Waking up that morning felt different.
I put on his shirt, I took it off. My mind wondered around his image more than usual.
May 2, 2013, the classroom was loud, cliquey, and unproductive. People began to find out rapidly about what had happened. Focused, unconcerned, I was about to experience heartbreaking devastation. A friend asked if I heard anything. I told her no. She announced to the classroom that my high school boyfriend had taken his life in the night.
The loud classroom was forced silent.
Frozen by my peers staring at me, I felt pure nothingness. I was quickly flooded with warmth and drained of my thoughts. My breathing reflected the slow pace of time. I could feel my heavy heart pounding in my hands and feet. For a moment, I was distracted by my loud heartbeat and breathing.
Emily was the first person I came out to. We stared blankly at each other for what seemed like forever. I locked eyes with her and only her. Our stare kept me calm. Still frozen, disbelief, fear, and shock began to flash through my body. This moment felt like forever.
With a supportive family, my mother rushed home from work. We cried endlessly with her knowing there was not much she could do. My mom learned to wait for me to mention his name as this would be followed by a whirlwind of emotions.
This was how I lived my summer before moving to college. Draining my wells at night and hoping that tomorrow would come just a little bit later. Hoping that my dreams were a reality and that this reality was a dream.
A time where most students find happiness in graduating, graduation parties, and moving to college, I found myself depressed and in a dark space. I spent my time being constantly angry and pushing those that cared about me away.
Two exceptions to all of this were my cheerleading teams.
While I was pushing people away, my teams were pulling me in. That summer, I was an athlete of both my local community program, Champion Force Athletics, and Michigan State University, where I would spend my next four years cheering for the Spartans in green and white.
My CFA coaches and teammates showed immense compassion. They made me feel like they cared. I was comforted and constantly reminded that they were there for me. These were the people that knew me best, having spent four years practicing, traveling and competing with them.
While the MSU program was something new at the time, my coach, Elyse, still found a way to create comfort. Elyse connected with me at our first collegiate practice of the summer. Barely knowing each other, she was able to establish a bond. She reached out to me saying that she saw a photo and caption I had posted about Zack’s passing. She opened her arms, ears, and heart, making sure that I was getting what I needed.
We had a connection with similar stories that she was able to share with me. That created protection. This was not something she was obligated to do. Joining this new family of athletes at college was more support for me.
Growing up with both of my parents being raised by lesbian mothers has created a unique upbringing. Little did I know, I would have support from all angles.
In February of 2010, when I was 14, I worked up the nerve to make an announcement to my family: I was gay.
The amount of love and acceptance that I received from them was indescribable. I could not have asked for a better experience.
Introducing my true self to the world and becoming a cheerleader are two of the most pivotal milestones in my life. I have gained happiness, confidence, a support system, and endless amounts of love for both of these things. Looking back on my experience, I see a brave, young boy who was in search of acceptance. I allowed people to meet the real me. I allowed myself to build a relationship with a sport and the people who were involved.
It’s hard to imagine going through Zack’s passing without coming out and being an athlete of a team. Coming out has eliminated my fears of having to keep secrets. A key component to my healing was the fact that I did not have to hide my feelings, emotions, and thoughts.
Zack was not a secret.
The dark space I found following his death was also not a secret. My sport provided me with comfort, support, and protection. My teammates and coaches were caring, compassionate and concerned. I am in a better place today because of this.
What I went through is something that no one should ever do alone. I wish everyone could find the strength to be true to themselves and come out. It’s an amazing life when you are able to be true to who you are.
There is a trickling effect of doors opening where your brain cannot even imagine doors opening. Support is endless within our community, and there is a lot of it in our world. This support would not exist in my life if I never took the steps of being vulnerable with those that meant the most to me.
Without being an out athlete, my struggles would have been harder, and maybe even impossible, to manage. I have gained the opportunity to allow support to enter my life.
Four years ago I felt like I was never going to stop crying, never going to be happy, and never have a zest for life.
My sport, and those in it, proved me wrong.
Jacob Jean is a senior at Michigan State University studying psychology and graduating in May of 2017. He has been cheerleading for four years at the collegiate level. You can find him on Facebook, or you can find him on Instagram @jakemicheal. You can also email him at email@example.com.
If you are an LGBT youth considering suicide or in crisis, visit the Trevor Project or call their 24-hour hotline at 866-488-7386.
Editor: Cyd Zeigler