The first time that I came out to anyone was to a close friend over the phone the beginning of my junior year in high school.

I was standing alone in my attic, uncontrollably crying and trying to hold back my tears so my family would not hear me from downstairs. I was too ashamed and too scared to even say the word on my own, for the fear that once I said it, there was no going back. So my friend had to pry it out of me and say it for me after asking a series of questions.

He asked, “Are you gay?”

I said yes.

Now, it felt permanent. One person knew. While it did not feel too meaningful at the time, this was a step forward. Unwillingly, with much fear and shame, each day I took strides to be my authentic self, while I was still searching for who I was. It was not just a process of coming out. I wanted to learn to be happy again and to love myself.

There were a number of reasons why it was difficult for me to accept my sexuality. I had been socialized to believe that being gay was wrong and made people weak. I was often exposed to these ideas in athletics. As sports have been a huge part of my life, it has been a challenge over the years to understand myself and feel comfortable in this environment.

However, I have had many great experiences as a gay athlete in sports, particularly in college. I just finished my third season with the Vassar College varsity men’s tennis team. As I look forward to getting back on the court with the team for my final season as a Brewer, there are many bittersweet memories from my first three years on the team.

This is the first athletics team I have been a part of in which all of the coaches and players know that I am gay. Although I have been the only out LGBTQ+ individual on the team these past three years, my teammates have embraced me with love, compassion and support.

There is a genuine interest among all of them to learn how to be a better ally. Additionally, they are eager to know about my relationships and are there for me during difficult times — whether it be a tough break up that I had or helping me deal with the homophobia that I still experience.

Each year for spring break in mid-March, we go to Los Angeles for a week to play. During this trip my sophomore year, a player on an opposing team called my teammate a faggot for wearing pink socks. I was on a different court at the time and did not learn about the incident until after the match.

When my coach learned about what had happened, he confronted the coach of the other team, addressing how that behavior was unacceptable.

For our trip this spring, one of our matches was against that same team. I realized a few days before the match that I had two rainbow pride bracelets in my bag. I asked my teammates if they wanted to wear one. Immediately, a number of them asked for a bracelet. I gave them to the two people who had responded first — David Gandham (Class of 2021) and Jeremy Auh (2020). Each would wear it with much pride for the rest of the week.

Beyond sending a powerful message to the teams that we played against of solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community, this gesture from my teammates reinforced their support for me as a gay athlete. They took the bracelets from me without hesitation. Jeremy would go on to wear the bracelet for the rest of the season, without taking it off once.

David would have done the same, but he accidentally lost it. I think he was afraid to tell me at first. Another teammate recently told me that he had seen David online looking for a replacement bracelet before I knew he lost the original, with the hope that I would not recognize the difference. I doubt he would have been able to pull off the scheme, but I still appreciated the thought and the effort.

Ultimately, what was an upsetting moment last year — hearing that a homophobic slur was said to a teammate — led to wonderful, empowering and funny experiences this year with my team.

The number of great moments on and off the court that I have shared with the guys are endless. I will carry many of them with me for the rest of my life. I will always yearn for the feeling when, whether playing a match or watching the team, we yell down each of the courts to each other in support, with an invigorating energy that no other team can match. We aren’t doing it to impress anyone. We do it because, at the end of the day, despite the wins and the losses, we love each other and want to see each of us and the team succeed.

Being gay no longer has to remain in the shadows as I play a sport that I cherish.

Playing with this group feels different from all of the sports I have played in the past. I will hear my name shouted and my nickname “Lick Nee” tossed around, as I am told to “Get some licks in.” I am encouraged to fight to the bitter end of the match as I am no longer hiding anything. Being gay no longer has to remain in the shadows as I play a sport that I cherish.

This is what sports environments should strive to be — places of inclusion in which everyone has the opportunity to participate, without fear of being who they are. My experience as an LGBTQ+ person in athletics should not be a privilege any longer, it should be a norm.

Ultimately, my time on this team has been something truly special. Call it camaraderie or call it brotherhood. But just like love, it is limitless and needs no label.

Nicholas Lee, 21, is a rising senior at Vassar College where he is majoring in Psychology and Hispanic Studies as a member of the men’s tennis team. He can be reached by email at [email protected], on Facebook as Nicholas Lee, or on Instagram @nicklee.aka.licknee.