As I was writing this story, I knew that I had to get some photos of me playing football and ask my teammates if any of them would be in a picture with me.
I put off asking for days. Though I am on the team, it’s still a bit awkward when you are a 15-year-old gay guy.
I don’t really hang out with guy friends. There is absolutely a “gay by association” phobia in high school and it’s a big unspoken thing. I get it and understand that with maturity comes the realization that gay isn’t contagious.
I figured that just sending a text in our team group chat would be the best way to ask. I had never had an actual verbal conversation with any of my teammates about me being gay.
I was apprehensive and hoped a couple of them wouldn’t mind.
But one by one my teammates said yes.
Soon it was the whole team and I felt all the fear and anxiety I dealt with in the last year melt away. It was worth it to get to this point with my teammates that I was just one of the guys. I am not the gay guy — I’m just a football player.
Their embrace of me was something I never expected after a year of anxiety and struggle of coming to terms with being gay.
Every year since first grade I wanted to quit football by the last two weeks of the season. Last year as a freshman in high school, exactly two weeks before the season ended, I was faced with the reality that football might be quitting me.
I was a freshman high school football player in the closet at Metea Valley High School in Aurora, Illinois, and learned that someone was going to out me. I started hearing that people outside of the team heard I was gay. It was someone I had trusted with the information that I was gay and knew I was not out. I had obviously trusted the wrong person.
I knew that regardless of whether or not I was ready, I was either going to have to come out or lie to people and say I was straight. I was terrified someone was going to come up to me and ask the question. My friends were being asked, but no one had the guts to ask me yet.
Ironically, that coming Thursday was Oct. 11, 2018 — National Coming Out Day. On that day, at 8:18 pm, I texted my mom and my sisters with a screenshot of a National Coming Out Day picture.
My sisters thought I was joking at first, but then they said, “Did you tell mom?” I said yes, but she hadn’t seen it yet. I was so anxious hitting send I forgot that she was at a movie with friends.
When she saw it, she came home right away and all went well. We told my dad that night and he gave me a hug and said he loved me. But my worries weren’t over despite having the support of my parents and sisters.
The rumors at school settled down for a few days but started again the next week and I decided to attack it head on. Two weeks after I came out to my parents, right after my football season had ended, I went on Snapchat and posted the gay flag emoji on my story.
I admit that’s kind of cryptic, but I wanted it to be kind of funny in a way. I then said, “If you don’t get it, I’m gay.”
A ton of people were supportive, even people I thought would not be. It was very heart-warming, and yet in a strange way anticlimactic. I had prepared myself for this horrible thing and it just wasn’t.
Victim of slurs
Things changed after the first month and it wasn’t good. I was blindsided when some kid who I really didn’t know in my last period class kept using LGBTQ slurs while knowing I was gay.
I asked him to stop saying them and he refused and it continued for days. I got pretty mad and I pushed him while we were in class. Not a good idea, but he didn’t seem to care because he didn’t let up.
I heard that word — “faggot” — directed at me more times in those several days than I have heard it in my whole life. I then made another bad decision and bumped into him pretty forcefully in the halls, and he yelled something very vulgar towards me.
Things then escalated and he started screaming at me at lunch. The incident was handled by the school, but really didn’t feel resolved.
In order for me to not get suspended I had to have a conflict resolution meeting with him. The dean spoke to us and we both had to apologize to each other and they talked about how what we both did was wrong. Neither of us wanted to apologize and it was forced. The kid didn’t have an epiphany and suddenly respect me as an LGBTQ person, and I wasn’t sorry I stood up for myself.
After that, I just wanted to keep to myself. It really broke me down.
When it happened again, I thought for sure I couldn’t go back to football. This time it was his friend calling me a faggot. He was less obvious and a little smarter about not getting caught and I was less obvious about making sure he knew I would stand up for myself. But behind all that willingness to fight, I had no confidence. I could barely make it through the school day because I was so anxious waiting to be blindsided again.
I didn’t know how to handle being outed, how to handle coming out to my family or people at my school, and I definitely didn’t know how to handle gay bashing. I’m sure no one ever is ready for that betrayal. I was 14, and had no intention of being out in high school. I was mad at everyone including myself.
There wasn’t a reason I needed to be out so early; it just happened. I think if I had the time to process things, I would have been a lot more accepting of myself and maybe handled it differently. I realized pretty quickly I couldn’t worry about what I couldn’t change.
I needed to focus on what I wanted my life to be like in high school and after. Football was one of those things.
Deciding not to quit
Football and I have always had a love-hate relationship and dealing with my sexuality only made it harder. On the field I’m a lineman and take my fair share of beatings. I had thought so many times about quitting my freshman year because I thought for sure I wouldn’t be welcome if my teammates knew.
The thing that brought me back to wanting to play was Outsports. All the stories of people coming out and playing sports, and still being supported and seeing it over and over again really changed my mindset. It made me think about how sexuality and sports have no correlation.
I realized that if I quit, I was holding myself back. I was saying it was OK to drive someone from a sport because they are gay.
You can’t hold yourself back from doing something you enjoy just because of what people think. Even if some have a problem with it, you have to show them that you’re willing to risk it for the sport.
When football camp started this summer, I thought that it was going to be awkward and no one was going to talk to me.
I was going to walk into a room full of 60 football players who I had not really spoken to since I was out. I was fearing the “gay by association” that is a living breathing thing for teens, especially guys.
But when I walked in, the guys who I had hung around with before acted just the same as they used to. I can’t even explain the relief I felt. The harder I worked the more respected and appreciated I felt.
This past year I have been referencing time as before coming out or after coming out. But in the past month I’ve been calling it before starting to write my Outsports coming out story and after starting to write my story.
A newfound bond
I recently was sick the day before a game this season and people were asking why I wasn’t at practice and telling me they needed me at the game. I don’t think I can even explain what that meant to me to read those texts and realize this would be OK.
It sure made it a lot easier to take pictures for this article a few days later knowing they really did want me on the team and it wasn’t just them doing what they thought was the right thing.
Since those pictures were taken in September, even more has changed for the good.
As a lineman for 10 years, I can probably count on one hand the number of times I have had a ball that is in play in my hands during a game. But this season I have recovered opponents’ fumbles twice while I was playing defense. One came before my teammates knew about this article and one after. The one after was so much better.
My teammates all jumped on me as I got up and held up the ball. It made me realize I needed to continue to lead through this whole process of coming out. It also helped me see how much I was holding back, limiting what I thought I could do or who I could be friends with and that every day I needed to continue to take a chance on myself.
Now, for the first time, as I get near the end of the season, I have no intention of quitting.
I feel like my teammates are no longer afraid to say or do the wrong thing around me. Asking for their help in taking that simple picture and all of them standing in to support me was a game changer.
Coming out wasn’t just a text to my family or a post on Snapchat. It’s a process of getting to a point where you feel your sexuality doesn’t get in your way of being happy and the person you want to be.
The acceptance of my teammates and coaches has really pushed me to try harder and do better. I feel more confident than I ever have. I am proud to say I am gay.
I hope from telling my story I can push people to be more open minded about LGBTQ people in sports. One of the main reasons I am playing football is to fuel the change and show people to not let their sexuality define them.
While it may be difficult, you’ll regret not taking a chance on yourself. Also know that your story won’t just end after you come out and that you have so much you can do and change. Who knows, there might be another 14-year-old kid out there who needs to see you living your best life.
Jake Streder, 15, is a sophomore at Metea Valley High School in Aurora, Illinois, and an offensive and defensive lineman on his high school football team. He plans to attend college in 2022. He can be reached via Instagram (@Jake_streder) and email (Jakestreder@gmail.com)
Story editor: Jim Buzinski
If you are an out LGBTQ person in sports and want to tell your story, email Jim (firstname.lastname@example.org).