I had always been a pretty athletic guy.

Growing up I played many sports — soccer, wrestling, crew, lacrosse and track. Playing sports with my friends and working out were my favorite emotional outlets. When I was at practice, I was free of all the stress of being a teenager.

At 15 I moved from upstate New York to a town outside of Boston. Almost instantly I made close friends on the soccer team and followed up by joining the track team at my high school.

Practices were fun, my friends were the best to hang out with and my academics were amazing as well. However, I was being eaten up by a dark truth that I felt I was forced to hide.

Despite my facade of being an easy going, happy and athletic guy, I was secretly repressing my sexuality. In retrospect I had always subconsciously known that I was bisexual, but I had never had a good reason to reveal it to others.

This all changed when I met someone who wound up being my best friend. I developed feelings for Kevin and remember the moment when I realized that these feelings were more than just friendship. I was terrifie and worried that someone who was my teammate and best friend would cut me off if he ever got the sense that I had any sort of romantic feelings toward him.

Joe Hamilton, right, with his boyfriend, Kevin.

I’ll never forget one moment where I questioned everything about my value as a human and my sexuality. I was in 11th grade at a home football game rooting on my school in the semifinals. It was a beautiful night and all my friends were there. As usual, the student section was leading chants, and this night they tried a new one.

My own hometown began to chant “Masco Loves Boy-Butt!” over and over. I was horrified. My own classmates and friends had decided to reduce my sexual orientation to an insult. By using this chant to attack the opposing team, my own friends were saying that to like someone of the same sex was to be inherently inferior. It was mortifying. Surely, I could never be true to who I loved.

My feelings changed my senior year of high school when Kevin unexpectedly came out to me. I was shocked but very happy about it, and after a couple days I came out to him as well. We were both nervous to pursue our interest in each other.

We began dating not long after coming out to each other.

Would this negatively impact our friendship? How would all our friends and teammates view us if they discovered that we were together? These were unfamiliar waters to navigate, and scary ones at that. Somehow, we had the courage to pursue these feelings and we began dating not long after coming out to each other.

Fast forward to my sophomore year of college. I had transferred to the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth after my freshman year at Boston University. My interests had changed academically, and I wanted to pursue the possibility of running at the collegiate level too.

I was initially very nervous being around the team. I was apprehensive to speak out too much. A college varsity program is a hypermasculine environment. The idea of revealing my sexuality to these guys was intimidating, and I feared being socially isolated in a place where I had no connections.

However, my experience on the cross-country and track teams turned out to be the opposite. One Saturday night at a team gathering not even two weeks into our season, I came out to a girl on the cross-country team.

She was supportive and encouraging about my identity and told me what a catch I was. We became close friends and my bond with the team only grew stronger. My coming out to the team was a domino effect, in which one relationship formed after another, and my openness about my identity grew exponentially.

Like all LGBTQ+ individuals, in my young age I knew the fear of being outed. It is a paralyzing and embarrassing possibility. You walk around on eggshells, being careful of every word you say around your family, friends, teammates and classmates, because your worst nightmare is for somebody to discover your deepest secret.

If you are reading this as an athlete or individual who is not out yet, just know that one day that feeling will pass and it does get better. I know this because I can picture the exact moment when I let go of that fear.

As a college athlete, you spend hours in the dining hall and joking around after practice. My second year at UMass Dartmouth many of the guys and girls on the cross-country teams were sitting at the table one night joking around, when a close friend of mine said to me, “Your boyfriend is visiting.”

At first I tensed up, because I realized there were several guys there who I had not told about my sexuality. Yet in that moment I let go of my fears. I casually replied, “Oh yeah, my boyfriend is coming to visit.” The conversation continued without missing a beat.

Joe Hamilton found being open to his teammates liberating.

I had confidently owned my sexuality in front of the other guys, and nobody questioned it. In fact, I think some of the guys began to feel more comfortable around me and trusting of me since I showed them who I was.

I had several teammates confide in me about things in their own lives that year, and my confidence soared. These people were becoming my brothers and sisters, and I even felt like some of them looked up to me.

By allowing myself to become vulnerable and open I created a space for everyone to be open and vulnerable and feel loved for who they were.

You might be going into college thinking “I will never come out to anyone,” but just know that your will to thrive and be happy is much stronger than any stigma, and you will have that courage soon.

Mentally and physically, you are capable of much more than you realize.

In our current political climate, it is easy to view a lot of the world as hateful and evil. Deep down, it is not hate that fuels discrimination, it is ignorance. Accept your own ignorance and grow from it, and call out others on theirs too. Stand up for yourself, and be out and proud.

Joe Hamilton, 23, will be graduating from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth in December. He is a senior on the cross-country and track teams and is majoring in Psychology. He will be entering a MS in Data Analytics in the spring. He can be reached by email ([email protected]), or Instagram @joehamiltonn.

Story editor: Jim Buzinski

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

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.