We’re two swimmers and best friends, both in college, who happen to be gay. We came out to each other via text, and our bond and friendship has only grown. We don’t know where each of us would be without the other. We wanted to share our stories.
Axel Reed, will graduate this spring from Chapman University in Orange County, Calif., where he was a swimmer. He previously swam at Villanova. Josh Velasquez attends the University of Arizona. He went there hoping to swim, but an injury cut short his career.
Before we tell you the story of how two gay swimmers helped each other come out, we want to share some background about each of us.
Growing up in Trabuco Canyon, in Orange County, Calif., going to church on Sunday and having chapel twice a week at my elementary and middle school definitely was a challenge.
I always knew there was something different about me from my friends. A difference that was hard to comprehend because I grew up being taught that men were essentially programmed to marry women and that is how the world works. But that wasn’t how I was programmed. I was always good at hiding my emotions and pushing my feelings deep inside, so I had no problem hiding that I was gay until high school.
High school was four years of confusion, depression, anxiety and all other emotions you feel when you’re hiding who you are every day. On top of everything else I was a competitive swimmer, a sport known for being “more gay” because my uniform was a tiny piece of fabric just large enough to cover “my stuff” and I went to a private, Catholic high school.
Swimming was my outlet, my distraction and my excuse. I dated a few girls, but never anything too serious. I would consistently use training as an excuse to not date. At the same time swim practice meant lying to my coach and teammates — the people I called my family. I was afraid of telling my teammates that I was gay because I feared they would look at me differently or my guy friends would distance themselves.
My freshman year of college at Villanova, I told myself, “it's four years, just fake it” because now that I was a Division I swimmer I really thought I couldn’t be out. That was not the case. As much as I tried to hide my boyfriend during freshman year from my teammates, it was inevitable they were going to find out.
I started by telling my small group of close swim friends and then let the word spread to the rest of the team. Everyone was supportive and later on in the year two of my other teammates ended up coming out as well. It was a pretty amazing experience. When I transferred to Chapman for my second year of college, I came out to my teammates there more quickly than at Villanova, and was greeted with the same response: nothing but love.
Don't get me wrong — having supportive teammates meant the world to me, but it didn’t help with my confidence or being comfortable with myself.
I was faced with a lot of stress and anxiety that first year of college and found myself often driving aimlessly through Pennsylvania or sneaking into the pool area to sit in the bleachers and just think. I struggled a lot with the thought of people knowing and having the confidence to walk around campus and the pool deck having people know the real me.
I realized the hard part wasn't telling people. The hard part was the lonely, dark place I put myself in when faced with the reality that people knew I was gay. That emotionally draining pit was what I wanted to help Josh avoid because I knew he was going through the same thing.
Growing up in Corona in Southern California, I was an only child, with a single mom as my only parent. My father tried to be a part of my life when I was younger but it never built at the time into father-son relationship.
My family was extremely large and we spent most holidays together. Throughout my life, I saw all of my aunts and uncles happy together, and my cousins in happy relationships. But they were all guy-girl relationships. It was the norm in my family. All I wanted was to be part of that norm.
I knew I was attracted to men at a young age but I fought those emotions and pushed them far down. Along with my entire family being “normal,” my family is very involved with the Christian church. I’ve had such hard time coming to terms with my sexuality because I was scared that my family would hate me because homosexuality is a sin.
Athletically, I swam my entire life. I swam club and varsity my entire high school career. At my school, swimming was considered a “gay” sport because of our little Speedos. I refused to be part of that stereotype. I would date girls so no one could see that I was hiding my true feelings.
My freshman year I became extremely close to the seniors and juniors on my swim team. I was this little freshman who got to hang out with people I looked up to and wanted to be like. They all had girlfriends and in my eyes I wanted that too. I wanted to fit in with my friends.
Luckily, I was able to play a good cover. I didn’t have that hard of a time getting with girls in high school. I felt so cool to be a part of the older group. The younger guys who were my age hated that the older guys wanted to hang out with me and not them. It was amazing but the whole time I would think to myself, “Do everything in your power to be straight. Don’t disappoint them, Josh.”
Even though I wanted to just be “normal,” that was not the main reason I couldn’t wrap my head around with being gay. When I was in elementary school, a neighbor decided to take advantage of me. I was a very vulnerable boy because I did not have a father figure in my life at the time.
My mom was working her ass off to make sure I had a privileged life. This neighbor saw that as a way use my body for his pleasure and take advantage of an innocent child. He made himself the male figure in my life whether I liked it or not. This went on for about two years and I did nothing to stop it. I was scared. Scared of being hurt by him. Scared he would hurt my family. Scared for someone I loved and wanted to protect.
Being sexually abused as a kid was what made it impossible for me to accept myself. I thought “Why? Why did this happen to me? If this wouldn’t have happened would I be normal and like girls?” I hated myself up until November 2016. I still struggle accepting myself to this day but every day I get closer and closer to finding happiness within.
My mom would ask me all the time, randomly, “Josh do you like guys? Josh are you bi? Josh are you gay?” I would always get defensive and deny it. Until one day in the summer of 2015, I finally decided it was safe for me to tell her. It was scary to finally say those words. I told her she couldn’t tell anyone. She kept her promise.
Fast forward to family weekend, my sophomore year at the University of Arizona in 2015, when I finally felt comfortable with my family knowing. I told my sister and brother in law one night. I was beyond scared that I would disappoint them because everyone thought I was this “lady killer.” Once I told my sister she cried and said, “It makes me sad to think you couldn’t tell us this.”
My brother in law told me, “I think I love you more now because you let me in to get to know the real you.” It was a huge eye opener. The day my family was leaving, I decided I needed to tell my dad. I was so scared that I wouldn’t be the son he wanted and I he wouldn’t love me the same. I was completely wrong. He told me, “this isn’t going to be an easy life, but I’ll be there the whole time with you while you go through it. I love you, son!” That moment I felt completely normal. My immediate family finally knew the real Josh.
Axel and Josh’s life as best friends
We both swam for club teams in Orange County, Calif. We ran into each other at meets but never really became friends until one day in 2014 when Axel messaged Josh on Instagram. We would chat all the time and the summer before we both left for college we became extremely close. It was really hard to say goodbye to each other after becoming so close.
Swimmers have a special connection, and that was the reason we clicked. There was something else though, another reason why our friendship was different. We found out that reason our first semester at college. One night Josh received a text from Axel. Josh opened the text and all it said was, “I’m gay, Josh. Are you?” Josh waited about 10 minutes to reply because he didn’t know if he was ready, but with confidence he replied, “Yeah, I am, Axel.”
That day was when we became each other’s rock. Little did we know that we would really need each other multiple times after that, especially Josh. Since Axel came out a year before Josh, he was able to help guide Josh through the tough times.
Axel had a boyfriend while at Villanova so he got to see how it was to have a “normal” life with a guy. During this time Josh would sneak around when drunk with one guy at school but both were deep in the closet. It took a toll on Josh and he was jealous that Axel could have a normal life.
Josh tried to push Axel away, but Axel never let that happen. He would always make sure his friend was OK, because of what Axel went through after coming out. While Axel’s dad had a hard time accepting him, Josh would tell Axel to give it time and he would come around. It was ironic that Josh was giving Axel this advice when he couldn’t come to terms and tell his own parents.
Axel was the one person Josh could cry to and vent because at the time Axel was the only one who knew about Josh. Axel would always say, “it’s time to tell your mom.” Josh would reply, “No I’m not ready. I can’t do this.” And like a best friend, Axel stayed by Josh’s side the entire time. Josh didn’t come out to his mom right away but with Axel’s guidance, he finally did in the summer of 2015.
Josh didn’t realize how special Axel was until the day Josh broke down emotionally. Josh got put in a situation at school where a guy he didn’t know almost attacked him. It brought back memories from his childhood abuser. Josh did not want to wake up the next day. He was disgusted with himself. Ashamed of himself and embarrassed, he told his family about everything that happened because he was scared he’d do something stupid.
In his sophomore year of college, Josh fell into a deep depression. Josh’s depression came from his past. Josh never dealt with his problems. He would always push them down and hide them from other. Finally one day they all came out and he didn’t know how to deal with them. He thought he was alone, even though Axel would tell him that was not the case.
Axel would be the one to call, Facetime, text and always make sure Josh was OK. He would remind him that what he was going through was just a speed bump and that everything would work out. That was hard for Josh to see because he still wasn’t out at his school. If it wasn’t for Axel, Josh might not be here today.
However, don't think this is one-sided. Josh helped, and still helps Axel, whether he knows it or not. One characteristic of Josh is that he radiates confidence, despite whatever he is going through. Axel struggled a lot after coming out, always worried about what other people were saying about him and judging him.
Although Axel was out, he did not have confidence. Josh would go out with his group of friends who knew about him and be 100% Josh, confident in himself and his sexuality. Seeing Josh be so comfortable with himself pushed Axel every day to step outside of his comfort zone because he wanted that confidence. He wanted to be go out with friends and be himself, hold hands with a guy, and not care about other people’s opinions. Josh will never let Axel think badly about himself.
Today we have never been happier with ourselves. We’re finally letting people into our lives and letting them get to know the real Josh and Axel, not the disguise they use to wear.
We wanted to share our story jointly so that other swimmers or people struggling to come out don't feel alone. Realize that others are experiencing the same thing as you and they made it through it. Love yourself and don’t push away the people close to you because this is the time you want them as close as possible.
Axel Reed, 21, will be graduating from Chapman University early with a B.S in Business Administration and an emphasis in Real Estate. You can find him on Instagram (@axel_reed). You can also email him at email@example.com.
Josh Velasquez, 21, is a junior pursuing a degree in neuroscience and cognitive behavior at the University of Arizona. You can find him on Instagram (@whoisjoshv) and Facebook. You can also email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Story editor: Jim Buzinski