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Gay gymnast finds new sports passion as a college cheerleader at UConn

Ben Duncan learned the value of discipline and perseverance as a gymnast growing up and found a community as a UConn cheerleader.

Ben Duncan cheering.
Ben Duncan has thrived since competing as a member of the cheerleading team at the University of Connecticut.

Some of my earliest childhood memories are of the time I spent at my local gymnastics center where I often played on the equipment and stumbled onto the foam mats.

This quintessential children’s haven served as the perfect outlet for my younger, energy-ridden self as a way to burn off steam. At the time, I realized little of what this environment would come to represent for me in the future.

From the time that I was just 3 years old, I became captivated by the sport of gymnastics. The tremendous display of power and strength combined with the incredible discipline that performing each skill took fascinated me. My parents enrolled me in gymnastics classes and from that moment on I was hooked and I had found my first love.

Over the next few years, I developed my skills and quickly progressed from mommy-and-me lessons to more advanced classes, eventually performing at a high level for my age group. Being at the gym soon became my home away from home, my oasis, not just because it was a place where I could be an active kid, but because the gym was the place where I felt the most safe and welcome to explore my identity without fear of bullying or harassment from my peers.

While I was at school or at home I often felt as if I needed to hide a part of myself that, as a kid, I could not explain. What I knew at the time was that my interests did not fully align with what I was expected to do, or who I was expected to be. Gymnastics gave me a space to explore these interests and an escape from the norms that were being placed on me.

Kids can be pretty mean, especially to people who they view as being different. In my first few years of school, I never really had a problem making friends. I was funny and agreeable, and I was always willing to try new things.

As my peers and I started to get a little older, however, our interests began to diverge. My differences from the other boys became more noticeable. Instead of playing basketball and flag football at recess, I wanted to do cartwheels and back handsprings in the grass with the girls.

The young kid who was once friendly and likeable became the target of bullying and harassment. “Tomgirl,” they would call me. “You know only fags do gymnastics?”

Ben Duncan doing gymnastics
Ben Duncan loved gymnastics but hated the stereotypes it engendered.

In seventh grade, a boy sitting across from me in English class mumbled something under his breath. Instinctively asking him to clarify, I asked “What?” Laughter erupted throughout the class. I realized the boy had said, “gay kid says what,” baiting my response. “Ugh! Why did I fucking say that?” I thought.

Rarely was I called names to my face, but the silent spread of rumors about things that I didn’t fully understand at the time stung even worse than anything that could’ve been said to me directly. These were people who I thought were my friends and instead they turned my differences into comedy for a few laughs.

I often wondered why I was called “gay” or a “faggot” just because I liked a sport that didn’t involve a ball. Nearly each day that I walked through the hallways of elementary and middle school, I was reminded of my differences and forced to think about my identity in a way that I was far too unprepared to unpack. Desperate to just blend in, I decided to walk away from the sport I loved, despite all of the joy it brought me.

When I started high school, I changed school systems and was surrounded by new people. This change presented an opportunity to start fresh and form a new identity. Shortly into my freshman year, a girl in the hallway asked me if I had a boyfriend. At that moment my world stood still.

I thought I had escaped the rumors and speculation. But even in this new environment with different peers and new interests I was still “the fag.” I began to wonder why I had spent all this time avoiding what I enjoyed doing because I was going to be talked about regardless.

Ben Duncan cheering.
Ben Duncan found immediate acceptance as a cheerleader at the University of Connecticut.

I decided to return to gymnastics and not let the fear of being labeled stand between me and my passion. This is a goal I’d encourage any person struggling with being accepted to set. I began practicing at the Ellis School of Gymnastics in Braintree, Massachusetts, and was soon selected to be on the boy’s competition team.

For the next four years, being on this team provided me with an outlet for self-expression and an opportunity to grow into my identity as a young adult. The more I was embraced and supported within my sport, the more I was able to answer tough questions about who I was and my place in the world as I got older.

While gymnastics certainly has its flaws, my overall experience with the sport taught me courage, discipline, and perseverance — characteristics that I integrate into all aspects of my life today. These life lessons gave me the confidence I needed to come out to my family and close friends in high school.

Throughout my life, gymnastics provided the perfect environment for me to experiment with gender expression and social constructions of identity. Using my team to create a network of young men, both gay and straight, who were accepting and willing to support me no matter what, propelled me into a stage of my life where I became confident living my truth without need of social acceptance.

It was through my athletic experience that I began to understand that my differences weren’t a bad thing and I eventually accepted myself as being gay.

With collegiate men’s gymnastics programs dwindling across the country and after sustaining a severe fracture in my senior year of high school, I competed in my final meet as a Junior Olympic level-10 gymnast in February 2017.

After a slow recovery and beginning college at the University of Connecticut later that fall, I spent the next year of my life growing into my own identity and fully embracing myself as a part of the LGBT community.

Despite this amazing time of self-reflection and acceptance, I felt as if something was missing from my life once again. I knew this void was partially due to being in a new state away from home, but I couldn’t help but feel separated from the athletic community that helped me grow so much.

Ben Duncan with fellow male cheerleaders.
Ben Duncan’s love of gymnastics easily transferred to cheerleading. He is seen with fellow UConn cheerleaders.
Chris Marion

I decided to try out for my university’s cheerleading team at the start of my sophomore year. My love for gymnastics was easily transferred to cheerleading, as I quickly became enthralled with the people and opportunities that the program gave me. As a college cheerleader, I’ve had the chance to travel across the country for cheerleading competitions and to support two of the best men’s and women’s college basketball teams in the country.

What truly made me fall in love with cheerleading was how quickly I was embraced and accepted unconditionally by my teammates. Cheerleading exposed me to a diverse group of people, who taught me unique lessons about myself and my place in the community around me.

As a gay person, starting something new can be scary or overwhelming because you feel constant pressure to come out to each new person that you meet. Through my time as a college cheerleader, I’ve learned that this process is unnecessary and can even be more damaging than it is liberating.

With enough pride and self-confidence, it doesn’t matter if you tell every person you meet if you’re gay or not, but instead you’re able to live authentically, without question or hesitation.

The cheerleading community never asked if I was gay, nor did knowing matter to them. Instead, they chose to love me as myself, giving me space to grow and change, flourish and excel.

There is something so special and liberating about the idea of living life openly and authentically. Being forthcoming about my sexuality has provided the opportunity to build stronger and more intimate connections with the people in my life that mean the most to me.

Ben Duncan with fellow UConn cheerleaders and the school’s husky mascot.
Ben Duncan with fellow UConn cheerleaders and the school’s husky mascot.

By coming out I created relationships that, as a kid, I never thought of as being possible for myself. This past holiday season, I sat next to my boyfriend at the dinner table, surrounded by my parents, grandparents and siblings. While this sounds not too out of the ordinary for a typical holiday dinner, as a gay person this was a moment that I thought would never become a reality.

Sharing similar moments as this one has been part of my personal journey with coming out and the small victories that I’ve been able to celebrate along the way. The lessons learned from my athletic experience have taught me to embrace myself and not seek validation from others.

Once you find your path, the right people who are willing to love you no matter what will be there waiting for you along the way.

Benjamin Duncan, 21, is a senior studying at the University of Connecticut. This spring he will graduate with a B.S. in Secondary Social Studies Education and a minor in Gender Studies. He has been accepted to the Neag School of Education graduate school where he will earn his M.A. in Curriculum and Instruction. He serves as the community outreach officer on the University of Connecticut’s cheerleading team. He can be reached by email (benjamin.duncan@uconn.edu), Twitter, and Instagram (ben__duncan).

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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