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For college rowing captain, coming out as gay showed power of authenticity

Gus Hirschfeld takes the lessons he learned as an athlete at Brown to his new job as a special education teacher.

Gus Hirschfeld, shown this year in San Francisco, was a captain on the Brown rowing team.
Gus Hirschfeld, shown this year in San Francisco, was a captain on the Brown rowing team.

Two minutes-long conversations two years apart showed me the power of authenticity and being myself.

The first came in 2019 after I was named a team captain for my Brown University rowing team.

As I was ready to begin my junior year in Providence, Rhode Island, there was one thing left unsettled. I was still in the closet. I was gay and I had not been up front to any of my teammates about my identity.

Something felt confusing to me about having to lead a team without them knowing what I saw as the most important part of me: being gay. It just didn’t seem right. In fact, it seemed wrong and as if by not saying anything as a leader I was effectively lying to them about who I was.

In retrospect, it wasn’t as deep as I made it out to be. I sat down with my teammates on our first night all back together before classes started and came out to them.

The conversation lasted approximately five minutes before it moved on, and in retrospect that completely made sense. It didn’t matter to them that I was gay in sports. What mattered to them was who I was, how hard I worked as an athlete and how I treated them.

What changed after this moment was not how my team saw me, but how most of them interacted with me and by extension the gay community. On the off chance one of my teammates made a homophobic comment as we carpooled to the boathouse or at the dining hall table or in the showers after practice, there was an almost always instant recognition about why it was wrong.

This signaled to me that my teammates were beginning to understand allyship and for the first time I was able to experience the power of it. I appreciated the burden that was lifted off my shoulders of not having to be the one to call it out. When I did have to call it out, I knew I would not be alone in confronting whoever made the comment.

The second event that showed me the power of being honest came in November in Oakland, where I am a special education teacher at a K-5 school with Teach For America.

I was seated at a picnic table watching the kids play at recess when a group of fourth-graders began to sit around me. This led to a conversation that took an unexpected turn. A student noticed my rainbow watch band. She pointed to it and asked, “Are you part of the LGBTQ community?”

I didn’t have much time to respond without making the situation something that it wasn’t. In the milliseconds it took me to respond, a million things raced through my mind.

Are the students old enough to know what that means? Is she asking to make fun of me or judge me? Is she asking purely out of curiosity? Am I allowed to be honest with students? Are my co-workers going to think I am oversharing? What do I say?

I responded, “Yes. I am.”

“That is great,” she said. “I am happy for you.” And then the conversation jumped right back into taking about what they were learning about in math class without any awkward silence or follow-up questions.

It was a wow moment for me that a student who had not known me well could have this type of conversation with somebody of my age at her age.

It made me think back to how at that age I would drive to the rink for youth hockey practice to hear kids saying “next one to touch the door handle is gay,” as if it were the worst thing that somebody could be.

Gus Hirschfeld, right, competing for Brown.
Gus Hirschfeld, right, competing for Brown.

It made me hopeful that this might no longer be happening in locker rooms, playgrounds, classrooms and that if it was there was a better chance that kids might know to stand up for what they knew was right and wrong in those moments.

Although the lives of my students, co-workers, and myself superficially look different to my life as an Ivy League athlete months ago prior, many things are extremely relatable to my experience as a gay athlete at Brown.

My students have shown first-hand how powerful it can be to have friends and peers use their voices to support one another. Recently, Oakland Unified School District School Board decided to close seven schools in which Black and Latino students predominantly makeup the enrollment.

Students showed up to the school board meeting and for hours shared how devastating these closures would be for their communities. These kids were doing what I had thought so proudly of my teammates doing just months before: speaking out against actions that kids knew were wrong.

The school closure has made me think about how we think about youth and their power. Kids are incredibly self-aware and socially conscious when adults give them the independence and safety to allow them to be.

Nevertheless, as I write this article piece the Florida Senate has passed its now infamous “Don’t Say Gay” bill that will ban schools from discussing sexual orientation from kindergarten through third grade and hinder youth from living authentic lives. This creates a significant cause for concern.

What keeps me hopeful is that kids are more than ever starting to stand up against decisions they know are wrong. This will cause irrefutable harm to queer youth, but it is queer youth and allies in the end that will, given my lived experience, work to make things right.

Like rowing, coming out and my experiences since have reaffirmed the importance of community. Not only just being part of a community but the power of cultivating trust, accountability and belief throughout and between different communities. This is something that I am reminded of each time I reflect on my time as a rower, each time I step in the classroom and each time I coach kids in rowing from the launch on the Oakland estuary.

Community is the thing that has the power to allow us to be ourselves. The hardest part can be finding the community that supports you in this. The scariest part is questioning whether you can find that community. The truth is that the community is here. Once that community is found, the ability to grow into your true self is astounding.

Gus Hirschfeld is a special education teacher in Oakland. He graduated from Brown University in 2021 and was a captain of the men’s rowing team. He is now a part-time coach with the Oakland Athletic Rowing Society (OARS). He can be reached via emai: gus.hirschfeld@gmail.com and on Instagram (GustavRobin).

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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