Near the end of the summer before my sophomore year of college, I was working 40 hours a week and cross training nearly 13. However, a more daunting task lay before me: to craft my email for our summer email chain.
Every year, each member of the Middlebury College cross country team, including freshmen, introduces themselves on this email chain. While the basics, like hometown and major, are included, a funny story from the summer and YouTube video must also be carefully crafted and chosen to complement it.
At the end of mine, I put in a sentence about me having a boyfriend and sent it to all 24 of my teammates simultaneously. While it seems innocuous, and I myself had only figured out I was gay maybe six months earlier, this was my long overdue coming out to my team.
Regardless of your actual sexuality, being a scrawny runner who runs in short shorts usually subjects you to homophobic taunts from high school boys performing their adorable masculinity. I had grown up in the rural and conservative town of Turner, Maine. There were few out gay boys at my school, and, while I had considered that I may be bisexual, there was little impetus for me to explore my sexuality any further.
Separately, I had always thought of running as an individualistic sport in high school. By my senior year, I was minutes faster than the next runner on my team, did workouts alone, and raced for myself.
But, at Middlebury, this was not how cross country was done.
Our coach emphasizes that when we race, we race for our teammates and our school, not for ourselves. I got along well with everyone on the team, but that team mentality escaped me that first year.
In the January term my freshman year, I realized that it was likely I didn’t like women. I downloaded Grindr, which allowed me to remain anonymous while exploring the possibility that I was gay.
I started talking to a guy who went to a school a little more than an hour from Middlebury, and we were soon talking almost non-stop. We started texting, then going on dates, and, after a month of this, I asked him to be my boyfriend.
After the first date, I told Mackenzie, my best friend since childhood, about the budding relationship. We talked for more than an hour the day after the date, and she was incredibly supportive but also unsurprised that I was gay. It turns out that not many straight boys know all the words to “Fabulous” from “High School Musical 2.”
I continued to tell family and friends one by one. Some of these talks ended up with tears on my end, all of them ended with feelings of relief or happiness or some weird combination of the two. However, the school year ended, and, after nearly three months of the relationship, I still had not come out to my teammates.
A month and a half before the email, I told a teammate while we were on a run. The topic of women likely came up, which elicited a “Well, umm, about that …” from me. We talked about it, he asked me about my boyfriend, we joked around a bit, and then continued to talk about whatever came to mind — like any other run.
I knew that I was not worried how the team would react; I just couldn’t figure out a way to tell everyone that didn’t involve me making some grandiose announcement in our locker room, the conspicuous nature of which made me cringe. I chose the email because it seemed to avoid exactly that.
Within an hour of sending it, a senior captain and another senior had messaged me saying something along the lines of “That was a great email.” It was comforting to know that they were there for me.
Soon after I sent the email was pre-preseason, when we rent a house as a team for a few days to run and hang out. At pre-preseason, a freshman asked me about my boyfriend while the team was lounging about after a run. He was curious about his affiliation with the Army, which I mentioned in the email.
No hush fell on the team, no one turned and stared at him for asking such a question, no one gasped. The world kept turning.
In fact, there was nothing but genuine curiosity and the interaction was so normal, I was taken aback.
It was then that I realized my relationships would be treated like anyone else’s relationship, and, even for a freshman who had known me a day or two, the subject was one he was comfortable approaching me about. Any ounce of apprehension I may have had was gone after that.
Once I was out to the team, running with them was much easier as well as just being around them. I was finally fully myself, and I felt much more a part of the team than I had the previous year. The timid freshman who had sat in the corner on his phone during parties became the sophomore dancing with the senior girls with a purple boa wrapped around his neck.
Since then, I’ve been on two teams that have made the NCAA Division III Cross Country Championships. This year, I was first-team all-NESCAC in cross country and all-New England in cross country and indoor track. I have also set personal bests in every event I’ve run in for both track and cross country.
Even though I say in hindsight that I was confident how my team would react, coming out was nerve-racking and scary almost every time. It got easier, and I was extremely lucky to have such an incredible set of friends to support me, but the doubt always remained.
However, I never once felt like I had to come out, and, while I may have taken my time in doing so, I wanted my family, friends, and team to know. Even just after telling a few friends, I realized that to be out to those you care about was incredibly freeing.
I am incredibly proud to be gay and would not change for the world. I truly feel at home in the gay community and have met so many incredible people since coming out.
While my story may not be one of hardship, I hope it still shows what is out there that you may not be able to imagine as a teenager in a small town.
Harrison Knowlton, 20, is a current junior at Middlebury College in Vermont where he is a neuroscience major on the pre-medical track. He is a member of the cross country and track teams. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @runnerboy97 on Instagram.