I grew up in a tiny, rural, close-minded town of about 3,000 people and graduated with the same 80 kids I was with in kindergarten. Fitting in seemed like the only way I could make it through high school. Peshtigo High School in Northern Wisconsin was a place where being gay was the punch line to almost every joke, and coming out would have alienated anyone beyond belief, especially if they were gay and an athlete.

I could not go a day without hearing the jocks mocking someone they thought was gay. I never stood up to those guys, which is something I will always regret.

Sometimes the mocking and name-calling was directed at someone they knew was gay and whose stereotypical mannerisms were simply a true expression of their self. I felt sick to my stomach every time something like this happened, because that gay kid was brave enough to live the life I wanted.

At a very young age I learned being gay was one of the filthiest features a person could have in my town. I remember being in the car with a few relatives when I was 8, confused with all the abnormal feelings I was having, and wondering why I couldn’t relate to the other guys my age. We were driving to get donuts one Saturday morning. Something about an LGBT event came on the radio, and my cousin opened his mouth and announced something that would change the way I viewed myself for the next 13 years.

“I wish all gays would die.”

I’ve never been so taken back (that is, until last November). I was shocked that he would say something that hate-filled, but I was even more traumatized with the lack of backlash my family members gave him. These were the people I loved and trusted the most. In that moment, it was clear to me that a statement like that was not too outlandish for one of them to say.

No one knew I was gay, but the signs were definitely there. I wore a turtleneck on my head so I could have “girl hair.” When I hung out with my girl neighbors, we would play with Barbies. After my cousin’s cruel comment, it became clear to me that I had to suppress my sexual orientation for the rest of my life, something no heterosexual person can relate to.

A few years later some very close family friends gave me a Barbie as a Christmas present. I cannot remember a more embarrassing moment in my entire life. I never wanted to feel that embarrassment again, so I decided I was going to destroy any femininity that existed in me and live the life I thought society expected of me.

I never would have imagined how difficult it would be to hide half of me from everyone I cared about, but that seemed like the only acceptable thing I could have done at the time.

Every medal I won transformed anyone’s thoughts of me being gay into affirmation of me being straight.

I thought I could abolish the gay in me by excelling at sports. In part, it did the trick: Every medal I won transformed anyone’s thoughts of me being gay into affirmation of me being straight.

I went through high school winning track meets and breaking school records, hoping that it would disguise the fact that I was gay.

It worked on everyone except me.

Little did I know, sports would lead me to be the proud, gay athlete I am today. Track and field led me to a boy named Justin, someone who would turn my world upside down.

At first, we didn’t know each other was gay. In fact, I just knew him as Justin, the kid who unrightfully took my 200-meter state title because I false started. (Side note: He thinks he would have won either way, but I know otherwise).

He committed to be a Wisconsin Badger by our senior year, and I struggled between choosing to be a Badger or a Minnesota Golden Gopher. After visits to both schools, I decided to attend the Univ. of Minnesota. I was so excited to get out of the right wing hell I lived in for 19 years and experience life in the big city: Minneapolis.

I thought it would be this land of acceptance, where everyone could be exactly who they wanted to be, which was probably the case for 99% of the student population.

But I underestimated one thing.

I was going to run on a Division 1 track team. I was going to be surrounded by jocks… again. I hoped for the best, but just like home, being gay was the punch line to every joke. I endured an incredible amount of homophobic locker room talk. Each time it chipped away at my positive spirit a little more.

There was not a single openly gay man on the team, which surprised me. After listening to the athletes and what they had to say about gay men, it didn’t surprise me anymore. Realizing that I would endure another five years of the same close-mindedness I tried to escape by moving to Minneapolis, I fell into a slight depression.

I remember walking to the track in the middle of the night, just to walk aimlessly in circles, crying with frustration. I just wanted someone to relate to for the first time in my life.

Justin Rabon essentially saved my life.

We came out to each other over Thanksgiving break of 2014 – First him in a text message, then me in a later response. Finally, I had someone I could relate to. We didn’t quite have all the same experiences, but the oppression of gays in his hometown of Milwaukee is probably comparable to the oppression in my small, conservative farm town.

Brad and Justin have been together since 2014.

We would talk for hours about everything, each of us being 100% ourselves for the first time in our entire lives.

At first we were just friends, talking freely and getting to know each other, but I started to care more and more for this man every day.

He made it possible for me to be happy again. He gave me a reason to smile.

The happiest day of my life was the first day we spent together as a couple. I drove from my hometown to Madison with my cousin to ring in the New Year with him. When he peeked his head around the corner of my cousin’s apartment door, he had the biggest and most genuine smile I have ever seen.

I knew from that moment I would fall in love with him.

No matter where you come from and what your circumstances are, you deserve to be happy and real with yourself.

Two-and-a-half years later, we are still together, we are still in love, we are both out, and we are both proud of who we are. He has pushed me beyond the limits I thought were possible for myself and has shown me that no matter where you come from and what your circumstances are, you deserve to be happy and real with yourself.

I love my family, friends, and teammates, but they cannot relate to the things closeted gay athletes go through. I have gotten almost universally positive feedback from all of them, but I really owe all of my contentment in my life to Justin. Without him, I would still be living a lie to everyone around me, including myself. I am truly one of the luckiest guys out there.

You can read Justin Rabon’s full coming-out story here.

You can find Brad Neumann on Facebook, and on Twitter or on Instagram @bradneums. You can also reach him via email at [email protected].

Story editor: Cyd Zeigler