The run itself was unmemorable. A five miler at recovery pace. I ran alone, striding through the cold damp of the Washington winter evening. I had run hundreds just like it before, and have run hundreds just like it since. But this one was different.
I had a lot on my mind that day. It was January of my junior year of high school, and I was just coming off of the best season of my life. I had helped lead my team to a fourth-place finish at the cross-country state championships, a major accomplishment for a team making its first state appearance in almost 40 years. As I prepared for the upcoming track season, I tried to keep my training at the forefront of my mind. I feared that any distractions could derail my training, and that was not a risk I was willing to take.
That was out of my control. Despite my desire to remain completely focused on running and school, something else loomed larger. It was during this winter that I began to seriously consider the possibility that I might be gay, an idea that absolutely terrified me.
I grew up in a town called Arlington, Wash., a rural, religious and conservative community north of Seattle. Small-town life defines the identity of Arlington. It is a source of pride.
In this environment, being gay didn’t feel safe. All of the familiar negative stereotypes, misconceptions and stigma surrounding what it means to be gay were especially prevalent in Arlington, as they are in many small towns. The dominant rhetoric surrounding LGBT people was demeaning at best… hostile at worst.
The way my peers viewed and talked about LGBT people was how I saw my future as a gay man, so denial was how I defended myself. I was convinced that if I never allowed myself to admit that I was gay, I would never have to face that future.
If I ever caught myself checking out, or thinking about, a boy, I would shut the thought down and give myself a lecture on self-control. I obsessed over what my friends and teammates would think if they found out what went on in my head, how they would react with shock and disgust. I thought about the people I feared would abandon me, how relationships would disappear into an uncomfortable silence. I couldn’t even be honest with myself, let alone other people.
This had the effect of isolating me from everyone in my life.
I retreated to my running. Cross-country and track were places where I was needed and respected. When I was competing, I was just an athlete. I didn’t matter what went on in my head. I knew that when I put my toes on the starting line, the only things that mattered were how hard I worked and how I performed.
As I ran that day, something inside me snapped. A few weeks before that I stumbled across a video on YouTube. It featured a college-aged guy telling his coming-out story. He was your prototypical American teenager… but gay. He was simply human, and most of all, he seemed comfortable, content, and happy.
Over the next few weeks I worked to find any gay people I could emulate. Athletes, vloggers, other various public figures, anyone who was publicly out and living a life I could envision for myself. People whose lives were not defined or destroyed by their experiences coming out.
I realized something that day: I wasn’t happy. Something about my life wasn’t satisfying me and, for the first time, I considered that my sexuality might be the deciding factor.
It didn’t take me long to confirm my suspicions and to brace myself for the losses I expected from being gay, but I had to take a risk. A major lesson my coaches taught me in high school was the importance of taking risks. Risk-taking is crucial to racing. Without it you could never truly test your limits. In order to win races you have to risk losing them. Similarly, in order to find happiness, I had to risk losing it. I was tired of living a lie.
At lunch that next day I pulled my best friend aside. I needed to tell her something. We walked into the back room of our coach’s classroom, and I finally said the words I had let terrify me for so long: “I’m gay.”
After taking a moment to absorb what I had just said, she pulled me into a hug and said, “Talk to me about it.” She wanted to know the real me.
Following that, I made a list of people I wanted to tell. I found that, despite my fears, my friends, family, teammates, and coaches were almost universally accepting.
To my surprise, this acceptance extended to much of my school. The community that I had always considered to be predominantly homophobic turned out to be much more open-minded than I thought.
It wasn’t, and isn’t, perfect. I heard and saw my fair share of both outright and veiled homophobia. While not directed at me, other people still frequently use “fag” and “faggot.” I had people express their disapproval of my “lifestyle” before assuring me that they would continue to be my friend. Just last spring a group of students walked out of an assembly as a transgender peer spoke about acceptance. But for the most part my classmates didn’t allow my revelation to change how they interacted with me.
As I went through my last two years of high school, running remained my sanctuary. The only things that mattered when I raced were how hard I worked and how I performed. Being out didn’t change that.
When I made the decision to run in college, some of my old fears began to return. I refused to return to the closet, but I still worried about how my future teammates would react to having a gay teammate.
Once school started it quickly became evident that I had nothing to worry about. When I moved into my dorm I hung a pride flag in my room.
Before I knew it, all of my teammates knew that I was gay. Not one of them cared. Not one.
By allowing myself to live a life that is completely open, honest and genuine, I gave myself a chance to find happiness. Coming out was a risk. It is for everyone. But I’m glad that I took it.
Matt Taylor is a Sophomore at Willamette University in Oregon, where he competes for their cross-country and track teams. You can find him on Instagram @matttaylor_8, on Twitter @matt_steve, or he can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.