I am quite a late bloomer in rowing. I only started when I was 28. Growing up, I used to play basketball and tennis.

Although I loved both sports, I had to give them up to go to college.

It didn’t take long before I got addicted to the sport. Because we train five five times a week, your fellow rowers quickly become your second family. Training so much and so hard creates a special bond between everybody. ​

Besides being a competitive rower in Belgium, I also coach young rowers. Teaching them to row is the main job, but equally important to me is making sure that they feel at ease and that everybody can be his or her true self.

Because we see each other all the time, I want the club to be a safe place of acceptance and tolerance.

That is why I started a social media campaign — #samesportdifferentsexuality — to call out homophobia in sports and encourage tolerance and acceptance.

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Today we are launching the first part of our campaign “same sport, different sexuality”, to raise awareness about homophobia in sports, which unfortunately is still a taboo. Playing sports should be about having fun and improving your mental and physical health. It’s about escaping the daily stress of school or work. You should not have to worry about your sexual orientation whilst playing the sport you love. This is why we reach out to you! To all straight people playing sports: take a picture with your LGBTQ- teammate to show them your love and acceptance, and post it using our hashtag #samesportdifferentsexuality. We will be collecting all pics on our social media pages. No one should have to hide their sexuality out of fear for their teammates’ reactions. No one should have to be afraid to even start playing sports for this reason. Sport is for everyone so let’s create a place of acceptance. Big thanks to my fellow rowers @claeys_ruben, @nielsraoulboone and @henri__st . Straight guys who truly don’t have a problem with me being gay and accept everyone for who he or she is. Big thanks to our amazing photographer @louiskerckhof and his assistant @nanoialoha , for the great pictures. Big thanks to our MUA @suki_mg_ , a real upcoming talent. Couldn’t have done it without you guys. #same #sport #different #sexuality #sports #straightguy #gay #lgbtq #awereness #instaguy #campaign #taboo #equality #sportlife #love #homophobia #rowing #roeien #sexualorientation @hoscos

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I came out as gay when I was 23, after five years of hiding it. Looking back I wish I didn’t wait this long and I certainly don’t wish the stress I felt upon anyone else. By launching #samesportdifferentsexuality I hope some people will find the support they need and can stop hiding who they really are. ​

I’m convinced that both straight and queer athletes have to work together. ​

It was very important to me to include straight athletes in this project. If you are looking for acceptance in sports, I’m convinced that both straight and queer athletes have to work together. ​

With the reach of social media, taking a picture with my fellow rowers can have a positive impact on closeted athletes.

I remember being nervous the day before the launch. I was telling a friend I hoped I could reach a few hundred people. It turned out I didn’t need to worry. The campaign became national news here in Belgium. The big newspapers and radio stations called me non-stop and we were even asked to do a TV talk show that night.

After a few days, more than 200,000 people had seen our pictures. I can’t explain how grateful I am for all the support. A huge thank you to Outsports for helping me to share this message in other countries. ​

Simon Haerinck, second from right, with his rowing teammates.

I received hundreds of messages. It took me a while to read them all. A few of them really touched me.

After the launch of our campaign, a 21-year-old closeted volleyball player, Eduard from Belgium. send me a message that he has always been afraid of his coach, who he thought was homophobic.

Eduard never had the courage to come out to his team. I really connected with him and I told him about the idea behind the campaign.

Inspired by our talk, he told his coach the next day that he was gay. Although he was super nervous and afraid, he told me, he found the courage to do so. The outcome was very positive for him. His coach didn’t mind and told him he considered him one of the guys.

Eduard texted me the next day that a huge weight was lifted off his shoulders and that he couldn’t thank me enough. Just for this reason I am happy we did this campaign and hope we can inspire more people.

The attention it got proved to me that a lot of people agree that homophobia in sports is still a big issue. However, I feel we are going in the right direction and received a lot of messages from straight people showing their love and understanding. ​

I still have some other things planned for this campaign, so stay tuned. Let’s keep going.​​

Simon Haerinck, 34, is a rower and rowing coach for the 10 -14 year old at the Royal Rowing Club in Ghent Belgium. He also manages a sport hotel in Ghent. Sport is a big part of his life so that is why his social media campaign is so important to him. He can be reached by email [email protected] or Instagram (@simonhaerinck)

Story editor: Jim Buzinski

If you are an out LGBTQ person in sports and want to tell your story, email Jim ([email protected])