This is part of an ongoing series of articles highlighting the voices of various members of the National Gay Flag Football League.

“Real men play sports.”

Growing up in the South it’s inconceivably easy to get caught up in the tornado that is organized sports. Young men are ushered towards sports as the ultimate say-so in masculinity.

I distinctly remember my father and uncles urging me to find my manhood in the world of athleticism. Coming up in a physically gifted family definitely played its role as well.

My father was a great basketball player along with my sister, while my brother played baseball, basketball and football in high school, continuing football at the collegiate level. I also had a host of cousins who played a plethora of sports at various levels.

There was a needless amount of pressure to fit in. It was in this desire to fit in I found the first blooming of my sexuality.

Upon entering the seventh grade, I chose to tryout for the basketball team. Most of my classmates had already begun playing, leaving me initially feeling behind the eight ball. My experience was limited to backyard pickup games with my father and brother, but my tall, lanky frame provided me extra hope.

I remember entering the gym after school and watching all the popular athletes scattered around, taking shots, looking as if they belonged. My nerves would not deign to give me such confidence. I shuffled over to a quiet corner to change into my gym clothes.

The tryout went about as shakily as my nerves, as I stumbled through layup lines and figure eight drills. I particularly enjoyed the shooting portion. I was able to demonstrate the one trick in my bag: accuracy. My father was especially diligent in the creation of my jumpshot. It was the one part of my game that instilled confidence in me.

We ended the tryout with various sprinting and running drills. I realized I was quite a bit faster than nearly all of the prospective individuals. I felt my chances were looking better. Once the coach had decided he’d seen enough, he lined us up for his final cuts.

I was selected for the team, albeit by the slimmest of margins, and that would begin my basketball career.

It didn’t take long before I began to realize my attraction to some of my teammates. Lingering glances that belied taboo feelings, leading to moments of fear of being outed. It became a constant struggle to hide the reality of who I was.

I carried the weight of that dread into every locker rom where my teammates made no hesitations in the discussion of their jaded ideas on homosexuality. It was quickly obvious there was a unified belief that gay men were athletically inferior.

I stomached these conversations with a quiet reserve.

Once it was clear to me where I stood in the hierarchy, I determined to rise above it. I spent my seventh and eighth grade seasons learning the sport and getting better at my position. All the while I was silently enduring conversations that would make my blood boil.

I never understood how homosexual men seemed to dominate so much of heterosexual men’s conversations.

The summer going into my ninth-grade year, I was dealt an impressive growth spurt. I would enter the basketball season a 6-foot-3 freshman. I waited with baited breath for the first game of the season. My teammates would be completely clueless.

I went on to average the most points and rebounds on my team, setting career highs in both. Night after night my team members roared vociferously, applauding my efforts.

I went into the teams’ annual sports banquet with a subdued sense of belonging. I was finally feeling that feeling of fitting in. However, it came with resentment. I wasn’t being my authentic self while being praised by individuals who felt that version of me was less-than.

What was the purpose of me proving my talent to not truly be acknowledged for it? I sat through the pageantry of the awards ceremony contemplating my feelings. I wanted my credit.

By the time I was called to receive my award for most points, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I strode up to the podium, looking out amongst the faces of parents, teachers, fellow athletes and family.

I imagined a vast majority of the people occupying this room shared the sentiments of my teammates. They likely viewed gay athletes as inferior as well. I was determined to do my part to change this narrative.

I stepped up to the microphone and breathed in deeply. As I exhaled, I leaned forward uttered the simplest of truths:

“I’m gay. Real men play sports.”

The silence was deafeningly audible.

After a few agonizing seconds there began a scattered, forced applause; Some of the faces scrunched through thinly veiled confusion. Others were downright scowling.

I strode to my seat, aware of the whispers, but confident in my decision to stand by my beliefs. It was months after the ceremony before life resembled normal again, a welcome change from the unrelenting awkwardness.

My teammates soon learned to respect me for my game, and my decision went a long way towards educating them on their prejudices. The locker room became a classroom with a cacophony of questions from minds eager to understand.

I started my journey to prove my worth as an athlete, and it led to lecturing my peers on the gay experience, an experience I’d yet to fully grasp myself.

I took to the task fastidiously, fielding up to and including the most obvious queries about what it actually is to be a gay man. Despite the horrific reputation the South had maintained for its homophobia, I refused to let my opportunity to bring my community into the 21st century pass me up.

I went on to finish high school with that singular moment, once an open wound, now a perfectly healed scar carrying a life changing story. Students who once ridiculed, now celebrate me.

I had come full circle, elevating a few squares along the way.

Justin Balthazor plays flag football with the Metro Detroit Flag Football League, part of the NGFFL.

Justin Balthazor skies to make a play on the ball in his flag football league.

Story editor: Cyd Zeigler

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