At 6 a.m. on a breezy Tuesday last November, I woke up and rode my bike across the Charles River for captain’s practice. As an underclassman I had hated those early morning wake-ups, and went to bed with a knot in my stomach the night before conditioning. But now as a senior I opened my eyes well-rested and ready.
In the locker room I smiled, ate a granola bar, made small talk and strapped on my pads. And as everybody set up their chairs for our team meeting, I made my way towards the front of the room. Now I was nervous. This was the moment. Curious eyes gazed up at me.
“Guys,” I said. “I wanted to talk to you this morning to tell you that I’m gay. It’s something I’ve known my whole life, but I didn’t feel ready to tell you about it until now.”
Coming out to my Harvard lacrosse teammates was not on my mind a year before that morning meeting. During winter break of my junior year, I remember finding out that not everyone would be making the trip to North Carolina for our first game of the season.
I had missed out on travel rosters before. Watching our team lose games from a dorm room couch, I felt I was letting my friends down or was somehow not a real part of our team. I desperately wanted a seat on that plane — feeling like an outsider is never easy.
In the end, I made some sacrifices and changes to my training, flew to North Carolina with the team, and actually played in a few games here and there throughout the season. After two years near the bottom of the depth chart, it was a dream to set foot on the field for Harvard. And when I left campus that spring, I felt optimistic about the future. Even though our results were disappointing, our team had shared an electric bond throughout the season. Personally, I had also learned a few lessons.
Independent of who I was as a lacrosse player, I felt like I had friends who cared about me no matter what. On top of that, if I worked hard, I believed I could overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. Through all of my mistakes and shortcomings and despite the unfortunate defeats for our team, I felt like I could say with certainty after the season that I had faced up to a great challenge.
And one night, while I was lying there in bed thinking about the future for our program, it just occurred to me. There was another great challenge in my life, a challenge I had buried deep within me, a challenge I never imagined that I would face during my time as a college lacrosse player. “I could actually do it,” I thought. “I could tell people that I’m gay.”
It was an idea I had never really had before. It was an epiphany.
I had not reckoned with my sexuality growing up in New York City. Once when I was 14, I had a sudden urge to come out in front of the school while I was making an announcement during assembly. When I was 16 or 17, I remember thinking to myself that sometime way in the future, I could maybe try to act on the sexual attraction to men that I had felt since puberty. When I was 19, I heard on a podcast that the new governor of Colorado was gay, and felt for a moment that the world might be changing.
But those vague thoughts were brief flashes of light in a storm of confusing desires and emotions. Never had I properly acknowledged the fact that I was gay. Never had I paused to reflect on that part of my identity. And never had I envisioned a life where I could be open about my sexual orientation.
Today, it is hard for me to imagine that the idea of coming out didn’t cross my mind as a legitimate possibility until I was 21.
But once the idea was there, it stuck. It filled me with new spirit, new energy, and new drive. As I designed my offseason training program for the summer before my senior year, I similarly designed my plan for coming out. The first step would be to tell my parents. Then I would confide in a few of my friends. And finally, I would tell the team.
The first few conversations were the most difficult. While brushing my teeth a few nights before talking to my parents, I realized that I had never even said the words “I’m gay” out loud before. “I’m gay,” I whispered in the mirror, and smiled to myself.
But it was much harder to say the words to another person. Even though I had the luxury of believing that my friends and family would accept me, I still tensed up and stuttered over those two simple syllables. It turned out that sharing the biggest secret of my life took some getting used to.
I also felt the need to explain myself in my first few conversations about being gay. I felt nervous about revealing my sexuality, and also slightly embarrassed that it had taken me a long time to do so. But I quickly learned that the best way for me to come out was to get right to the point. There was no shame, no embarrassment, nothing wrong with me that I had to explain. I’m gay. It’s just who I am.
Speaking to my teammates remained the biggest obstacle. I had asked my friends and family to keep our conversations private because, after witnessing the way that people in lacrosse talk about being gay, I wanted my teammates to hear the news from me.
I believed that after three years on the team, they would know me as Noah first and the gay kid second, but our locker room was not immune to the homophobic jokes and insults that are the norm in men’s lacrosse. Throughout the fall of my senior year, I often found myself lying awake at night thinking about what exactly I would say to my teammates, going over the words again and again in my head.
It was stressful. I learned that I needed to take greater care of my mental health than I had in the past. It was OK to acknowledge that coming out was an important moment in my life, and it was OK to feel anxious about how it would all go down. I eased up on the pressure that I normally heaped on myself in lacrosse and school. I made sure to get enough sleep, eat well and find time to relax. And I turned to the people I had confided in for support.
I also turned to reading for insight and guidance. It’s funny how great books always seem to have a line for whatever situation you are going through in life. When I was preparing to come out, the first words of Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” stood out to me. “All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was.”
Although my experience as a gay white man is different from Ellison’s experience as a Black man, his words inspired me. “To hell with being ashamed of what you liked. No more of that for me. I am what I am!” I shared that line with my teammates in November.
As the leaves around campus changed color, I started to think about a question that I hadn’t previously considered. Coming out did not occur to me as a legitimate option until I was 21. Why had it taken me so long?
It was a tricky question and I wish I had a more satisfying answer, for myself more than anyone else. But one factor I began to consider was the way that people talk about being gay in our culture. For the first time throughout the fall, I started paying closer attention to the jokes, insults and comments about being gay that had surrounded me since I was a teenager.
I first heard the word “faggot” in locker rooms when I was in fifth grade — before I understood what it meant to be gay. Even in the progressive circles where I came from, kids casually threw around homophobic jokes and insults quite routinely, including those of us who would have said we believed it was completely OK to be gay. I’m embarrassed to say that I too made homophobic jokes and laughed at homophobic insults. My cognitive dissonance was both stunning and tragic.
I believe that a similar cognitive dissonance plays a role in the widespread homophobic speech that pervades the sport of lacrosse. I am sure that a few people in our sport do indeed hate gay people and use hateful language to express their feelings. But I also know that the overwhelming majority would say that they do not believe in hate speech, that they are not hateful people. A majority would probably say that they support LGBTQ rights.
But still, homophobic language flows freely in practically every college lacrosse locker room from students at some of the world’s most elite universities. Homophobic jokes still ricochet through the group chats of high school lacrosse players across America. So many young people in our sport still throw around homophobic sentiments casually and thoughtlessly, my past self among them, as if there is some kind of divide between their beliefs and their words, as if it is indeed truly possible to “not mean it like that.”
When I began to consider coming out, I thought I wanted to be the gay kid who “gets it.” I thought I wanted to be the gay kid who was cool with my friends calling each other “fags” and referring to things they didn’t like as gay. At the time, I was nervous about being accepted and I didn’t want people to feel on edge around me. But now, I think that the people who use that kind of language don’t “get it.”
They don’t get that the homophobic culture of lacrosse matters. It is part of the reason that our sport has a toxic reputation. It is the main reason that so many young people in lacrosse are not coming out. From the way that my friends and I joked growing up, I learned that being gay was equivalent to being annoying and unmanly. As a boy coming of age in the American culture of lacrosse, I learned that being a faggot was one of the worst things you could be.
It took me a long time to unlearn these homophobic ideas that I did not know I had consumed. And I am sure that somewhere deep, buried in my brain, they still remain hidden and internalized — flowing into the thoughts streaming by as casually as they were once absorbed.
Standing in the Harvard locker room at 6 a.m., I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Throughout all the thinking and the planning, I had not actually pictured the way that my teammates might react in the moment. For a second, everyone was quiet. I looked down at the little sheet of notes I had prepared so that I could remember what I wanted to say.
And then the room just exploded. I’ve never had such a cheer or a round of applause in my life.
It was an incredible affirmation. After years of confusion and silence; after years of uncertainty and shame; after a long journey through challenges I did not know I could face — after 22 years of life, this was how the Harvard men’s lacrosse team felt about me being gay. My vision blurred with tears.
I gathered myself to say a few more things. I told my teammates that I loved them. I told them a little bit about my journey. I told them that I loved coming to practice every day, and that I felt so fortunate to be part of our team. I told them that they couldn’t imagine how much their support meant to me. And then we brought it in, had a few hugs, and went outside to play some lacrosse. It was an extraordinary, ordinary, beautiful day.
In the weeks and months after I came out to my teammates, I felt a sense of pride and confidence that grew and grew. It was surreal to date men openly and to speak freely about my identity. It was surreal that everybody knew! This was a new kind of liberty, a freedom I had never dared imagine.
It feels hard to believe that it has been less than a year since I came out because the way things are now feels so much better, so much more natural. As Malcolm X wrote of his own personal transformation: “I still marvel at how swiftly my previous life’s thinking pattern slid away from me, like snow off a roof.” I feel very fortunate that the days of worrying, the days of confusion, and the days of feeling like a fraud are long behind me.
I also know that for many young people in lacrosse, those days are still a reality. I don’t have everything figured out myself, but if you are reading this, if you too feel the things that I have felt, if you too are struggling — know that you are not alone. Know that you can be yourself. Know that I wrote this essay for you.
I wrote it to tell you that you can do this! I wrote it to say that you can be openly gay, bisexual, non-binary, transgender or queer — you can be whoever it is that you are — and you can play the sport of lacrosse. Coming out takes time, and everyone’s circumstances are different. But you don’t have to hide to be part of this wonderful game.
I wrote this essay for the lacrosse community as a whole too. Our sport has a problem with homophobia and I think it’s time that we address it. If you are a person in lacrosse who uses homophobic language, you should consider the fact that those words can hurt in deep and complicated ways. You should consider the reality that hate speech of any kind is simply wrong. You should consider the idea that a healthy culture cannot rest upon contempt for others.
And you should also consider the possibility that the way you talk about being gay could be hurting the people you love. There are more gay people in lacrosse than you realize. With casual jokes and insensitive comments, you might be twisting a knife in the back of your best friend.
Many of my teammates reached out to congratulate me and offer their support after I came out, and that meant a lot. A few also approached me to apologize.
I remember one of my friends telling me it made him sick to his stomach to think about the way he had talked before he knew I was gay. I appreciated that. But how could I hold it against him? I had said homophobic things as well, and I am an actual gay person. I told him it was water under the bridge. The past does matter, but I’m much more interested in how we can improve the present and the future.
And I’ve got a lot of hope for lacrosse in the future. I hope we can make this a sport where Black Lives Matter. I hope we can honor and respect Native Americans, who invented this game. I hope we can end our culture of homophobia. Quite simply, I hope we can include everyone in the joy and camaraderie of lacrosse that I have felt so keenly playing this game with my friends. I’ve met so many great people in this sport. I see reason for both optimism and hard work.
On the wing against Holy Cross this year, I wore a little black band on my wrist with the word “Pride” inscribed in rainbow. We lost the face-off, got scored on, and lost the game, in the end, by a goal. It was my only shift of the season and my last of college lacrosse. Not everything goes according to plan.
But our team was headed in the right direction. We still had that electric bond. We ended the season with a win at home on a beautiful day, and we thoroughly enjoyed our time together before the coronavirus shut things down. I was so lucky to play lacrosse at Harvard. I look back now on the classes, practices, and time with my friends as a kind of sunny dream.
I picked up my stick the other day to take a few shots on the net near my new house. It felt so good to feel the old rush and to hear the sweet sounds — ball hitting twine, with just a hint of post. It felt so good to play lacrosse again. I dreamed, when I was a kid, that the stick in my hands might one day take me to college. I did not imagine how it would help me be true to my self.
Noah Knopf, 23, graduated from Harvard in 2020 after studying history and literature and now teaches history and coaches lacrosse in Milton, Mass. He was also a member of Harvard’s lacrosse team. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Story editor: Jim Buzinski
This story was produced in partnership with US Lacrosse magazine.
If you are an out LGBTQ person in sports and want to tell your story, email Jim (email@example.com)
Check out our archive of coming out stories.
If you’re an LGBTQ person in sports looking to connect with others in the community, head over to GO! Space to meet and interact with other LGBTQ athletes, or to Equality Coaching Alliance to find other coaches, administrators and other non-athletes in sports.