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College volleyball player finds his Christian faith strengthen after coming out

Unique Smith found a home and support on his college volleyball team by being himself.

Unique Smith on the volleyball court
Unique Smith on the volleyball court for Ottawa University Arizona.
Josh Fisher / Ottawa University Arizona

Enrolled at a Christian university in Arizona, I was always conscious of how I spoke, how I walked and how I acted. After making friends who were also in the LGBT+ community, I grew comfortable quite quickly.

Although the university did not discriminate and welcomed me and other LGBT students with open arms, I was still nervous to show my whole personality and not suppress certain qualities and attributes.

Most of the gay people I knew, both at my school and elsewhere, had ditched the religious side of themselves once they knew they were gay. But I refused to be unwavering in my faith and was determined to love God and nurture my Christianity regardless of my sexual orientation. Being a student at OUAZ (Ottawa University Arizona Surprise) in suburban Phoenix, I was able to be unapologetically bisexual and still grow closer to God.

I first came out to my mom when I was a sophomore in community college, bawling and feeling remorseful as I told her. She comforted me and held me in her arms, assuring me that everything would be OK and that her love for me did not waver. Telling my father was much more difficult. He has always been a man’s man to me, the most masculine figure in my life and most virile person I knew. I thought that my sexuality being anything other than straight was not going to sit well with him.

It took me almost two years to finally gather enough courage to tell my dad. As he sat next to my mother on the couch, I began to tell him the truth about me without too much detail. Unexpectedly, and much to my surprise, he had nothing but words of encouragement. “Don’t ever veer from who you are for anyone,” he said.

It brought joy to my heart to bask in his unconditional love for me.I knew that unfortunately not everyone gets the luxury of supportive parents, especially in African American households. With my parents’ support, I knew my foundation was strong and that I should be truer to who I was. With that mentality, I took on the obstacle of college athletics as a member of the men’s volleyball team.

Unique Smith
Unique Smith and his volleyball team grew stronger as they learned to trust one another.
Josh Fisher / Ottawa University Arizona

In my first year as a college athlete, I found other students and athletes who were accepting and welcoming of me for who I was and did not let my sexuality determine the extent of our friendship. I also had formed bonds with some coaches, professors, and faculty and administration members as well.

Not everyone was accepting, though. Some teammates were not able to put differences aside for the sake of playing the sport we all love. Within our team alone there were cliques, appearing to be separated by sexual orientation and seemed as if it was getting in the way of on-court cohesiveness.

It was in 2017, the first year OUAZ had athletics at the undergraduate campus in Surprise (the original campus in Ottawa, Kansas, dates back to 1865) and there were many hurdles to overcome. Since this was the first year as a college program, our volleyball team had no leadership from upperclassmen like at other schools. We had too many people trying to take on a leadership role and establish their dominance, which then contributed to problems on the team.

By the second year, we had a better sense of playing with each other and we all knew a little bit about one another outside of the court. There were also new players on the team and those of us who had been there in the first season became de facto leaders. We all knew that we all had to get along to be successful and people were able to learn to accept one another regardless of sexual orientation.

Unique Smith
Unique Smith
Patrick Smith / DDI Photography

Finally, by my senior year, our team had grown close and we developed a brotherhood that I am incredibly grateful for and appreciative to have been a part of. I had grown a special friendship with each of players who had been on the team since Year 1. One of my best friends by my senior season turned out to be gay. Within a span of three years, our team developed true unity and camaraderie. We realized our team was a sanctuary, and although we had our own problems internally, we wouldn’t let others penetrate our team circle, whether they be other athletes on campus or opposing teams.

Being bi has granted me a plethora of experiences and friends that I otherwise would not have had. I am excited for what the future holds of being a bisexual person. The journey of coming out is a long and perilous one and there will be many ups and downs, but it is important to keep your eye on your destination yet, still enjoy the journey of getting there along the way.

I know that there are always going to be people who are not accepting of the LGBTQ community, but it important for us as a community to keep fighting. There is still much work to be done, but the community has proven to be triumphant.

Unique Smith, 23, graduated from Ottawa University in Surprise, Arizona, with Dean’s List Honors in May as part of the Class of 2020. He was also a member of the men’s volleyball team. He got his Bachelor of Art’s Degree in both Communications and Psychology. He lives in Phoenix and is receptive to employment opportunities pertaining to his majors in the midst of this pandemic. He can be reached at Instagram and Twitter or by email (uniquesmith003@gmail.com).

Story editor: Jim Buzinski

If you are an out LGBTQ person in sports and want to tell your story, email Jim (kandreeky@gmail.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.

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