Ben Quinn was crying at his first swim meet. As he was getting ready to jump into the pool, tears started to swell in his eyes, showing through his goggles. He was four years old and frightened. Officials asked if they should stop him. But his mother did no such thing.
She told her son to get into the water and swim.
Quinn is an openly gay high school swimmer in conservative Indiana. And his mother, Stephanie Hoober, has been at his side every step of the way. She’s been coaching Ben throughout his high school career. It is one of the great pleasures of her life.
This is a coming-out story that’s morphed into a mother-son story. It certainly brought tears to this writer’s eyes.
“My mom and I are really, really close — not like weird close, but we have a pretty good relationship,” Quinn told me. “My favorite memories are putting on Reba McEntire. She’ll cry whenever I turn on a certain song, and she’s also tone-deaf. Listening to her ‘scream cry’ a Reba McEntire song is hilarious to me. I’m not going to lie.”
Quinn has never lied about himself. He came out to his friends in middle school, and instantly wanted to date one of his older sister’s best friends, a high school junior. But mom said “no.” It was their only point of contention.
“I said, ‘I don’t care that you’re gay and want to date a guy,’” Hoober told me. “I care that you’re an eighth-grader who thinks you’re going to go out with an 11th-grader. That’s just not going to happen.”
Quinn says he hasn’t encountered much homophobia in school. Swimmers on a rival team call him “the gay with the nose ring,” but, well, that’s true. Quinn does have his nose pierced, along with both of his ears and earlobes.
“It’s just not clever,” Quinn said. “They’ve got to be more creative than, ‘The gay with the nose ring.’”
Hoober says Quinn is kind of the “dad” of the team. He’s mature beyond his years and usually steps up when a difficult topic needs to be addressed. As a coach, she appreciates his leadership. As a mom, she appreciates watching her son flourish, and have fun.
“One of my favorite parent things is watching Ben interact with kids on the team,” she said. “I don’t know if they would be friends if they weren’t teammates, if that makes sense. But I enjoy being able to watch him let his guard down once in a while, and not worry about what anyone thinks, and just be there in the moment.”
While Quinn has been swimming competitively since he was four years old (he did wind up jumping into the pool), he says he doesn’t necessarily love competing. Instead, he gains satisfaction from setting goals for himself, and working to achieve them.
He enjoys seeing others accomplish their goals, too. This year, Quinn started as an assistant coach for the middle school team. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
“It’s almost more rewarding to watch a kid be excited about meeting their goal than me meeting one myself, which is so corny and horrible and tacky, but I really do enjoy it,” Quinn said.
Quinn understands some parents and kids may have questions about his identity as a gay man, and he doesn’t hesitate to answer them. He thinks it’s important to show his swimmers the glorious freedom of being your true self.
“I’m not going to lie about who I am,” Quinn said. “I hope if there is someone else who can see themselves in me, then that’s helpful — and that swimmer wouldn’t even have to be gay as well. But if they can see someone who’s just unapologetically themselves, that’s even more important.”
Still, Quinn recognizes he has more growing to do. That’s the primary reason he’s chosen to attend Oberlin College, the renowned liberal arts school in northeast Ohio. He wants to challenge himself socially and intellectually.
“I wanted to be somewhere where being gay wasn’t even, like, ‘cool,’” he said. “I’m just a white guy with a nose ring.”
Oberlin’s inclusive reputation is what propelled Quinn to keep swimming in college, according to mom. She says he feared his college teammates wouldn’t be as accepting as his high school peers.
That’s right: The “gay kid with the nose ring” from suburban Indiana was worried his college would be less accepting than his high school. That’s not how it’s supposed to work.
Quinn says his experience is a reminder to give people a chance.
“It’s OK to be scared that your teammates aren’t going to accept you, but you have to give them the chance to do that first,” Quinn said. “When I came into high school and was very gay and outward, I was scared the boys on the team were going to be weird to me in the locker room.
And truly, I know at the end of the day, that they have my back, and they love me as a teammate. I couldn’t be more blessed, and it’s because I let them into my life that I have that.”
You can follow Ben Quinn on Instagram, @benjamin_quinn.
If you are an out LGBTQ person in sports and want to tell your story, email Jim (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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