Mental claustrophobia. That’s the phrase that I think best describes how I felt during the months leading up to my public coming out.
I would get these moments where I would feel physically trapped and confined as if I was in a box and I would just want to scream it to the world, “I am queer,” and just get it over with.
It will be hard to match the relief that I felt when I finally did. That moment occurred at a place that I never expected.
I work as a camp counselor at a private school in northwestern Massachusetts. It was in the summer of 2019, my fourth year there (two as a camper and two as a counselor), and it had always been one of my “special” places and something I looked forward to every year. In my bag for that week I packed a shirt that I had had since my sophomore year of high school that said, “Show Your Pride” with the rainbow colors imposed on top of our school badge.
One morning, after the first session of the day at camp and before I went to lunch, I went back to my room to shower and change and I saw the shirt in my bag and thought, this is it. I put on the shirt and began the walk to the dining hall.
I break down the walk into three parts. The first part was this bizarre combination of fear, anxiety and conspicuousness, as well as excitement, bravery and pride. I felt like I was simultaneously a target and beacon.
There was no one around — everyone else had already made it to lunch. And yet I felt like every eye was on me. As I walked, the first group of feelings, while still strong, began to fade and was overtaken by the second group of feelings, which transformed in to one strong, singular emotion. Something I had never truly felt before — confidence. And it is with confidence that I began the second part of my walk.
This part began at the top of a hill, next to this beautiful cathedral overlooking the river valley below. I remember stopping and looking out at the view and thinking this was the place for a photo — my first photo ever declaring my true self.
The third and final part of the walk began as I approached the entrance to the dining hall. I knew this would be the first real test of my courage. As much of a cliche as it is, I felt 10 feet tall walking in to that building. My chin was up, my shoulders were back. I knew who I was. And the world (or at least my world) was about to know too.
I’m a tall guy in any room but especially so in a dining room of 300 middle- and high-school-aged kids. I felt like 600 eyes were on me. But I realized something in that moment. The fear that I had felt at the beginning of the walk was gone. I was a beacon, not a target. What I felt in that moment can only be described as Pride with a capital P. Pride in myself for finally being true to myself.
I was also proud of myself for another reason. By wearing that shirt so publicly, I became a role model for any queer kid in that room. And I know there were some just based on the odds.
I knew that, whether they had accepted themselves or not, somewhere inside of them a little of that pain and anguish and mental hurt that queer people inflict on themselves by being forced to stay in the in the closet was lessened. Even if it was only for that moment and even if it was only just a fraction of the pain, I was so happy that I made things easier for them. And that’s how I live my life now. But there was a lot that I had to get through before I reached this moment.
I went to high school in Easthampton, Mass., with a family that was super-supportive of queer people. There was homophobia in my school, but nowhere near the level I’ve heard others experienced. I can’t quite figure out why I was so far in the closet. I think it was mostly self-imposed fear of not being able to accept myself.
To avoid confronting that part of me, I distracted myself with my love of my sport, soccer (or football as I refer to it), which has been my escape since I began playing it seven years ago. I only became invested in football because I was bullied for how bad I was at the game. I played on my town team in the spring of eighth grade and I was told I was fat, slow and awful.
That fall, I tried out for JV and barely made the team. Though I had improved, I was still mocked. But this only motivated me to work harder. I started lifting and training out of season. The field became the place where I could escape from my fears about who I truly was. And I did well — almost affirming this awful belief in my mind that if I focused on football, I could avoid facing my sexuality.
I achieved dream after dream. I made varsity my sophomore year. I scored my first varsity goal my junior year, and I was voted a captain by my senior year. I was recruited to play in college and I managed to get some playing time at one of the most competitive positions on the team.
I was still deeply in the closet when I went off to Colby-Sawyer College in New Hampshire for preseason. But that was soon to change.
After the initial rough patch at the start of any new experience, I realized that I was at this new place with new people who had no preconceived notions of who I was, and that was freeing and refreshing.
The most important people I met were not actually on my team. My freshman year dorm had a ton of the women from the rugby team and I was in the adjacent suite to two of them, with another two just down the hall. And they became my best friends. As we got to know each other, I found out that three of them were queer and two ended up dating each other.
Just hanging out with them showed me how normal being queer was. After I had finally accepted myself, they were the first four people that I came out to. That winter, before break, I started just talking with them about boys who I found attractive and even something as small as that was empowering and freeing.
After going home for break and coming out to my brother and then my parents (which was scary but went well, as I expected it would), I returned to Colby-Sawyer and I began to get those feelings of “mental claustrophobia.”
At some point during my coming out, I had decided that I wanted to post my coming out publicly because I wanted to avoid being asked every other day, “wait, you’re gay?” But I also had a more selfless motive.
Even then, I realized that as a queer athlete, I had a chance to make a difference in other queer, closeted athletes lives. I thought that a public post would help show other queer athletes that it is possible to be both queer and athletic in a world that quite often tells us that that is not true.
I had my caption for the post written by the end of the spring but I still had one last roadblock, or rather several roadblocks, to overcome. I knew that I didn’t owe anyone a personal phone call telling them that I was out because at the end of the day, in a perfect world, it doesn’t matter. But we’re not in a perfect world. So I made a list.
I was relatively comfortable coming out to my family and my female friends. My biggest fear was coming out to my male friends. I was worried that they would instantly assume that I was attracted to them and that I would lose them as friends. This list was made up of seven guys I wanted to call personally, friends from high school and college, teammates and non-teammates. I was very naïve and I thought I could bang out all seven calls in a weekend. After my first one, I knew that was not possible, even though every call went perfectly.
Despite how well each call went, each one was draining emotionally so it took me longer than expected. It was the last week of July that I made the last phone call to my best friend on my college team and I had completed my list and after receiving so many amazing messages after my coming out post, I finally felt truly free.
It wasn’t that I needed that validation from others telling me that they accepted me or were proud of me. Rather, it was the act of finally screaming to the world my full, unapologetic truth that set me free. I still deal with homophobia in my daily life but I know now that my sexuality was never going to hinder my playing ability — it only enhanced it.
As a sophomore in the fall of 2019, I started all 19 games in our season and played the most minutes of any player on my team. I felt like I was 10 times the player because I had finally come to terms with who I was.
This past season, I was voted captain as a junior by my teammates which was an honor in its own right. But the best part was the captain’s armband that I got to wear. For my 20th birthday last year, my best friend and teammate got me a Premier League match-worn Rainbow Laces pride armband, one worn by all team captains in matches in December to raise awareness of homophobia in football.
The power and pride that I feel when I pull that band up my arm and step out on to the pitch is unparalleled. Along with that, I wear that shirt I wore on that first day of being out and others at camps and in other public places because I know that other people will see me and be reassured that they are in fact normal. I have public TikTok and Instagram accounts because I know that as a queer athlete, I can show closeted athletes that not only is it OK to be queer and an athlete, but that the ability to be proud of who you love and how you identify is empowering.
For most of my life I wished to be something that I thought I wasn’t: I wished to be normal. I turns out that I always was. I am normal. We are normal … but also extraordinary.
Couper Gunn, 20, is a captain of the men’s soccer team at Colby-Sawyer College and will be graduating in 2022 with a major in History and Political Studies and a minor in Education on track for a master’s in Education. He can be reached by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or on Instagram and Tiktok (@cmaxxg). He posted the inaugural TikTok for Sports Equality Foundation, which can be viewed by clicking here.
Story editor: Jim Buzinski
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