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This gay team captain at a Christian university is finally breaking free

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Deon Fox is leaving the homophobia of Cornerstone Univ. behind him.

Deon Fox was a standout athlete at Cornerstone Univ., despite having to contend with homophobic language and messages.

Growing up in a small-town Christian home in Michigan with two older brothers... at an early age I realized I was different.

I found enjoyment in gymnastics, dance and crafts. These were things that my parents encouraged at an early age, but as I grew older they became things that created a divide between other guys in high school and me.

In high school the topic of conversation in any group of guys always seemed to steer toward sex, or some form of derogatory statement about a girl’s body. I never felt comfortable joining in.

Still, I quickly came to understand that I needed to learn to join in or flee — I needed to be a “straight” guy or....

My best resolve was convincing my parents to allow me transfer to a private Christian high school because I felt like only God could fix me.

My junior year was full of adventure, new faces and a fresh start. I was suddenly the new kid at school. I was not the kid who did gymnastics, or the dancer. At this new school I found track and field, a great friend group, and an extreme trust in God.

Still, I had the overwhelming feeling that I was different, I knew what it was but I was around a group of people who decided I am wrong and I made this choice. I felt like I had to be the best I could be in school, work, and sports. If I was smart and athletic I couldn’t be a disappointment to my parents, and I surely couldn’t be gay… right?

Wrong.

I began to flourish on the track. My daily thoughts became about “the best track athlete can’t be gay.” This motivated me daily in practice and I continued to excel. I was a state high school runner-up, which created the opportunity to continue running track in college.

Finding comfort in my safe Christian high school, despite having other options, I decided to go to a private Christian college, Cornerstone Univ. in Grand Rapids, Mich. Little did I know this would be the most difficult period of my life.

Deon Fox is all smiles now that he has moved on from the homophobic culture of Cornerstone Univ.

I kept going back to that though, “the best can’t be gay.” It created a fire within me and an addiction to the sport to cover up my secret. Out of the gate and early in my freshmen year I was competing like a veteran. I began rewriting record boards, making multiple trips to nationals and earning multiple all-American plaques. My junior year we lacked seniors on the team and I was elected captain. The requirements were spiritual stability, athletic ability, and leadership ability, all of which I seemed to have.

I recall sitting in a circle with my teammates after one particularly tough workout, cooling down. A teammate looked at me and jokingly shared my biggest nightmare.

“When the other freshmen guys and I met you we thought you were gay.”

I hadn’t heard anyone talk about me being gay in a while. The success in sports had worked. I brushed it off.

“Oh, I used to get that a lot,” I said. “Come on, I did gymnastics for 12 years.”

I didn’t feel this was a place of comfort where I could be myself, especially if I had to maintain this image of a leader. I felt like I had to put up a front.

Another unfortunate experience on campus happened in chapel, which we were required to attend regularly. At one particular chapel my junior year, where they invited a gay speaker, the air in the room was thick and everyone was nervous for the next thing he would say. He showed photos from various nightclubs and parties portraying a lifestyle of a drug-addicted gay man. He told multiple stories of sexual abuse, conviction, and poor decisions he had made.

This created an image for the entire campus that this is the gay lifestyle, and no one should live that way.

The atmosphere for a closet gay man was almost unbearable. I felt like everyone at chapel was looking at me. And the social media uproar after that chapel was incredible. Lots of complaints from students saying various things along the lines of “that’s gross how could they allow him to speak about this.”

The motive of his story was to tell his testimony and how he came to God, but it became a confirmation as to why I felt I could never come out within this “community” of people.

This year was particularly tough. When our cross-country nationals meet was moved out of North Carolina to a new location due to bathroom laws, the ensuing campus conversation made me feel distant. The talk about non-gender bathrooms and my school’s disagreement with attending a national championship in a state where its legal to have non-gender bathrooms created a feeling of disgust and separation.

I became detached from everyone at the university as I felt more than ever that I could never fit in as my true self. This made being a team captain an incredibly difficult task.

I had previously found light in track and field, but now I found myself lost and wanting to be done with my school, my sport.

Deon Fox was one of many LGBT athletes at Christian schools having to quietly suppress who they are for the sake of “religious freedom.”

I found a glimpse of hope at my final indoor nationals this year. After six trips to indoor and outdoor nationals I had managed to formulate a network of familiar faces. Little did I know, one of those faces would become one of comfort and support outside of my team.

After suffering through the flu and my worst indoor national performance yet, I felt vulnerable. I felt more comfortable confiding in one of my competitors than in my teammates or anyone else for that matter. After All-American awards were handed out, he and I were sitting in the infield. The words I had never spoken until that moment came out of my mouth, “I’m gay.”

I couldn’t believe his response.

“Me too,” he said. “Just remember to stay true to yourself.”

It turns out he had come out to his teammates last year, and they have been generally supportive of him.

“Stay true to yourself.” That resonated with me.

We continued talking about the struggles of being gay at a Christian university. Talking with him helped. It’s given me the courage to say what I’ve wanted to say for so long:

I love you all, and who I am has not changed one bit. I am the same person I was yesterday and last time we spoke. The only difference is that you will now know one element that I was too fearful to bring forward before: I am gay. Please understand that holding a secret so small for so long can grow into something large. Being gay doesn’t define me, its just an aspect of me, the me you’ve known and grown to love. I’ve experienced the fear of being different. So I understand how you may feel.

It does make me different from you; But I’m still the same me.

If I could tell anyone reading this going through any of this one thing, it’s that you are strong enough to endure the struggles until you’re ready or willing to reach out for help. I understand that you feel alone but assure you are not. There are many of us all around you.

For me, lying any longer about who I am is no longer my reality.

Deon Fox, 22, recently graduated from Cornerstone University with an exercise major. He was a member and captain of the track and field team. You can email him at deonfox7@gmail.com or find him on Instagram @deonno.i.

Story editor: Cyd Zeigler