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Gay, Black gymnast finds he can be himself at West Point

‘Since I have been out, not a single individual has treated me differently since before I was in the closet,’ Brandon Rhode writes. ‘It’s interesting how curious they are about the queer experience.’

Brandon Rhode is a cadet at West Point and a member of the gymnastics team.
Brandon Rhode is a cadet at West Point and a member of the gymnastics team.

I’m Brandon. I’m Black. I’m adopted. I’m a competitive gymnast. I’m a West Point Cadet. I also happen to be gay.

There was a time in America when as a Black man, I could not walk free. Not too long ago I could not be openly gay in the military without facing consequences. You could call that societal progress, but I would call it ridding the world of ignorance.

My coming out experience growing up in Arizona was not the happy ending I was hoping for from my parents, who had always been very supportive. Growing up, they never tried to hide the fact that I was adopted. I’m Black and my family is white. Even at 3, I could figure that one out.

They always highlighted the fact that they got to choose me as the child to adopt. What hurt then was the fact that the “choice” I made to reveal myself as gay could impact the choice they made to keep me.

When I came out as gay, my parents first asked if I’d ever been abused, and then thought it was a phase. When my mother found out that my close friends had already been told (I came out to them via a “finsta” post) she grew angry.

In one of her angriest moments, she expressed that she hoped she would be dead before ever seeing me get married to a man. This was when I was at my saddest. Hearing that made me think very darkly about who I was.

I began to write down and keep a diary of all the things my mom would say to me. It gave me relief to write it on paper and cross it out, because I accepted that none of those statements could be true.

In my mother’s mind, our relationship was broken. She told me that the only way we could bond was through my gymnastics and achievements. This broke me.

Since then, I have let my mother take her own journey to find her acceptance. I don’t completely know if she has come to fully accept me for who I am. However, I do know that our bond has strengthened over my achievements. My parents mean everything to me.

After I came out, I had my own choice: What kind of person did I want to become? I want to leave my mark on the world. In high school, I was highly involved in student government, national honor society and had an impressive position at my job.

After Junior Olympic Nationals in 2019, I discovered the United States Military Academy at West Point and learned of their gymnastics program. Being recruited at West Point is not an easy process and athletes still have to fulfill the same requirements that nonrecruited athletes have to meet.

During this process, I had begun to be weary of what I had gotten myself into. Due to my sexuality, and the environment that I had been used to, I was afraid of the new blood-sweat-tears, macho-masculine environment that West Point portrayed. I was hesitant to commit myself to something that I believed would try hard to change me.

I was a military brat and my father served in the military for more than two decades and developed very close relationships with very masculine figures. This is what I knew of the military at the time and figured that is what the military demands.

I am not the most masculine nor the most feminine. I’m just myself.

Brandon Rhode participating in a West Point tradition.
Brandon Rhode participating in a West Point tradition.

Going on my second year at the Academy, I admit that I was wrong to be hesitant of the environment that I would spend the next four years in. Although West Point is extremely competitive with very intelligent and driven individuals, I have yet to be ridiculed or singled out for my sexuality and how I present my personality.

However, when it came to gymnastics, and the team at West Point, I was uncomfortable to reveal my complete self.

In middle school and high school, gymnasts are constantly combating the belief that gymnastics is a “gay sport.” I remember constantly being made fun of and mocked for participating in such a “feminine” and “gay” pastime. I have always been cautious to validate others opinions of the sport being a gay because I was “a gay” who happened to do gymnastics. In fact, I know very few gay gymnasts.

Because of these reasons, I was afraid to come out to my team at West Point. Gymnastics is actually an extremely hypermasculine environment. However, every male athlete has a point in time where they let their feminine side show. This would be most prevalent in the locker room.

Brandon Rhode
Brandon Rhode was hesitant at first to come out to his teammates, but it turned out to not be a problem.
Steph E. Photography, Tucson Arizona.

I have always found that outside of the locker room, I would be the gayest acting (maybe it’s because I am gay!), but inside this is where the straightest guys act in a way that would make me question otherwise..

The team has made showering together a major deal and shamed those who choose not to shower as a group. The shower, though, has always made me feel standoffish with the behavior that goes on in there. If I played around touching others or making “gay” jokes like my straight counterparts did, it would not be seen as a joke or taken lightly. This is a double standard that should rather be unacceptable.

And based on social stereotypes on sexuality, how is it possible that I am the “straightest” in the locker room? That’s a rhetorical question that should be thought about for those who neglect to think about the gay teammates on their team.

In 2021, my sophomore year, I decided to stop hiding myself and began acting like how I would outside of the gym. I have recently found out that my teammates are some of the most unbothered and accepting individuals I have ever met. Since I have been out, not a single individual has treated me differently since before I was in the closet. It’s actually interesting how curious they are about the queer experience and I’m happy to be a resource to their questions.

Every queer person has a different experience and I can’t offer answers to every question. However, it’s my obligation to represent my communities the best way possible and stand up to any slander that is offensive or inappropriate.

Seeing other queer gymnasts like Heath Thorpe and Jackson Harrison share their experiences made me want to share mine. We all share one goal, which is to hope other athletes have less fear about revealing their identity in extremely competitive and hypermasculine environments.

Brandon Rhode, 20, is a Cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point where he competes on the men’s gymnastics team. He is majoring in Business Management with a minor in Engineering Management. He aspires to create lines of businesses with core values that strive to make the world a safer, more inclusive environment for diverse individuals. He can be reached at (rhode512@yahoo.com, Twitter (@brandonrhode_), Instagram (@brandonrhode)

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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