In April 2018, my boyfriend, Evan, and I set out to purchase boutonnieres for our first prom together.
As he drove us down the winding roads of our small Tennessee town, Morristown, my mind was swimming with questions about the upcoming night: How will people react to us being the first gay couple at our prom? Would we be better off not going? Will we be safe?
When we finally arrived at a local store, The Blossom Shop, my questions were answered by the lady working the counter when she asked, “What color will your dates be wearing?”
We hesitantly answered that we were each other’s dates. A moment of lingering suspense filled the room before she exclaimed with a smile, “Great! How can I help you?”
The following day, I received a text message from a local photographer who witnessed the exchange. He introduced himself as Eric McKinley and expressed his gratitude about our courage. He explained that he was a part of the LGBTQ+ community and that he wished he would have exhibited the same courage in high school. He offered to take our prom photos for free.
We found ourselves getting the pictures taken less than a week later by Eric in the quaint downtown of Morristown. I vividly remember the confused looks bystanders gave as we posed as a couple. Despite the unspoken disapproval of passing strangers, the reassuring presence of Evan gave me the confidence I needed to stand strong.
We were both on the speech and debate team at our high school and had a debate tournament that happened to fall on the same weekend as the school’s prom. Our coach, Suzanne Terry, told us we could have our own prom with the debate team. We decided that we would attend the tournament of champions and go to our team prom. The team was very supportive of Evan and I going together. Thankfully, this year Evan will be flying down on April 27 to attend the Morristown West High School senior prom with me.
I met Evan McKenna in the summer of 2015 while stretching before my first high school cross country practice. As an incoming freshman to the local high school, I was not acquainted with the rest of the team until a tall, clumsy boy stumbled over to me, saying, “Hi, I’m Evan! Want to run with me?”
In that moment, I knew that this was the boy for me.
The next two years consisted of fruitless attempts at capturing his heart, until finally, in the autumn of my junior year of high school, we started dating. Evan expressed to me that for his whole life, he felt like he was hiding his true self from the world, and I could do nothing but relate.
In 2017, the true colors of my hometown were revealed at a county commission meeting where a homophobic hate group proposed a symbolic resolution to ban same-sex marriage in Morristown. This attitude is not uncommon in a town buried in the heart of the Bible Belt where LGBTQ+ teens barely have each other to turn to. We live in a small town where on every street there is a church. I believe young kids in our community learn to hide themselves very well.
At the meeting, teens and many others from extremely diverse backgrounds banded together to fight against the resolution. Evan, the once scared and timid boy, stood proudly in front of hundreds of people and exclaimed, “Growing up gay in Hamblen County, I have become very skilled at hiding, but I am no longer afraid of embracing my identity.”
These words resonated deep within me and many others within the crowd. At that meeting, Evan and I came to the realization that we could become an example for the LGBTQ+ community in Morristown and the surrounding areas.
The commission voted that day not to pass the resolution. Everyone on our side cheered. There were news crews outside waiting to interview the speakers but we were told not to speak to the media. I remember at the end of that long day I headed home with a lot of feelings swirling within me.
A year later, as I drive down winding back roads to The Blossom Shop for my senior prom on April 27, I think back on these events that have shaped who Evan and I are today.
Although we have overcome numerous obstacles, we are faced with a new series of questions: What colors will we wear this year? How will Evan get home from college (he goes to the University of Notre Dame)? Will we still be the cutest couple at prom?
As a young gay athlete, I was lucky to find Evan when I joined my team but know others are not so lucky. Being on a sports team in a small town in the South, I knew that I had to keep my sexuality to myself. I felt trapped and felt like I couldn’t be myself. Evan hid every part of him that could make him seem gay until we came out to each other.
I told him many times throughout high school that I liked him and he responded, “thanks but I’m not gay.” One day after practice, when he was a senior and I was a junior, he asked if I would like to go eat. We met at a local fast food place and started talking.
I told him I liked him and he told me that he felt something for me also. We stayed there about three hours just talking about our lives. We couldn’t believe that we had been on a team together for three years and not realized we were meant to be. I knew that night that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with this amazing boy.
As a youth activist, I plan to continue to fight for LGBTQ youth. I want younger kids to see that we’ve been through that and they can go through it too and hopefully we make it better for them. Running cross country has always been something Evan and I both deeply enjoy, but together we hope to make it easier for younger kids to be themselves and enjoy the sport even more.
Things have changed for the better in our community, but unfortunately we are still fighting to this day, and we will continue to keep fighting for not only ourselves, but the rest of our community. Even though Evan and I live 410 miles apart now, every time he comes home, we make time to run together.
I’ve been blessed with a platform that has allowed me to tell my story. Growing up in Morristown I felt disconnected and alone. I want no other teen to feel that way.
I’ve been given a voice to speak up and to fight for our LGBTQ youth. We are reaching out to the youth in my community to make sure they know they are not alone. We are working with Trevor Project on a project in order to help LGBTQ+ youth across the nation.
We didn’t plan to become activists but after experiencing how hard it was growing up in the South, we knew that we need to tell our story.
To the teens and countless other people reading this, if you ever need anything please feel free to reach out.
Follow us on our journey as we redefine the South.
Pedro Reyes, 18, will be graduating from Morristown West High school in Tennessee in 2019. He serves as the head captain on the speech and debate team and ran on the cross country team. He will attend the University of Alabama in the fall. He can be reached by email (Pedro.firstname.lastname@example.org), Twitter or Instagram (thepedroreyes).
Evan McKenna, 18, will be graduating from the University of Notre Dame in 2022. He is a pre-med major and plans to attend medical school after. He is also a member of the Notre Dame liturgical choir. He can be reached by Instagram (evanjmckenna)
Pedro’s friends Karcyn Kowalski and Dalton Miksa helped him with the writing of this story.
Story editor: Jim Buzinski
If you are an out LGBTQ person in sports and want to tell your story, email Jim (email@example.com).