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Gay former football player finds incredible acceptance in the South

Harrison Wilkerson is now a cheerleader at NC State, which recruited him to play football.

Harrison Wilkerson was recruited to play football for N.C. State, now cheers for the football team.

In October of 2015 I penned an Outsports article, revealing my authentic self to the world. Prior to the article being published I was sure this would be the scariest thing I ever did (and by the way, I went skydiving with my then-boyfriend the following year and let me assure you, jumping out of a plane at 13,000 feet is MUCH scarier).

I knew I wanted to share my story in hopes that someone would understand it’s OK for them to be gay, or that depression does not define them. I wanted to help end the stigma some have about being gay or suffering from mental-health diseases.

I wanted to say, “Here I am world, I made it this far and so can you.”

Yet I feared the possible complications that may arise.

The reasons for my fear never came to pass.

The anxieties of explaining my life, in the most detailed way to date, were quickly put to rest by the outpouring of love and support I received after the publication of my story. Family, friends and strangers half-way around the globe greeted my story with nothing but love and acceptance.

While I sorted through the thousands of emails, messages and comments, I stopped to remind myself just how lucky I am. Even if every day it becomes more rare in America to be rejected for being LGBTQ, far too many people are not met with this same wave of support.

Harrison Wilkerson loves cheering the Wolfpack of North Carolina State.

Shortly after my article was published, I made the decision to move back home to North Carolina for college. The decision was not an easy one. Not only did I feel as though there were many more people “like me” in Los Angeles, I was scared of what prejudices may await me back home in “the South.”

For the longest time my experiences growing up resulted in my association of this part of the country with intolerance and discrimination. I was sure I would face similar circumstances once again, and I reminded myself to keep my guard up.

Amazingly these fears were put to rest as I have been welcomed into an accepting and loving community of LGBTQ members and allies at North Carolina State, the very place I least expected it.

Prior to coming out it felt as though I was alone in my sexuality, like I was the only one who felt the way I did. These recent years have taught me that is far from the case.

The same loneliness that almost ended my life in high school has been overwhelmed by this communal love and acceptance. While there is still much progress to be made in this region of the country, thankfully I haven’t encountered any of the hate that once had caused me so much inner turmoil.

That internal turmoil was one of the main factors keeping me from pursuing the opportunities I had to play football in college. I was sure the levels of intolerance and hate that I had seen back home would only be magnified in collegiate athletics, so I decided to step away from the sport.

It was only after making the coed cheerleading team at North Carolina State, one of the same D1 schools that recruited me to play football, that I realized this is not always the case. Here in Raleigh I am treated just as any other student-athlete. Not once have I been made to feel uncomfortable because of my sexuality.

College sports are changing across the board. Acceptance of LGBTQ people is being embraced.

While the adjustment from being on the field to being on the sidelines has been tricky for me, there is comfort in knowing that if I can play, I can play in more than one arena.

Since beginning to live my life more authentically, I have learned numerous lessons about life.

A major takeaway is the lesson that coming out has taught me about love. While I do believe this experience has allowed me to learn about love in the most traditional sense, it has also taught me how to love myself, how to love others despite our differences, and how to accept the love I previously deemed myself unworthy of.

Part of learning to love myself has included learning that my sexuality is not something to be ashamed of.

For so long I was made to believe that being gay would negatively affect my life experiences, that it was something I should bury deep inside of me.

Instead I’ve learned that my sexuality is just another part of me that should be celebrated.

Learning to be me – totally, openly, for the world to see – has been one of the most freeing revelations of my life, and I am thankful for every day I’m able to just be me.

You can find Harrison Wilkerson on Facebook. He is also on Instagram @harrison_wilkerson, on Twitter @HWilkerson22, and is reachable via email at wilkersonharrison@gmail.com.

For more NC State sports news, visit Backing The Pack.