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Gay college gymnast came out with confidence and assist from teammates

When Collin Lillie decided to come out, ‘my teammates lifted me up, gave me space to figure it out and celebrated me above all.’

Collin Lillie claps
Collin Lillie is a gymnast for the College of William & Mary in Virginia.

I always knew I would come out one day, but I was just terrified of how it would play out. I had formulated a big and elaborate scenario in my head of working up the courage to share my true self to the world, but I dreaded the thought of ever doing it. In the end, however, it just happened, bit by bit.

Gymnastics has been one of the biggest blessings in my life. It has allowed me to learn perseverance and mental toughness, all while pursuing my craft. Gymnastics has enabled me to express myself through movement and was a place where I felt like I could be myself. I found comfort in performing and sharing my love for the sport with my teammates.

I grew up in Denton Texas, one of the northernmost suburbs of the Dallas-Fort Worth area. When my parents signed me up for a gymnastics class when I was 4, there was no going back for me. I loved it. Being able to flip around and get all my energy out in the gym was the perfect outlet for me as a young child.

There is a perception that there is a direct correlation between being a gymnast and being gay. Society views gymnastics as artistic, graceful and feminine, all of which were the opposite of the more “masculine” sports.

With gymnastics being viewed as a girls sport, I understood from a very young age that people thought that men in gymnastics were gay. And when I had come to terms with my identity as a queer person in my early teenage years, I did not want to be subsumed by that stereotype. I had dealt with all questioning before and brushed it off because I knew it wasn’t me. But when I accepted myself as such, it left me frightened.

I was frightened because now I had to struggle to suppress all the true parts of who I was and put up a front, which became tough.

I silently fought this battle throughout my life before college, wanting so badly to share this part of myself with my teammates and the world but not knowing how to. Even coming out to my family my junior year felt easier than coming out to the rest of the world, because I presented it as something I was “figuring out” rather than being sure of it.

Collin Lillie points at the back of his jersey.
After coming out, Collin Lillie says, “I started to feel more empowered in who I was, which translated into being a better teammate and competitor for my team.”

When I got to college at William & Mary in Virginia, I was so excited for a fresh start. Getting onto a college gymnastics team was everything I had dreamed of, and I was so happy to pursue what I had worked so hard for. But I still held back. I had a new opportunity to reintroduce myself to a new team, yet I still was struggling with coming to terms with my identity. So, I continued to suppress that part of myself.

My freshman year I was welcomed onto the team, gaining a whole new community and family that I could be a part of. I loved it. The idea of being a part of something bigger than myself was everything I had hoped for in a college team.

Yet, even though I was in an environment where I knew I would be supported no matter what, I held back on revealing it to my teammates. I felt loved and knew that it wouldn’t change my teammates perception of me, but it was a hurdle that I felt was blocking me from reaching my full potential as a teammate, athlete and person.

Part of what held me back was fear of being rejected. I created a narrative in my head that ran through all the things that could go wrong if I came out. What if they didn’t accept me? Was I going to be the manifestation of the gay kid in gymnastics? What if it wasn’t worth it? I kept questioning it because the uncertainty of it felt incredibly overwhelming.

None of these questions had a basis in reality. My teammates are such a supportive group, welcoming of all identities, personalities and walks of life. I was a part of a group that was my community, a group of people that I can lean on and support in any season of life.

At times, I felt extremely confident and eager to come out. I would be totally ready to get it all over with. But, as with being a gymnast, I felt it needed to be right. I didn’t know what exactly the right way was, but I knew if I put it off I would start to feel ready for it. Putting it off didn’t solve anything, it just made the anticipation of it grow inside me, which would bring me back right into not wanting to do it anymore.

As it turned out, I didn’t really come out at a specific time. Through a series of events, it just kind of happened in the spring of my sophomore year.

I was seeing someone at the time, and felt like I didn’t need to hide the fact that it was happening. Though that situation ended pretty quickly, it is what initially set off my coming out to my teammates. When I would talk about it, I didn’t have to beat around the bush or change the subject; I could be frank with them.

Collin Lillie dismounts
Collin Lillie after a dismount.

Though I wasn’t immediately candid with everyone, my teammates accepted me. They didn’t change the way they interacted with me, which eased all of my worries and doubts.

I soon started to receive so much love and support from my teammates. As soon as I started to be confident in who I was, it was as though more things started to fall in place. I started to feel more empowered in who I was, which translated into being a better teammate and competitor for my team. I didn’t have to hide anymore, and that was where I found I could perform at my very best, regardless of the result.

It was so liberating to finally be myself. My teammates lifted me up, gave me space to figure it out and celebrated me above all. I couldn’t be more thankful for the ways in which I am able to live my truth while being on a collegiate team.

I know that I am very lucky to be a part of team that is accepting of me being gay, and I understand that it could’ve turned out very differently. I am filled with so much gratitude that I can be a part of a group where I am able to showcase all parts of my identity.

One of my teammates at the time, named Peter, who is also gay, was one of the people I leaned on. He was out and open about his experience as a gay person and athlete. His ability to be open about his identity made me feel more comforted in wanting to come out, yet the uncertainty of it still held me back.

When I did begin to live in my truth, his support and ability to confide in me made me wish I had come out sooner. He knew what it was like to go through the coming out process and how to navigate representing yourself in collegiate athletics. Peter was an ally and someone who I could look up to as I came into my identity as an out, gay athlete.

His guidance and support were key components in my coming out process with my teammates. He understood the experience of being a gay athlete in college, and we could come to each other in times of stress and encouragement. When I was hard on myself, he would step in and remind me of my light and purpose, which I feel has been lastingly instilled in me. Peter’s lessons and direction have enabled me to be a stronger version of myself, making sure that I let myself be the best that I possibly can be as an LGBTQ+ athlete.

Once I found acceptance in who I was, I could not only be a better teammate but also a better advocate for others.

As a member of the Student Athlete Advisory Committee, I have been able to serve on the Diversity and Inclusion board, where I have been able to be an advocate for those whose voices aren’t heard. I want to make sure that my campus and student-athlete community is a place that is welcoming of all identities and stands up for what is right.

Giving a voice to others allows me to advocate for a better experience for those who follow after me. It is necessary to push for better LGBTQ+ representation in athletics so we don’t have to be tokenized or used as an example.

By embracing who I truly was, I have been able to find joy, confidence and empowerment while being lifted up by my team. My experience as a collegiate athlete has allowed me to work towards a better version of who I can become.

Accepting my identity as an LGBTQ+ athlete has allowed me to find confidence in myself that I didn’t know I had. And by being myself, I have been able to become a better teammate, athlete and friend to those in my community.

Collin Lillie, 22, is a senior and captain of the men’s gymnastics team at the College of William & Mary. He can be reached by email (collinpiercelillie@gmail.com) or Instagram.

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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