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For gay high school track coach, accepting himself was biggest hurdle

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Jarrin Williams realized that coming out was not a one-step process.

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Jarrin Williams
Brent Mullins photo

My name is Jarrin Williams and I do not like kids.

That's not something coaches of high school sports say, but that used to be my thought process. My go-to line. Really, it was more of a mental defense mechanism. I would tell people early on that the reason I didn't coach, or teach, was because I didn't like kids. In reality, I didn't want anyone thinking I was any kind of predator.

Back in the mid-’90s, I thought most people would equate LGBT coaches of youth and scholastic sports with pedophilia. I wouldn't go into a locker room for fear of someone thinking I had ulterior motives. I didn't realize when I started coaching in 1997, I would have come out again and in the process, deal with layers of internalized homophobia.

Growing up, I always knew I was gay but I felt so alone. There was no Internet. There was no Outsports. To my knowledge, there were no other gay people — certainly no other out gay black men — in my hometown of Rock Island, Illinois. There were, of course, but the stereotypes were bad. I tried to keep my sexuality to myself, which is tough because I have always been outgoing. I was also never interested in pretending to be interested in females.

Since I didn't have a confidant for my junior high and most of my high school years, I kept a journal in high school. I was outed when I was a junior in high school. People in my neighborhood were mostly nasty to me. I often had suicidal thoughts. The thing that kept me from following through was my mind — I thought too much. I considered all of the ways I would suffer more from failed attempts at suicide. I was one of those kids who really needed to see and hear a gay adult say it would get better.

My junior year of high school, I also found success as a member of my high school's track and field team, eventually qualifying for the Illinois High School Association track and field meet in the 110-meter hurdles and 4x400 relay. It was cool being on the team that won the Illinois AA team title that year and most of my teammates are still some of my close friends to this day. I wasn't out to them then, but I'm out to pretty much all of them now, and am thankful for not only their lasting friendships but also for the awesome memories.

One cool thing that happened to me that junior year? The nasty rumors and teasing stopped. Seriously, I am thankful for some people's ignorance. There was no way I could be gay and good at sports. Perhaps some of those who teased me didn't want to admit that a "sissy" could beat them into submission on the track.

The feelings of isolation and loneliness continued on at the collegiate level. In fact, during my first two years at Southern Illinois University, when I was experiencing most of my athletic success, I was the most alone. Have you ever been in a room filled with people and still felt like you're all alone? I had few friends I could genuinely and totally be myself around. The culture of my team was extremely hetero. Males were essentially celebrated for their conquests. I couldn't believe how much sex my teammates were having. I lived in the dorms for three years and couldn't get over how much several of my floormates were having sex.

Imagine being around so many physically fit specimens on a daily basis, either at practice or at competitions (OMG). I don't necessarily wish I was having that much sex, but I had serious crushes on a couple of guys and would've been happy just dating. I usually got the object of my desire's attention because of my success as a track athlete.

I never had the nerve to kiss any of my crushes. Once, I had a guy I had come out to come onto me, but that situation was entirely awkward. When I came out to him, he went straight to religious reasons for why homosexuality was wrong. He remained friendly with me, which was nice. One night sometime later, he shared with me that he was conflicted because his faith was strong but he couldn't deny his attraction to me in that moment. Needless to say, I got away from him as soon as I was able and never spoke to him again.

I came out to my three closest friends during my sophomore year of college. And they saved my life. To this day, I make sure each is aware that I am thankful for them saving my life. Words never seem like enough but I am fortunate they were placed in my life. Many people today marvel at how positive I am. I reply that it's easy for me to spread positivity when I have so much love in my own life.

When I finished competing, I figured my future would be spent as a fan who was fortunate enough to have competed against Olympians and world champions. A friend who was one of my high school teammates asked me to coach at the school where he was teaching and coaching. My initial reaction was, "No, thanks. I don't like kids!" I told that friend, Erik, that I was gay before I started coaching and told him that if he thought I shouldn't coach as a result, I would understand. I am not sure what his expectations of me were beyond helping kids learn the hurdle events. I certainly didn't expect much from the experience myself. Interestingly enough, not only did I enjoy coaching, it proved good for me.

I was immediately struck at how natural I was at coaching and I attribute this to the awesome coaches I had in junior high and high school. These coaches were so encouraging and positive. They had a knack for making every member of the team feel important, regardless of ability and talent. Those experiences and memories came back to me almost immediately.

I enjoy getting to know young people and as I get to know them, finding those key words and phrases that help them find their untapped potential. Helping them realize they could perform in ways they didn't know they could previously. That's what my coaches did for me, so I figured it was what I was supposed to do for the kids I was tasked to help.

As I was falling in love with coaching, I was faced with some decisions. What was I going to do that would allow me to continue coaching? It was obvious that I should get into the classroom. The thought of teaching and coaching made me happy. The thoughts I started having about people finding out I was gay made me sad. I knew I would need to be honest about who I was because I was out in my personal life and didn't want to start living dishonestly. I didn't realize I had all of this pent up self-loathing, this internalized homophobia, inside of me.

When I returned to school to pursue my English education degree, I realized I had to come out all over again. And in many instances, more than once. I had to address ignorance and stereotypes in class discussions. As a result of one such conversation, a professor invited me to another of her classes to facilitate a discussion about labels and stereotypes.

As I relive these important memories, I want to add my face and voice to those many of you have heard before: It can and does get better. If you are not out, consider coming out. You don't have to come out to a room full of people. Think of that one friend or family member you are most comfortable around.

If you are in high school or college, find an LGBTQIA+ support group. I found one such group on my campus and I remember how much courage it took to approach the office. I didn't want anyone to see me going in or out of the office. On my third or fourth visit, I saw some students down the hall who saw me. One gave me a quizzical look. I didn't pause too long and we both kept it moving. I never heard about it from anyone else so he either kept it to himself or whoever he told didn't care.

I love seeing stories on Outsports about athletes at all levels who are coming out and I applaud them. These stories, these names, these faces will give hope to those who are yet to come out. Hopefully those who don't believe they can come out just yet will see these stories and realize they are not alone in the world. Hopefully these stories will keep you from making really poor choices and jeopardizing your health because you think you aren't worthy of love or have limited options.

In the end, coming out has been good for me but not necessarily easy. And once you come out as a coach, it feels like you will have to come out several times again during the course of your career, especially to those who don’t know you well personally or those who choose to remain ignorant.

I think this is truer for coaches than athletes since we have influence over those we are tasked to teach. Those who know me know why I coach. I coach because I have a wealth of experience and knowledge acquired from my days as an athlete, from my early years of coaching, and from several outstanding coaching clinics. I also hope my being a coach, and visible, provides the supportive presence all young people need, especially those who identify as LGBT+.

Jarrin Williams, 45, is an 8th Grade English teacher at Washington Junior High School in Rock Island, Illinois. He is the head boys' cross country running coach and assistant track and field coach at Rock Island High School in Rock Island, Illinois. Jarrin can be reached at coachjw1@hotmail.com, @williamsjarrin on Instagram, @coachjw on Twitter, and Jarrin Williams on Facebook.

Check out Jarrin’s short film from his time at the Outsports Reunion in Denver in June.