I remember thinking at last year’s Big Ten Outdoor Track and Field Championships that, if I could win another Big Ten Conference title, I would come out to my family.
Without even realizing it, I had made my coming out decision reliant on my athletic performance. My public identity as a gay man was dependent on my identity as a successful athlete. Only behind the cover of athletic success, I felt, would I have the confidence to share my sexual orientation with those closest to me.
Fearful of being identified only by my homosexuality, I needed something to counter my “gayness.” There was no better “cover” than success in the jock world of masculine, athletic men.
Last spring, I did not win another Big Ten Conference title. I placed third in the 1500-meter run.
I look back at the picture of me standing on the podium, faking a smile, no teeth. The dissatisfaction is obvious to everyone who sees the picture, but only I understand the complete disappointment underlying my third-place finish. Not only did I not repeat my championship performance from the indoor conference meet, but I felt I hadn’t earned the right to share with people my true self. I had failed.
Thankfully, that attitude is now behind me. Now I can share a different message with the world. In the last year, I’ve found that my social acceptance – and also my self-acceptance – are not dependent on me beating other jocks on the track (though, I still do that too).
A few days after the championships, I told my sister, Taylor – also a member of the Minnesota track and field team – that I was in a relationship with my boyfriend, Brad. Then, about one week later I told my mom, and another couple weeks later told my dad.
Instead of a big “coming out” announcement to them, I simply talked about my new boyfriend. They got the picture.
To this day, I still do not feel as if I have ever “come out.” Instead, I have had the privilege to live my life the way I imagine any straight person lives theirs.
Most of my teammates don’t announce their relationships to the team. Why should I have to announce mine to them? Through social media and everyday conversation, we as teammates share our lives with each other in a way that is natural and comfortable. Most of my teammates now know that I have been in a relationship for almost a year.
They know I’m gay, even though I’ve never said those words to them.
I don’t think of myself as another gay athlete who felt empowered to come out because of the “safety net” that athletic success had brought. Actually, quite the opposite. During, before and after a race I feel quite anxious, but I know I can always lean on my teammates and family. The same is true for any anxiety that I may be feeling outside of athletics – I know I could depend on the support of those people – in both achievement and in failure.
I don’t want to paint an exaggerated picture about my life becoming so much better after accepting myself for who I am, or about the support I have received since sharing this part of my life (though, this has been true for me).
Rather, I would like to stress the inverse relationship of what I have described above. Instead of thinking about sharing my gay identity as dependent on my athletic success, I believe that my successful athletic and academic careers have been very dependent on my sexual orientation.
Even if I could be straight, I wouldn’t want to be. Being gay has allowed me to explore more areas of life that I may have never encountered if I were not gay.
For me, being gay describes only my sexual orientation. But so many people force so much more into it. Too many people associate the word “gay” with other attributes, as though everyone who’s gay has to be all of these other things. “Gay” becomes a derogatory word for a man who exhibits characteristics like femininity, regardless of his sexual orientation.
In actuality, many of the negative stereotypes that are placed on gay men are actually quite positive advantages. For example, if people think that I care more about my personal appearance because I am gay, well, perhaps I do. I am very aware of how my body is feeling, which is an unbelievable competitive advantage in sports.
Admittedly, standing at the starting line of any race, I feel quite vulnerable. This vulnerability is inevitable because of the unknowable. Even if I have had the best training in the country, I can’t account for the other athletes toeing the line. I can’t predict the outcome of any race.
Similarly, I couldn’t have anticipated my family’s reactions to my coming out. I’ve been unable to put it into words until now, but I think that both of my parents’ reactions were similar to their reactions after I had won a Big Ten Championship. They recognized a happiness in me that I can imagine every parent wants their child to experience.
When the gun goes off and the race starts, all I can do is give it everything that I’ve got, to race until the very end and know that there is nothing more for me to give. My parents are proud of me whether I win or lose. They love me whether I am gay or straight.
I want people to never forget that they can always be whoever they are, whether they make some big announcement about it or not.
Derek Wiebke, 23, is a senior at the University of Minnesota where he is a member and captain of the Gopher’s track and field team. You can find him on Instagram, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.