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Horror of Pulse nightclub shooting moved swimmer to come out openly as gay

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Matthew Garza of Johns Hopkins wanted to live an authentic life.

Matthew Garza swims for Johns Hopkins
Emily Cheng

I’ve been swimming for 10 years, which just happens to be exactly half of my life.

I always felt as though my sexuality and my life as an athlete couldn’t coexist. Being from Texas, I absolutely felt as though my coming out would create hardships for me on my high school swim team and on my club team.

I had teammates on my club team who would say things that made me uncomfortable or made me feel as though I wouldn’t be accepted by them if I were to come out. Although I chose to come out to some of my closest friends and family, I made sure to keep my sexuality as far away from my swimming career as possible.

On June 12, 2016, Pulse Nightclub in Orlando was attacked in a mass shooting and 49 of my LGBTQ+ brothers, sisters and allies were killed. I remember vividly waking up that morning to the news of the attack and crying all morning.

I decided in that moment, that by living my truth and by being visible, I could help show my support to anyone who felt alone, as I had felt for so long. That morning I decided to come out by tweeting:

“I am gay. I will not be silenced. Our community must stand strong & united. Don’t be afraid. Don’t hide. You are loved.”

While I’m sure my coming out came as no surprise to anyone who had met me and my rather loud personality, I was overwhelmed by the responses from friends, teammates and family, which were filled with love and acceptance.

One of the most surprising reactions I got was from my club coach at the time. I had always known him as being a very conservative man, someone who I assumed wouldn’t be accepting if I were to come out.

The day after I came out on Twitter, he stopped me after practice while we were lifting in the weight room. He told me that someone had shown him my coming out post. I was terrified at first and I immediately feared the worst: that I was going to get kicked off the team.

To my surprise, all he wanted was to express his support. He told me how proud he was of me, how my being gay didn’t change a single thing, and how his biggest concern was my safety.

At the time, I was already committed to swimming at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and he encouraged me to live my truth and really enjoy myself on the East Coast, which he reminded me was going to be very different from Texas. I was so stunned and relieved by his reaction and it was great knowing my relationship with my coach of almost six years was unchanged by my coming out.

Matthew Garza swims the butterfly.
Emily Cheng

Even with all the positive reactions I got from everyone at home I couldn’t have been prepared for how much love and support I would receive on my new team at Hopkins. By coming out the summer before I started college, I was going to be coming onto a very close-knit team already living my truth. I was nervous, but I had absolutely no reason to be.

For example, that summer I spent a lot of time worried that my soon-to-be roommate and teammate was going to be uncomfortable living with someone who was gay. But just a few days after coming out, he sent me a loving and encouraging message that erased any worry I had, and which made it clear I was about to become part of an extremely accepting family.

My team has gone above and beyond to become allies and learn how to deal with my eccentric personality. My straight roommates have hung up pride flags in our room. I’ve had teammates help me look for love on dating apps and offer to come with me to my very first pride parades this year in DC and Baltimore.

And the experiences I’ve went through by being closeted, coming out and being able to live as an unapologetic out athlete, has made me empathetic to other people who are going through similar things.

I’m so glad that my being visible can help others realize how accepting our team at Hopkins is. It has also helped me grow to realize that being gay is as much a part of me as any of my other identities, and that I want to be an agent of change in our community.

After my first semester at Hopkins, I decided to minor in Women, Gender, and Sexuality and I got involved with a research lab that studies surgical outcomes of, and improvements for, gender-confirming surgeries for transgender patients. When I’m not in the pool or studying in our special “swimmer’s section” of the library, I am doing my best to educate myself and find ways to be an active member of our community.

When I told my coach at Hopkins I was going to do a story with Outsports, he was completely supportive. He said that it sounded like a great way to get my voice heard and that it could serve as a way for others to learn through my experiences.

And that’s really what I want to do. I want to show other athletes that your sexuality and your identity as an athlete do not have to exist in separate spheres but that they can exist together.

I want to show others that their voices can be heard and hopefully my story can inspire a 12-year-old swimmer in Texas who is struggling like I once was. I want to show him that he shouldn’t be afraid to be gay and an athlete and that whatever hardships he might be going through now, it will absolutely get better.

Matthew Garza, 20, is in the class of 2020 at The Johns Hopkins University where he is majoring in Biomedical Engineering and minoring in Women, Gender, and Sexuality. He is a butterflyer on the varsity men’s swim team. He can be reached at matthewgarza98@gmail.com and on Twitter and Instagram: @mattgarza98

Story editor: Jim Buzinski