When I stepped foot in Norman, Oklahoma, in January 2018 I was ready for a new chapter. I had just accepted the job as assistant volleyball coach at the University of Oklahoma.
I will never forget my first few days on campus going through orientation and meeting everyone. I walked into the office of one our compliance directors. He had an “LGBTQ ally” sticker on the door to his office.
He made a point to ask me about myself and my husband before we started in on the business part of things. It was a small act of kindness. But it meant the world to me. I was welcomed and I felt at home.
My life wasn’t always as much of an open book.
I first came out to my family and friends during my freshman year in college at the University of Wisconsin. Both my mom and dad’s first words were, “Are you happy? That’s all that matters.” I think those are the words every person going through this process hopes to hear. I know, sadly, that isn’t the case for all.
I am so blessed to have a supportive family and group of people around me. I am a firm believer that coming out is not just an event, but a journey.
My struggle with this process was not so much with my loved ones but with myself in my professional life. I had it in my mind that if I was openly gay I would never get to where I wanted to be in the coaching world.
I was a head coach at a high school at 20. I had just come out, but was very guarded with my personal life. This was my first big coaching gig and I couldn’t screw it up. As I was getting into collegiate coaching at 22, I told myself that my work would always come first.
All that changed over time. At the start, I did my utmost to keep my work and personal lives separate. I would clock out at work and go do my own thing with my significant other. There would be no mixing of the two.
I started to realize that I wasn’t being my true self in my relationships at work because I was hiding a huge piece of who I was. I was being unfair to my significant other by boxing him into a certain part of my life. I also felt that I was being unfair to the athletes I was coaching.
As their coach, I felt an obligation to be an extension of their family while they are away from home. If I was withholding my true self from them, why should I have expected them to be themselves with me? In retrospect, that will always be a regret of mine from the early stages of my coaching career.
I am a gay man. I just couldn’t get myself to share it. When I finally started being open about my personal life with my work family, I felt a huge weight lifted. I also felt an outpouring of love.
I have had the pleasure of working with some wonderful people at the University of Wisconsin, Missouri State University and, now, at the University of Oklahoma.
As I slowly migrated south from a very liberal Madison, many of my friends from back home in Wisconsin would ask me how it was being in this area of the country. They would ask things like, “Why would you move there?” or “How’s Missouri?” with that inflection on Missouri, accompanied by a sort of uncomfortable laugh.
I had the same response at every stop: ‘I love it. The people that I work with are amazing, very passionate about what they do and genuinely kind.” That wasn’t just lip service.
While at Missouri State, my student-athletes and head coach helped in filming a video for a marriage proposal that my future husband surprised me with. There is prejudice and inequality everywhere you go. However, there are also accepting, loving people in every corner.
I have found that my professional connections have grown vastly in a deeper way just from being me. I met my husband, Hunter Bishop, in 2015. As we looked to make this move to Oklahoma, it was important to me that I was at a place that we could feel a part of the community and athletics family.
We have found that, tenfold in Norman. I love my job, my team and the people I work and interact with on a daily basis. Hunter is the head coach at an area high school and has started his own volleyball club. I have also had the chance to network with some great groups of people (and lifelong friends) through the Equality Coaching Alliance and the North American Gay Volleyball Association.
I know young coaches out there have questions. “How will the hiring process go with a school if I am openly gay?” or “How will being gay affect my ability to help recruit student-athletes to my school?” For me, those have all been non-factors.
I always told myself that if there were any red flags with a school in the hiring process, it probably wasn’t a place I wanted to be. I am forever grateful for the amazing bosses and mentors that I have had in Lindsey Walton (Oklahoma), Melissa Stokes (Missouri State) and Kelly Sheffield (Wisconsin). Each created an environment for me to be me and gave me the opportunity to grow as a person and a coach. Find yourself a boss that does that.
Here is my final bit advice to those venturing out of college and into the working world: Be yourself. It sounds simple, right? It is scary.
It won’t always be easy or great. But I can guarantee it will be worth it in the long run. Your relationships will be more meaningful, but, more importantly, you will be a happier you.
Jake Barreau, 29, is assistant women’s volleyball coach and recruiting coordinator at the University of Oklahoma. A 2013 graduate of the University of Wisconsin, he majored in Marketing and Spanish and was a member of the men’s club volleyball team. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter and Instagram.
Hunter Bishop can be reached on Instagram.
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).