My gradual rebirth began with a hug.
I had been hugged many times before, whether by family, friends or in romantic contexts. But this hug from a man came at a time when I’d been beginning to wrestle with a bewilderment at developments in my identity, and it came at a time when I’d begun to feel free from the homophobic atmosphere perpetuated at my wealthy Catholic high school.
For the first time, I was OK with this newfound stirring of the heart. It just so happened to be at a fencing tournament.
The acceptance of this bewilderment ran counter to much of the homophobia I’d witnessed attending a series of Catholic schools in the most Catholic state in the country, Rhode Island. Although my father and his parents next door were devout, I didn’t detect much anti-queerness at home, and since coming out my family has done its best to be a domain of allyship. School was a different story.
Even before I had any notion of my sexual difference, I grew up learning about the supposed sanctity of monogamous relationships between men and women in the curricula of my theology classes. In elementary and middle school this was largely dressed up as a euphemism for how great it would be to be married as adults.
In high school, the implicit was made explicit, and sing-song classes by perhaps well-meaning middle school teachers was replaced by lectures regarding the sinfulness of homosexuality. As I began to have stirrings of my own queerness, fiery homilies at school-mandated masses assured me that acting on those temptations put me on the fast track to eternal damnation.
Thinking about being attracted to men in the same way that I was to women was only a budding concern, and the institutionalized homophobia — not to mention the daily comments and judgments made about queer folk by my classmates raised in a corresponding heteronormativity — was only a component of what had made me feel incredibly lonely.
In a wealthy school populated by upper class, conservative Catholic students, many of whom participated in Mount Saint Charles Academy’s sacrosanct hockey lifestyle as athletes or fans, the middle class liberal kid recently converted to agnosticism was not made to feel at home.
And while increased dedication to the sport of fencing, which I had to do outside of school in the absence of any varsity team, increased that feeling of otherness, it also served as an invaluable coping mechanism and introduced a diverse community of individuals largely dedicated to accepting people like me.
Before I had any inkling of being pansexual, the fencing community was a pleasant alternative to the more exclusionary normalcy I dealt with in other contexts. While others have written about and see fencing as a community of elites outspending one another and their children to buy their ways into Harvard or similar institutions, the underbelly of the beast is markedly more pleasant.
While I grew up going to tournaments in Boston with hyper-competitive athletes and coaches who fit the bill of those in any up-and-coming sport, with parents trying to facilitate a good route into college and the adult fencers working towards success at national and international competition, I also spent many hours in smaller competitions in small towns across New Hampshire, Vermont and upstate New York.
This is not to suggest that there was no overlap in personal proclivity and competitive success between the two scenes, but at tournaments such as those at Concord Fencing Club and those hosted by University of Vermont’s Fencing Club, the scene was different. As a younger kid, I remember athletes competing on the weekends for the heck of it, people that might be rivals on-strip but who would hang out afterwards.
Over the last decade-plus of competing, I’ve formed friendships with casual and competitive fencers of all genders, ages, occupations and affiliations. As I got older and more cognizant of sexual difference, I’d notice things such as a competitor’s gay pride flag on his fencing jacket, or a genderqueer competitor being happy to enter competition under their real name.
It was at the beginning of a fencing tournament the summer after my high school graduation that was severely mind-meddling. It was purely platonic, a hug hello from a male acquaintance, but it left my head spinning. So after the tournament, I texted my most trusted confidant, my clubmate Abbey.
Abbey is a few years older than me and has lived a young adulthood I hope to somewhat replicate. She, too, mitigated her coming to queerness in the context of having attended a homophobic Catholic high school, has put together an accomplished fencing career as a competitor, and even managed to coach the University of Rhode Island fencing team before beginning her PhD candidacy at GW (down to the phonetic similarities of our first names, these all check the same existential boxes for me).
Abbey had told me she was bisexual, so her trajectory exemplified for me that all of my hopes and dreams were not contradictory to my sexual orientation. With all this in mind, I’m not sure there was a better person I could have first come out to.
The following fall I started school at Vassar College. On paper, this was the ideal setting: it was a liberal arts school that held classes on topics forbidden or decried in my high school, there were students with a variety of interests coming from all over the world, and the varsity fencing team could provide a camaraderie lacking from the athletic experience of the kid who had to do a lot on his own in high school.
Sure enough, most of those expectations paid off. Between the different classes and on-campus life, undergrad was a breath of fresh air much more freeing. The athletics department was great, too. I met student-athletes and coaches who supported one another off the playing field and among whom I felt included in multisport settings such as spectating at home games or working out in the varsity weight room.
Unfortunately, for whatever reason, I always struggled to get along with the team, with the exception of a few great teammates over several years. However, social incompatibility with the fencing team, as well as the lengths I went to in order to achieve my athletic goals, proved to be the perfect tool for mitigating loneliness and sexual difference.
For my first three years at Vassar I adopted a routine: I’d have a one-on-one training session, called a “lesson” in fencing, before practice in the afternoons. We’d practice for around two hours, and afterwards I’d take equipment and walk from Vassar’s field house to an off-campus fencing club and train for a few more hours. This was mostly open bouting, the fencing equivalent of sparring or pickup basketball without any formal coaching.
Freshman year I’d go once or twice a week and only for a couple of hours each time. However, as I became a starter my sophomore year and my ambitions grew, I started practicing with my Vassar teammates and coaching staff for our usual practices until 7:30 p.m., and would head to the club in town and not leave until 1 a.m. Although I had to do what I had to do to pursue my goals as a collegiate athlete, it wasn’t just to get more reps in.
At The Phoenix Center I encountered a slew of individuals with interests, goals and stories as unique as those of the people I’d met in tournaments around the Northeast as a younger kid. There were people blowing off steam after work much like on encounters in men’s and women’s leagues in other sports. But there were also passionate workers, too.
I’d bout with high school students working to add a notch to their college application resumes, a 70-year-old astrophysicist working toward his eventual world title at the Veteran World Fencing Championships (think men’s league for various age groups 40 and up), and a para-fencer with eyes set on representing the United States in the 2024 Summer Paralympics in Paris.
Whether it be age, gender or physical difference, these comprised a cast of individuals with whom I share a passionate, powerful indifference to constraints that the outside world might try to impose in virtue of our differences. The indifference is not incomprehension of the difference, but ignorance to the impossibility of success that normative structures might implore us to believe. As a budding pansexual, fear of the unknown and the murkiness of self-definition was an omnipresent reality. However, as in the lives of these individuals with unique lives and challenges, the barrier would not be insurmountable.
The passionate indifference to barriers, introduced to me by folks such as Abbey or those I worked with in Poughkeepsie while at Vassar, provides a lens through which I can pursue success as an athlete and as an individual. Becoming a squad leader on Vassar’s team, I secured individual wins over competitors from Division I powerhouses such as Penn State, Boston College, Yale and Columbia, and helped in team victories over Division I rivals such as Sacred Heart, as well as our regular DIII competition.
Despite a midseason ligament tear in my fencing arm, I performed among the best of Vassar’s representatives at the NCAA Northeast Regional, and was able to fight through the pain to win the 2019 NEIFC men’s epée individual championship. This was all facilitated by becoming comfortable with who I am and what I enjoy, and could not have happened without a confidence fostered by the greater fencing community.
Fencing is a sport in which one athlete steps on the strip to confront an opponent, but it is not an individual sport. For every three-minute bout there are hours of drilling, film review, conditioning and bouting made possible by coaches and teammates who may not always be seen, but whose presence is felt in individual successes.
With the pandemic and graduate school applications up in the air, whether or not I have another season as a serious competitor is largely up in the air. Regardless of my competitive future, it is with fencing success’s interdependent nature in mind that I optimistically look to the future.
I hope to be an inclusive facilitator of improvement in and out of fencing, much like those in the fencing community who helped me mitigate the stresses of figuring out identity — whether it be as a coach, referee or even just as a friend.
Abram Gregory, 21, is a member of Vassar College’s fencing team and will be graduating from Vassar with a double major in English and philosophy in 2021. He is part of Vassar’s Queer, Trans and Non-Binary Athletes group, and has written and edited for Vassar’s student newspaper, The Miscellany News. He will pursue a career in academia, and can be reached by email (firstname.lastname@example.org), or on Instagram (abe_gregory).
Story editor: Jim Buzinski
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