Throughout the ups and downs of my life, I had become a master at putting on a mask.

Reputation was everything to me, and I was mortified to do anything to hurt that in any way. That’s why for years, I hid my identity, afraid that my family and friends would turn their back on me if they learned the truth about who I was.

As a middle school student growing up in the small, conservative town of Templeton in Central California, I had quickly picked up on the fact that it was quite an insult to call somebody gay.

My peers were telling me it was wrong, my church was preaching that it was a sin, and members of my own family would recite verses in the Bible that I thought at the time explicitly stated that there was no room for being gay in Christianity.

I could never imagine having the word gay be a part of my identity. It was demonized before I even knew what it meant, so I quickly suppressed feelings that the world was seemingly telling me were wrong.

To cope with these feelings of insecurity, I channeled my efforts into something else I could define myself by: tennis.

Tennis was where I could escape and put all of my worries behind me.

Tennis was where I could escape and put all of my worries behind me, at least, temporarily. It was a sport where I could be independent and take on all of the responsibility.

With dedication and a love for the sport, the accolades came. But all of it felt shallow receiving them in a persona I had felt a need to put on. But tennis quickly became an outlet that I relied on to cope with more than my sexuality.

In October 2016, I got a call that I had never in my worst nightmare expected to get: my dad had been killed in a car accident by a drunk driver.

Grief filled me as I wondered how I could ever go on without him. Soon after, I began to regret not telling him who I truly was, resulting in me suppressing my feelings even further.

Colby Grey was his county’s player of the year in 2017.

Flash forward to my senior year of high school: I began to realize through sharing the story of losing my dad that my story could help others. I also began to come to terms with the fact that I could no longer keep this part of me that felt so genuine in the dark.

But before I could even fathom telling anyone about this other side of me, I had to reconcile my truth with my faith. Over the years, I had strayed from my faith because of my sexuality.

I knew that if I were to accept this part of me that felt scary to tell the world, I had to know that the words gay and Christian were not mutually exclusive. I began to read books, research and study the topic as much as I could.

God’s love was not intended for a certain group of people, but for everyone.

I quickly began to realize that, interpretation of Bible scripture aside, God’s love was not intended for a certain group of people, but for everyone. Hiding this part of me had, in fact, been holding me back from my faith all along.

I first told leaders at a few different churches I had attended over the years. It was not the response I had hoped for, but the one I feared. Some were moderate in their views, telling me that although it was wrong, they still loved me. Others told me I should seek therapy or face the ultimate consequence.

But even with the non-support from religious leaders, I quickly found something I truly believe was a sign from God. I had multiple friends come out to me within the span of a few months and shared the struggle of feeling uncomfortable with who they were.

I knew at this point that I could let my guard down and begin to tell my friends. The response I got empowered me to embrace this part of me I had neglected for years. Then came my coaches and my mom, who supported me fully.

At that point, I knew that I wanted to share my story, but I quickly worried what the consequences were of me coming out. Would I lose offers from Christian schools that did not accept LGBT students? Would my guy friends look at me differently? Would my reputation change as student body president?

On March 15 of this year, I came out in an Instagram post that turned out to be the greatest decision I have ever made.

People reached out to me to voice their support and my fears were drowned out by the love and acceptance I received.

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When I was young, I never knew there could be a wrong way to love. That’s why when at 9 years old I had my first crush, I never thought twice about the fact that it could be wrong in any way. Little did I know, I would soon be told that it was nothing but sinful and unnatural; because of the fact that I was only attracted to guys. Pastors told me that it was a straight ticket to hell, desperately trying to convert me. This was all while I suppressed my feelings, hoping to rid them. 9 years later, lying to hide myself has been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. But I cannot hide any longer, because nothing has changed since the day I was 9 years old. Love is not wrong, it is innate, and it wins. Every single time. And it took me years to come to terms with that. This was not easy, and I know the people who will not support it. But if this makes it easier for anyone in my shoes, it was worth it. #lovewins

A post shared by Colby Grey (@colby_grey) on

While I cannot say that my journey has been all positive — extended family members have expressed their disappointment and church leaders have tried to “change” me — what made it all worth it is the people who shared similar stories of coming out to me.

The positives that have come from speaking my truth have drowned out any negatives. I am now playing tennis for the University of California Santa Cruz, an LGBT-affirming school, and my relationships with my friends and family grew stronger.

Who knew that something that my middle school self masked could be one of the greatest gifts I have ever received?

Colby Grey, 18, is a freshman at the University of California Santa Cruz and is on the tennis team. He was captain of the varsity tennis team at Templeton High School in California, the student body president of his high school, and county player of the year in 2017. He can be reached through Instagram (colby_grey) or through email at [email protected]

Story editor: Jim Buzinski

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