

Toward the end of my sophomore year I told my parents I wanted to take a break from wrestling, that I wanted to catch up on school. Little did they now I really just wanted to get away from the team.

They never let me take that break. I’m so glad.

Jesse Loera (left) says he has become a better person thanks to wrestling.

Before my junior we moved to San Jacinto, Calif., east of Los Angeles, where I transferred to San Jacinto High School. At first I felt so helpless and intimidated when I walked onto the campus, I just wanted to run back home.

I was also very hesitant to join the wrestling team because I was scared of what the wrestlers’ reactions would be when they found out I was gay.

What changed my decision to wrestle was when the head coach pulled me out of class one day to talk about it. He's a big, muscular guy, and frankly he scared me the first day I met him. But he was awesome and convinced me to go out to a couple practices to see how I liked it.

I had butterflies in my stomach all day, my nerves were all over the place. I could barely concentrate in class.

When I walked into that first practice I could smell the bleach on the mats. It made me feel like the first time I stepped on the mat years earlier. I somehow felt in control again, even though I was terrified. I felt like everyone was watching me.

I quickly friended some of the wrestlers. Two guys in particular were the ones who really convinced me to stay. I asked one of them what he thought when he first found out I was gay.

“It didn't make no difference to me,” he said. “I didn't look at you any differently after you told us.”

I am so glad I stuck with wrestling. It makes me a better person, and makes me a stronger gay man, every day.

I was speechless. After my previous school, the acceptance on the San Jacinto team just wasn’t something I expected. I quickly learned the other guys thought the same way. To my surprise my big, muscular coach was totally accepting too.

What really made me feel accepted was when we were at a dual meet, and the guy I was going to wrestle said something about me being gay. One of my good friends gave me the best advice.

"Don’t get mad,” he said, “calm down and take it out on the mat".

That was what made me realize I was truly accepted.

I am so glad I stuck with wrestling. It makes me a better person and makes me a stronger gay man, every day.

You can find Jesse Loera on Facebook, or on Twitter @yopo162, or on Instagram @x.o.jesse. He can also be reached via email [email protected].

Editor: Cyd Zeigler