I was running with my high school cross country team in the hills of Jenks, Oklahoma, south of Tulsa, on a warm March day three years ago.

As we started on an easy six-mile run, one of my teammates, a devout Mormon, out of nowhere announced to the group that “gay people do not exist.” He said that everyone is attracted to the opposite sex, and anyone who claims to be gay is just looking for attention.

I felt sick to my stomach. I could not believe that someone could be so ignorant, and that my teammates agreed with him. They just laughed it off and continued to make homophobic comments throughout the run.

This incident summed up the atmosphere on my team, a combination of ignorance and homophobia.

I grew up in a conservative household and a conservative school district where no one was out. Although there wasn’t much representation in the LGBTQ+ community when I was young, for the past two years, my church has marched in the Tulsa gay pride parade in June. Compared to many gay people, I did not have the same bad experiences with my church, for which I am thankful.

My sexuality was something I obsessed about while growing up. On my solo runs, most days I would think about being gay the entirety of the run. I would get angry and run faster and faster. I did not know of anyone in my life who could help me through my struggles as a gay athlete. I was fully closeted throughout all of middle school and high school until my last semester.

I came out to a close and supportive friend halfway through senior year, who encouraged me to tell my parents when I felt ready. When my siblings were out of town, I jam-packed a suitcase full of clothing and necessities for a week. I did this just in case my parents kicked me out after coming out, but they were supportive and understanding of me when I told them my truth.

My high school was of no help in me dealing with being gay. I was in Bible study all through high school that was led by a conservative raised in Alabama. In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court had just legalized gay marriage nationwide. Our entire hour-long Bible study discussed the decision in a homophobic way, opposed to how the court ruled. I cried the whole way home, frustrated that my sexuality was despised by classmates I considered friends.

It was against this backdrop that I enrolled at the University of Arkansas in 2017 and I feared a continuation of my experiences in Oklahoma.

I remember when I decided to come out to my roommate, who was also a teammate on the Arkansas cross country and track teams. I was really nervous because I spent almost all of my time with him, and a bad reaction would have been problematic.

I sat in my chair frozen in my room as I texted him saying that I had to tell him something important. I didn’t want to say anything around some of the other suitemates who we lived with, so I made sure to shut the door and speak quietly.

My stomach churned in nervousness, and I told him I was gay. He told me that it didn’t change anything. He told me that he cared for me, and he would support me. His encouraging words gave me the courage to tell the rest of my team in small groups during the subsequent days.

In early January, I went over to a friend’s house for a movie night to watch “Marley & Me.” Many of my teammates were there socializing. At the end of the movie, I just blurted out “I’m gay,” with no context. They said things like “that was so random,” “no way,” “it doesn’t change anything to us,” “you are still the same person to us”, “wow!,” and “we love you man.”

Throughout my freshman year, I hit personal record after personal record, and I was All-SEC and named SEC Freshman Cross Country Runner of the Year.

Throughout my freshman year, I hit personal record after personal record, and I was All-SEC and named SEC Freshman Cross Country Runner of the Year. In the midst of coming out to more and more people, I became even more successful in indoor (unattached races) and outdoor track. I am lucky to be part of a program at Arkansas that develops athletes from being good to great.

I am lucky to have friends who love and support me both in Tulsa and Fayetteville. My family, college friends and high school friends love me for who I am. Before coming out publicly, I came out to some of my friends, and it did not change anything.

Even in the Bible Belt, there are people who love and support the LGBTQ+ community. I hope to inspire others to be themselves, and I hope closeted athletes feel like they will be respected and thought of as equal when they come out.

To every closeted person reading this, you are beautiful just the way you are. There may be few people that do not support your sexuality, but there is a world of loving and accepting people out there. Do not be afraid to be yourself even if you are different.

Matt Young, 20, is a sophomore at the University of Arkansas, where he majors in Business and is a member of the track and cross country teams. He can be reached at [email protected], Instagram: @matt__young, Twitter @matt_young25

Story editor: Jim Buzinski