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Jallen Messersmith’s journey of self-discovery begins like most gay coming-of-age stories: with a message on a dating app. Sitting in study hall on the campus of his small Catholic college, a stranger pinged him on Scruff.

After some back-and-forth, the person on the other side of the screen asked if Messersmith ever heard of Fire Island, and if not, would he consider coming down for a summer internship?

Messersmith didn’t need much convincing. There weren’t many other openly gay people at Benedictine College, or the surrounding town, Atchison, Kansas. The idea of living amongst his own was tantalizing.

He was a new person once he did.

“I went to Fire Island for that summer between my junior and senior year, and came back and was like, ‘I’m a homosexual, f**k the rest of this. I love this. I’m going to do whatever I want to do,’” Messersmith told me on this week’s edition of the Outsports podcast, The Sports Kiki. “It ended up being one of the best things I’ve ever done.”

When Messersmith first came out, his identity was seeped in sports. The 6-foot-8 forward won Defensive Player of the Year two seasons in a row and was ranked in the top 3 in shot blocking nationwide for three years. For the first time in four decades, Benedictine College won the Heart of America Athletic Conference in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics.

Messersmith dedicated his life to basketball growing up, burying his angst on the hardwood. His parents home-schooled him, because he was bullied so badly.

Words of acceptance were hard to come by in the Mormon church, or school hallways. Even in college, Messersmith encountered resistance from school administrators. Benedictine College’s president once ordered him to take down the Pride flag from his room, calling it “ugly.”

But that was post-Fire Island. After spending a summer with confident and fulfilled gay men from different generations, Messersmith knew he didn’t have to be proud in silence. He told a friend about the incident for an article in the school paper, and within 12 hours, he received an apology email from the president.

Few things are more dangerous than an empowered gay. The sudden loss of a teammate showed Messersmith that life is too short to spend in hiding.

“That shook me to my core,” he said. “It made me realize I needed to be my true self.”

Messersmith has found a community of lifelong friends on Fire Island.

Messersmith remembers the moment he fell in love with Fire Island. It happened during a game of beach volleyball, with many of his newfound friends. For the first time, he realized sports didn’t have to be a hyper-masculine, or even super serious activity.

He was more than happy to turn in his basketball shorts for a Speedo.

“I think it was at that net that I started to realize like, ‘Oh, these people are just here to have fun and really connect. And there aren’t any strings attached to this,’” Messersmith said. “‘I don’t need to be the stereotypical jock here. I can be whoever I want to be and show up to this court, and people will support that.’”

Today, Messersmith lives in New York City and spends his summers on Fire Island. There is a lot of volleyball, and plenty of shenanigans. With vaccinations rising and COVID-19 restrictions loosening up, Messersmith can’t wait to reconnect with his extended family — and get back to a drag bar.

He’s not in Kansas, anymore.

“That first summer in Fire Island, it really did change my perspective on a lot of things, because I was forced to be faced with a lot of that,” Messersmith said. “I didn’t understand drag culture. I didn’t understand what was going on with it. I didn’t know. And now that I know, oh my God, I will be at a drag show every single night. Sign me up, I’m ready to go.”

Click here to check out this episode of our Outsports podcast, The Sports Kiki. You can also subscribe to the show on Apple’s Podcast page as well as on Google Podcasts, and wherever you’ll find Outsports podcasts.

You can follow Jallen Messersmith on Twitter and Instagram.