I never truly cared about working hard to be the best athlete I could be until I starting thinking about my sexual identity. Whenever I felt insecure about being gay, I would kick a soccer ball or run and I would feel better.
By the time I was out, I was one of the best athletes at my high school in Avon, New York.
There’s nothing like a healthy dose of confidence to keep homophobic teammates quiet. I remember one guy on my soccer team who always seemed to have a problem with me. He would attempt to insult me or the way I play, but I was the lead goal scorer on our team and often the reason we would win games, so I never took him seriously. I was too focused on myself and my own training to have time to listen to some bigot tell me what he thought of me.
I often ran into ignorant people in and around sports. It was so rare to find another out gay person in my area, let alone someone who was confident and successful. I would play soccer in the off season with a bigger school nearby and those guys didn’t know me as well as people from my own high school. After about two years playing at this other school, I was out and proud and my teammates began finding out I was gay.
I never really faced any direct homophobia on this team, just the normal lame comments like, “I don’t care if you’re gay, just don’t hit on me.” It’s funny how the guys who say that are never the ones you would actually be into.
I have definitely developed crushes on teammates before. In my small town I was the only out gay guy for a long time, and I had a crush on my straight goalie. As you can imagine, it didn’t work out. Luckily for me he was not homophobic and let me down easy when I told him how I felt.
I think the real reason I fell so hard for this guy was the fact that he was always nice to me. I realize it’s the bare minimum and I never experienced any significant homophobia, but I would hear a lot of backhanded shady comments all the time.
Track and field is a sport where there’s a lot more down time between competitions. My teammates and I would socialize with other schools’ athletes at day-long meets and guys from other schools were often surprised to find out I was gay.
I would hear things like, “You’re gay? But you’re so fast!” as if liking boys affects how fast my legs move (I was undefeated in the 100-meter dash my senior season). Or if I met someone at a track meet who was on a soccer team we had defeated, I would hear, “You’re gay? But you were good at soccer!” C’mon aren’t we passed this?
I would argue that gay athletes feel more pressure to work hard and prove we belong in traditionally heteronormative, masculine spaces. I know I did. Even today as I continue to play soccer and run track at Nazareth College in Rochester, New York, I’m motivated to work hard because I don’t want to be a stereotype.
It’s always been something that’s at the back of my mind, that I’m going to be treated differently as an athlete because I’m gay. It can be hard to push away these thoughts, which is why I think I’ve always been so motivated to be better at my sports.
If I could give my younger self any bit of advice, I would tell myself not to wait so long. Coming out when I did was the best choice I ever made. I only wish I would have been able to do it sooner.
When I first started questioning my sexuality, I was at a very awkward stage physically and I almost quit playing sports when I was about 14. If I knew that working hard in sports would make me feel so empowered and strong in my sexuality, I would have never gotten anywhere near close to quitting.
If I could leave readers with one message, I would say don’t listen to the people who try to hold you back. Don’t listen to teammates who act like they’re better than you. Dig in, work hard and show them that everything you’ve gone through to get you to this point has made you strong in ways they can never understand.
Sports are for everyone. You should never sacrifice your confidence or your pride to make straight people feel comfortable. LGBTQ+ people are strong, and we can be successful in sports. Look at athletes like Tom Daley, Quinn, Megan Rapinoe, who all have been world champions in their sport. That could be you one day.
Mike Welch is a junior at Nazareth College in Rochester, New York, where he majors in Psychology with minors in Sociology and Gender Studies and competes in soccer and track. He can be reached on Instagram (@mikewelchmikewelch)
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