In middle school, one of my most difficult moments was during a social studies class.
We had a substitute teacher and were given a work period. I started to hear laughter circulate around the room. I eventually picked my head up to witness a room of my peers looking in my direction and laughing. I started to laugh as well, until one of the girls pointed behind me. I turned around and the kid next to me had written “fag” on the white board behind me and drew an arrow to my head.
I picked him up out of his chair, shoved him against the wall and told him he’d pay if he ever did that again. Upon being sent down to the office, I was reprimanded for retaliating, while this white boy was let off without any consequence.
It was that moment that I began to realize, on a larger scale, the inequalities of the world.
I started playing tennis when I was about 7. My sister Mara was my inspiration. She had already become very competitive at the tournament level, and I wanted to follow in her footsteps. I was horrible. The very first year I started to play tennis tournaments at the local level, I didn’t win one match.
When I started back on the tournament circuit at age 11, I managed to do a 180, finishing No. 1 in the Midwest in the 12-and-under age group, as well as being top-five in the country, and I had a fifth-place finish at the prestigious Orange Bowl, which at that time was an international event for every age group.
Yet my success didn’t free me from the taunting.
I had just begun the 14-and-under division, and I was playing at the Midwest Closed in East Lansing at the Michigan State tennis courts. It was the first round, and midway through the first set of my match, a boy, who was a competitive rival of mine, came behind the court I was playing on with a few other boys and stood against the fence. They would cheer me on with an overly exaggerated lisp and effeminate voice. This persisted for the next few minutes before they finally went on their way.
“What did I do to deserve this?” I asked myself. “Why are they cheering for me sounding like a woman? Of all the players here, why me?”
I can scarcely remember going to a tournament in my junior career and not having to face some kind of hate speech and bullying regarding, at the time, my perceived sexuality and my race.
The scariest moment in my life was at a tournament called Intersectionals which, despite this happening, was one of my favorite events. It was the top four girls and boys in each national section, in the 16-and-under division, and was a team tournament. Team Midwest walked away with the win, which was an incredible accomplishment considering the teams we overcame along the way.
In the finals match, all of our girls came through, and I was the only boy on the team to pull out a win. One of the host families we were staying with received a phone call for me.
“There is no place for faggots in our sport,” the voice on the phone said. “Be ready, tonight we are coming to kill you...”
I had never felt such internal panic before. Again, I was left asking myself “why me?” I hated myself. I hated that I was a person of color and I hated that I was gay. It began an unhealthy period of doing everything I could to present a completely inauthentic self just to get by.
I acted in a way that I perceived to be “white,” while I often tried to over-masculinize myself. I started to partake in the bullying of other kids. I had a couple of middle school and high school girlfriends that I, regrettably, used as a shield to convince people that I was not gay.
I often think about whether or not things would have been different if I lived my life then as unapologetically as I do now, if that would have been the answer to existing as an equal, but even more so, finding self-acceptance and a very crucial time in my life.
The University of Wisconsin was not my first priority from a tennis perspective by any stretch. However, Madison is one of the most liberal and inclusive cities in the country. This is where I started to find self-acceptance after years of suppressing my identity.
Yet problems persisted, the worst of which was my freshman year playing in East Lansing. During my match I was heckled by the opponent I was playing, which was not out of the ordinary, but by the opponent’s brother, dad and every friend he had come watch the match.
After losing, I refused to shake my opponent’s hand because of the taunting. I refused to shake the umpire’s hand, as the umpire did nothing to contain the situation. And I didn’t shake the team’s coach’s hand, someone whom I genuinely liked and respected prior to this.
As I left the court, facing boos and colorful hate speech, my opponent’s brother blocked my exit, screaming In my face “get back out there and shake my brothers hand, faggot!” I pushed my way past him and the crowd, and quickly hurried out to the bus where I stayed until the match was over.
No one had my back, not my coach and not my team. I was told to be “the bigger person” and to apologize and to go and shake this guy’s hand. I refused.
Despite my best efforts to convince my very white team about how wrong I was treated, no one seemed to genuinely care and or take my perspective into consideration.
And that is the epitome of things that have to change. Stop telling gay people, people of color or anyone who has faced an adversity because of who they are to “be the bigger person.” There is nothing wrong with us and who we are. There is a problem with the tolerance and acceptance of others, and the people who are displaying their intolerance are the ones that need to be held responsible and told that they are wrong.
In 2007 after the NCAA All-American singles tournament, I was on my way to the library, riding my moped, when I was suddenly hit by a car. Just like that, most of my junior year was over. My tennis career seemed over.
I graduated from college with a focus in theater and drama, and my first job was on the Broadway North American Tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s cult classic, “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Over the years pursuing theater, I had kept tennis on the bench, coaching when I could, but never pursuing it at the professional level.
And that would become the biggest regret of my life. The thing that I have grown to love so much about tennis, competitive tennis in particular, is that you are in control of your own destiny. You are responsible for making yourself as good as you want to be.
Theater is drastically different in the sense that, even on your best days, you aren’t going to get the job most of the time, for reasons that are out of your control. I hit a point where being told, “Sorry, you’re just not black enough” by a room full of white, artistic personnel, as well as other systemic reasons, was no longer a life that I wanted to lead.
In the fall of 2017, I decided that I was going to do what I had regretted not doing for so long — play on the professional tennis tour in the 2018 season.
I didn’t know it then, but 2018 would soon become the most important and transformative year of my life.
I knew that if I was going to do this, it was going to be as my authentic self, completely and totally unapologetically out and proud.
I started competing at the end of February 2018, and played my last tournament in mid-November. After a 10-year hiatus from competitive tennis, I was able to achieve a career high ATP ranking of 818 in the world, making two semifinals, a handful of quarterfinals as well as winning a professional doubles title. I had my eyes set on the 2019 season, which was unfortunately sidelined by a rule change. The ranking I had worked so hard to achieve was erased, and I was put back to square one.
I was met with another fork in the road. Do I attempt to stick out the uncertain time in hopes for things to change, or do I take everything that I learned from the last year and apply it to my life and goals going forward? I also was faced with the financial burden of funding my career and when no financial help from sponsorships or endorsements came, I was forced to stop competing.
This decision was hard to make, but what I was able to take away and the experiences I had in 2018 are priceless. I was able to compete as the only out gay man (that I know of) on the ATP tour. Most importantly, I proved to myself that I had what it took, despite any of the odds, and that I am capable of achieving anything that I pour my heart and soul into.
I miss being on tour every day. Yet the experience has empowered me to get past the limits I used to put on myself.
My journey has empowered me to continue living unapologetically.
Yet on the ATP tour there is currently not one out, male tennis player. During my time on tour, I didn’t face any form of direct discrimination from players, coaches, umpires or fans. I had braced myself for the worst going into competing again. But after my experience, I feel confident in saying the ATP is ready to support an out gay male tennis player.
The reason I think no one has come out in the ATP is because their early experiences in the sport have mirrored mine. Because of those early moments of discrimination, they fear the consequences of coming out, whether from players, their own federation or the world.
Though the world has made improvements in terms of inclusion, and people are generally more accepting of the gay community, there are many people who will never accept a person who is gay, no matter how successful, influential and nonthreatening they are.
Though I choose to not live in fear, I have spent many of my years living in utter fear, and I do not blame players for being afraid to live their truth publicly.
However, without the likes of Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Brian Vahaly, Alison Van Uytvanck, Greet Minnen and others, I would not have had the courage to play as a proud gay man. They paved the way for others to compete openly as themselves. I am so thankful for their bravery.
I’m also thankful for the bullies, haters and the like for motivating me to succeed and prove that success does not have to be labeled by gender, skin color or sexuality. And, of course, I’m thankful for my parents and everyone who supported me when I needed it the most. Thank you for allowing me every opportunity to believe and know that I am relevant, I am worthy, and I have what it takes to succeed past any obstacle in my way.
I could not be more excited for the journey I have left ahead. My next goals are to not only regain a ranking again on the ATP tour, but to be the No. 1 player in the world in the 35-and-over age bracket, whenever we’re allowed to start competing again.
My story is not finished being written. And I know, with every bit of my heart, the best is yet to come.
Jeremy Sonkin, 33, is a tennis professional and coach from Wheaton, Illinois. As a junior tennis player, he was a national title holder, had been ranked in the top 5 in the country, and was a top college recruit in his class. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin, Madison with a bachelors degree focusing in Theater Performance. Jeremy held the No. 1 singles and doubles spot at UW for most of his career. As a theater professional, he traveled North America with the Broadway National Tour of “Jesus Chris Superstar,” as well as appearing on big Chicago stages such as Steppenwolf Theatre and Lookingglass Theatre. In 2018, Jeremy competed on the ATP Tour, finish the year with a career high ranking of 818. He is currently a high performance coach, working with national, international, collegiate and professional players. He can be reached via e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) on Instagram (@jeremyrosssonkin) and on Facebook (Jeremy Ross Sonkin).
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