I came out at 15 in the suburbs of Seattle, where I went to a primarily white high school.
I knew I was gay by the time I was 12, but I didn’t come out to my family until I was 13. They took it well, but coming out to my high school was a different beast. Luckily, I had a twin and an older brother who went to school with me. I didn’t feel like I was alone when I was coming out, but as almost any gay person knows, coming out does feel like a lonely experience.
By the time I was 15, I was the only openly gay black person in my high school, which felt strange. I was the president of not just our Black Student Union but the Gay-Straight Alliance as well.
I had become comfortable with my sexuality and myself. I was the captain of my cross-country and track and field teams, where I made multiple state appearances and got to know kids from other schools. They knew I was gay, and many people throughout the state ended up knowing I was gay. That all changed when I got to the University of Washington in 2017.
While I was at UW from 2017-21, I had many experiences that tested my character and resolve. As a student-athlete I had the normal struggles — needing to train hard, having to study for a test or having to travel and then scheduling a make-up exam for when I get back. But there were special situations that called for me to take into consideration who I was.
There were many times where I heard different teammates of mine using slurs that I found offensive. It was hard walking in the locker room and being the only queer man of color. Some of my teammates would walk around with just a towel on (which I thought nothing of), and I had to be quiet.
I became hyperaware of the conversations happening around me because this is the way I learned to survive. While I stared down in fear that one of my straight teammates might think I was ogling them, I heard a slur casually thrown out in conversation by one of my white teammates. It was the n-word.
In another situation, I was running during a workout and it was starting to get tiring. On both sides of me, my teammates started playfully jabbing each other as a way to motivate, and one of them said, “Don’t be a faggot and just run.” The one teammate looked at me and back at the teammate who made that statement.
What should I do about a teammate who made homophobic jokes? How should I react when I heard teammates make racial slurs under their breath? This was all difficult terrain to navigate, especially since I was in the intersection of race and sexuality alone. Those situations were scary, especially considering that these were the people who were supposed to be close to me and who were expecting to be treated as brothers-in-arms.
How many other young black gay athletes were at UW? Not that many. I thought it was common knowledge that I was the only openly gay athlete on UW’s track team. Many other athletes knew I was gay, but that wasn’t something that staff and faculty members knew.
In June I had an eye-opening experience at the Pac-12 track and field championships where I was able to converse and learn from other queer athletes and athletic faculty members from around the conference. Although this was at the end of my athletic tenure at UW, I was able to learn skills and tools to give to other student-athletes at UW before I graduated.
I think the biggest lesson I learned as a queer athlete was to never be ashamed of who you are and where you come from. I met so many people who had strong personalities and they would often wouldn’t take into consideration other people’s backgrounds. Sometimes those personalities make it hard to be who you are, and that includes being queer. But when you start to cover up parts of your personality and your character, you start to miss out on many opportunities.
There were many days that I was so caught up in trying to keep peace and conform, that I missed out. Those chances were academic as well as athletic. When you start to forget who you are and what you stand for, you start to lose interest in many of the things around you, and that’s something that we as queer athletes cannot compromise on.
Whom we love, how we love and the love that’s around us extends into our sport no matter the circumstances. It is our support network and it’s our lives. When we must hide that part of us to appease others, we end up missing out on so much. It’s not fair to us and it’s not fair to the people around us.
Now that I live in the Netherlands, I’m trying to relearn who I am and what I love. I know I love watching dogs at the park, playing card games, and pound cake, but it extends past that. I want to learn to love healthily again, I want to learn to love running again, I want to learn to love my body like I used to.
If running taught me anything, it’s that you need to take one step at a time. Those steps turn into a walk, and eventually a run. At some point, you’ll be sprinting toward what you believe in and what you love. I hope that we can all learn to be in that space.
Devan Kirk was a track and field student athlete at the University of Washington, where he ran the 400- and 800-meter dashes. He received his Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology and another Bachelor of Arts in Art with a minor in Art History. He now studies at the University of Amsterdam where he will be receiving a Master of Science in Social and Cultural Anthropology. He can be reached by email at (firstname.lastname@example.org) or on Instagram at @takkiatsu.
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