Being gay means coming out is never really over and the fears can come back, as I found out this year.
I’m a senior college volleyball player at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee and wanted to pursue a high school coaching job on the boys JV team at Pewaukee High School. Even though I was happy and out as a player on my college team, I found that my old thoughts and anxieties flooded back as I considered coaching.
Would my players trust me because I was gay? What about the parents? I got the job, took a deep breath and was incredibly happy when I was welcomed by the players and their parents.
One conversation I remember the most from coaching this season was with a parent of one of my players. He had told me that I was the best coach his son has ever had, because of my love and dedication to the players. This was extremely rewarding to receive this comment, especially not knowing how the boys would receive my type of coaching.
My recent comfort and acceptance of being gay and playing volleyball contrasts with the struggles I had growing up.
I always knew I was different from the other boys I grew up around. I knew I was gay around my middle school years and never actually had to come out to my family; they just knew. In seventh grade I decided to start playing volleyball and quickly fell in love with the game.
In middle school, volleyball isn’t considered the most masculine sport, but I still felt the need to try and fit in with my team. I grew up in a small town two hours north of Milwaukee. Boys volleyball was not a sport offered in my school district, but that did not stop me from playing.
When I started to play club volleyball in seventh grade, I quickly realized that the very idea of me playing volleyball automatically labeled me as gay in the eyes of my peers. This notion bothered me, and I did everything I could to not be looked at as “the gay boy who plays volleyball.”
Unfortunately, my high school did not offer boys volleyball so I knew that if I wanted to keep playing at a high level I had to keep up with guys in the area who could play on a high school team. This led me to practicing with the girls high school team. I was glad to have the chance to improve my skills, but it did not help me wanting to look more masculine.
During high school, I did not care about how I was perceived off the court, but as soon as it came to club tryouts I flipped a switch. I would do my best to fit in with all the other boys and always had the thought that I was acting “too gay.” This greatly impacted my mental health and my love for the game. The only time I truly felt like myself was when I was playing with the girls at my high school.
Around my junior year, I realized that I was good enough to play in college. The fear of having to talk to college coaches and them thinking I was gay kept me awake. When visiting schools I would dress in ways I thought would make me look straight. I would try my best to interact with other players as one of the guys. This persona I invented was of someone who lacked confidence and had fear written all over him.
After visiting many schools I began to wonder if this is what I truly wanted. I feared a coach who didn’t accept me or a teammate who was nervous to change in the locker room next to me. These questions flooded my brain and made the idea of playing volleyball in college a nightmare.
I committed to a Division III school in Michigan, and was the starting libero as a freshman. But I experienced extreme homesickness and felt alone. I then made a decision that I have never regretted and transferred to Cardinal Stritch University and it saved my volleyball career.
At first, I tried to not act very feminine, but after a few practices I started to warm up to my team. I never officially came out to my coach or teammates but it was pretty clear to everyone who I was. I was released from the fear I had and helped me play a level I did not think was possible.
Having teammates who genuinely care about my well-being was the best cure for a lack of confidence. I knew that my team had my back and that I was never alone. As I have played collegiately, I have learned that gay volleyball players are quite common.
I was the only gay player on any of my teams, until this year when I learned that another gay player was joining us. I instantly was excited, but also nervous for him and did not want him to go through the same fears as I did. I knew I was going to have to step up and be a mentor for him.
I made sure to reach out to him and make it known that he was not alone. I offered myself as someone who he would be able to look up too and talk to if he ever needed. This was important to me because I did not have someone like this during my freshman year.
Being my authentic self with my team and coaches helped me become the person I am today. The rough patches I went through made me stronger and excelled a better player. After my freshman year of college, I finally felt free of my evil thoughts that lingered my brain since I was 14.
I now love volleyball as much as when I first discovered it and I am trying to pass on that love to the JV players I coach.
Some advice I would give to any athlete who is struggling with a similar situation as me, is to never be afraid of other people’s perception of you. The moment you feel like you are being judged or criticized by a coach or peer is when you need to act your strongest. Play with integrity and confidence.
The reason for wanting to share my story comes from my overwhelming love for volleyball and my passion for advocating for young athletes. I want my story to have an impact on other young athletes. Raising awareness of LGBTQ athletes is something that will help promote equality and inclusion within all levels of sport.
It is important to me that I share my story in hopes that a little boy out there who plays sports knows it is OK to feel and be different.
Dustin Stueck is a senior at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee , where he is majoring in Sport and Rec Business and is a member of the men’s volleyball team. He grew up in Winneconne, Wisconsin, where he played on elite traveling volleyball teams throughout high school. He is a member of the CCAC all-academic team, and is the head JV boys volleyball coach for Pewaukee High School. He can be reached on instagram @dustin.stueck
Story editor: Jim Buzinski
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