Editor’s note: Christian Zeitvogel, a student and college football player at Kalamazoo College in Michigan, gave this speech about being an openly gay athlete in May 2019 at a community LGBTQ event on campus. He wrote his coming out story in 2019 and an article on why he stopped playing football in January 2020.
Hello, good morning, and thank you to everyone in attendance this morning.
My name is Christian Zeitvogel: I am a first-year, I am a college football player and I am a proud gay man.
But, it wasn’t until recently that I gained the courage to say these words as freely as I do today, much less utter them to myself.
I’d like to start off my speech in reading a poem that was dispensed among my teammates by my coaches when I first starting playing high school football.
THE GUY IN THE GLASS
When you get what you want in your struggle for wealth,
And the world makes you king for a day,
Then go to the mirror and look at yourself,
And see what that man has to say.
For it isn’t your father, or mother, or wife,
Whose judgement upon you must pass,
The fella whose verdict counts most in your life,
Is the guy staring back from the glass,
He’s the fella to please, never mind all the rest,
For he’s with you up clear to the end,
And you’ve passed your most dangerous, difficult test,
If the guy in the glass is your friend.
You may march to the beat of your own drum,
And think you’re a wonderful guy,
But the man in the glass says you’re only a bum,
If you can’t look him straight in the eye.
You can fool the whole world down the pathway of years,
And get pats on the back as you pass,
But your final reward will be heartache and tears,
If you’ve cheated that guy in the glass.
—Dale Wimbrow (1895-1954)
Every year, the incoming freshman football players receive the same lecture from the coaches about the culture of the team. It was during this speech from my coach that we received this poem. Surely, we wanted to win games. More importantly, however, our football team had the mission of turning boys into men: How to go beyond this school in being the best husband, father and person one could be.
As I processed this message from my coach, I didn’t realize how much this one poem would resonate with me. For the longest time, I could not look at that man in the mirror. I was incapable of looking myself in the eyes and be able to say, “I love you.” And I could not say these words because of my shame in being gay.
Going through my adolescence with football, I was constantly ensconced by people of overt masculinity: my friends, coaches, teammates, and brothers all forced my assimilation into a heteronormative culture.
One time during my sophomore year, we were conditioning and one of my teammates fell to his knees. My coach snapped at him in saying, “Unless you’re praying, only a woman belongs on her knees.”
In the locker room, my teammates would casually throw around the F-word, joke about separating the “fags” from the rest of society, and use the word “gay” an adjective for anything undesirable.
Hearing these messages during the critical time of my life in realizing that I was different from the rest of my team, I began to fear for my life. In adopting this fraternity and its values, my mind became a broken record player, endlessly telling me how absolutely abominable I was.
In realizing who I was, that I was a closeted gay man, I refused to accept who I was and repressed any and all feelings. When I looked in the mirror, I was not proud of what I saw.
It took me years to finally acknowledge my true feelings and be honest with myself. I reached a point where I was tired of lying to myself, to my friends, and to the world. I reached a point where I stopped caring about what other people thought and began to focus on myself.
As I slowly reached the conclusion that I could not change who I was, I began my journey to embrace this identity that I had repressed for so long. I learned that being gay was a part of my life, but it did not define who I was.
In finding my pride, I realized that my coming out was not a battle against the world. I thought I was embarking on a crusade to convert everyone around me to become accepting of my identity. Quite the antithesis, I found my harshest critic was myself.
I realized that pride is not a licentious warrant given to you by society. Pride is not permission to be yourself in front of other people. Pride is the ability to wake up every morning, look in the mirror, and love that guy in the glass. Pride is having the courage to unabashedly live your truth.
The message I wish to leave today is this: we live in a society that is slowly embracing the LGBT+ community, but it all starts up front with us; it starts with us being able to show our true colors and unapologetically be ourselves. When you love yourself, nothing can hurt you. A year ago, my sexuality was a sword that threatened to end my life; today it is my armor that strengthens who I am.
When I look at that guy in the glass, I take pride in what I see.
I went through the heartaches and tears, but I am no longer cheating that guy in the glass and THAT is what my pride means to me.
Thank you very much.
Christian Zeitvogel can be reached at email@example.com, on Twitter @The_Zeisenvogel or on his Instagram account.