I conducted myself the same I would any other day. Got up, grabbed a quick bite to eat, talked to Mom a bit, then was well on my way.
Yet today was a little different than some of the others. On that day, my normal routine was tainted by a feeling of unease and guilt. On days like that specific one, I had tell my mother lies, little fables that I knew she definitely would not approve of if she knew the truth.
I had to hide a little more than I already did for fear of upsetting the image my mother held so high. The lies were a necessity to my sanity, despite the ever-pending trouble I knew it could cause to mine and my mother’s relationship.
This hiding was all too poetic. It was a symbiotic relationship, these secrets and I shared. I not only had to hide my true identity, but I also had to hide the one thing that made me feel special and relevant in a world where society is made to squash individuality and differences. At least, that’s what my perception of society was at the time.
I would not be attending the small study group I had told my mother I would be after school.
Instead, I would be practicing volleyball with the girls’ team.
I loved my mom. I still do, there is no question. But she didn’t understand. She couldn’t quite possibly grasp how lonely I felt, how small and insignificant. She didn’t understand exactly why I needed volleyball, why I couldn’t hide my love for the sport or how much the sport made me feel accepted.
My secret passion was a weird metaphor for my life. In a way, it was in the same closet as my true identity, my true self. However, my mom associated the sport of volleyball to be a “ladies’" game; Therefore, I would be categorized as a girly man, weak, gay.
Sorry, Mom. I’m gay.
Ironically, by forbidding me to play the game, my mother herself was breeding the very stereotype she was afraid I would uphold. I would be categorized as a girly man since I could not practice with my fellow sex. The game would be identified as a ladies’ game since I couldn’t be apart of a mens’ league.
Because my mother did not wish for me to play volleyball, I couldn’t share with her what truly made me happy. I loved sharing my passions with my mom, as she shared hers with me, particularly tennis. I played tennis competitively since the age of nine.
Tennis was treated like AAU for basketball or club for volleyball. It was every weekend a new city, new competition, new opportunities for my mother and I to be together.
Even though it was not MY sport, it still made us closer with each new tournament. It allowed us to build upon a bond with one another, but still I felt uncomfortable because the fear of disappointing my mother stood in the way of opening up to her and showing her who I really was.
I was in a perpetual circle of uneasiness during these times. On one side of the circle, I wanted to make my mother happy and proud. On the other, however, I didn’t want to hinder my own happiness for the sake of someone else’s, even if she was blood. The emotions were confusing and destructive to my own growth.
Tennis did bring about more opportunities that I did not understand until much later. Because my mother was so passionate about my ability to play the racket sport, I was able to land a scholarship to play in college.
This opportunity gave me a chance to move out of the stereotypes and shadows of the suburbs and into a city of a more accepting nature. For that, I will always be grateful of my mother’s love of tennis. In a roundabout way, she helped me accept myself and come to terms with who I am.
I don’t know what was more difficult, coming out to my mother about my sexuality or coming out to my mother about my secret affiliation with volleyball. I was a little fortunate on not having to come out to my mother. I first came out to my college tennis team. I had recently gotten a tattoo on my ankle of a rainbow inside a triangle.
My roommate and suite-mate at the time, who both were tennis players, saw the tattoo and asked what it was for. I hesitated for a little bit before revealing my sexuality, but I knew I couldn’t hide from the truth anymore. Their reaction to me being gay was about as normal as normal can get. It was like revealing anything else about me.
It was just...normal. The entire team was beyond supportive. They questioned me to better understand my sexuality, how it was difficult or not, and to become aware of things they may say that could come across as inappropriate.
My coach went a step further and brought me into his office to inform me that he was supportive in any way that he could be, and that I was to come to him if there was any backlash from teammates or anyone in the school and he would take care of it. But, that was honestly something I did not have to worry about.
I moved to Atlanta for college to escape that high school closet, and that’s just what I was going to do. It was hard for me to do this, but the support I received from my coaches and teammates gave me the courage to pursue my hidden identity even more.
However, my mother happened to go through my phone and discover who her son really was, a year before my first year in college. It saved me the awkward sit-down conversation and the words, “Hey, guess what? I’m gay!” But it was still uneasy and difficult. It took away from me sharing who I was, just as she had done with me on all of those weekends playing tennis.
She reacted as any mother would, fear and questioning. Fear of her son being ridiculed, questioning of my own analysis of my sexuality.
Volleyball was a little different than my experience with my mother and the sport in high school. While playing tennis in college, I helped coach volleyball at a nearby club in Atlanta. Being around volleyball on a consistent basis was torture. It lit a fire in me I thought had died back when I signed to play tennis.
I was able to practice and work on my game during my coaching period, and that experience pressured me into contacting my college coach back near home about transferring. He had seen me play before and was more than willing to accept me as a transfer. In telling my mother about the transfer, I was worried. I would be quitting the sport that defined her and I.
I would be pursuing a sport that she didn’t necessarily approve. However, my mother was more than accepting. She was happy I was coming home, happy I opened up to her, happy that her son was happy. I couldn’t have asked for a better reaction.
My volleyball team now is just as similar to my tennis team my freshmen year....100% supportive. Sometimes, just a little too supportive. They consistently want to be involved in my life, my love life and personal. They are almost more interested in my love life than I am at times.
I was nervous about coming back to Tennessee. Nervous because I was coming back as a different person I was before. As much as I didn’t want stereotypes to be placed upon me, that was exactly what I was doing with my home state. I feared ridicule and embarrassment; however, my teammates and volleyball helped break those stereotypes - the ones against me, and the ones I had towards Tennessee.
Volleyball has been a safe house for me. It gave me comfort when I did not think I had one. It provided me with a purpose when I thought my only purpose was to live up to someone else’s expectations.
Lastly, and most importantly, it gave me courage. Courage to speak out, courage to be who I am, courage to open up to the one woman who has meant more to me than she could ever realize. I don’t ever regret the road I took in becoming Jimmy.
I don’t blame my mother for the road she took to acceptance. Coming out is a process, and it is specific for each individual. My journey was and still is just as specific, and i couldn’t be happier with it.
Jimmy Nuckolls plays volleyball at King University in Tennessee. You can find him on Twitter @Jimmy10is or on Instagram @JimmyNuckolls. You can also reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Story editor: Cyd Zeigler