Coming out is a weighty topic within the LGBTQIA+ community and beyond.
While many see it as an opportunity to celebrate who we are, it can often feel like a burden, a heteronormative pressure placed on us by society to openly declare ourselves to the world as “different” or “other.”
There is often a very real and valid fear associated with coming out. The fear that it will change the way the world treats and perceives us. That, despite the myriad traits and interests by which we define our own identity, we will be known from this point on as the gay one. The trans one. The bi one. The lesbian. The queer.
While these words can bring with them their own sense of pride and empowerment, it can be exhausting to feel that the weight of an entire movement rests on your shoulders.
My parents, along with everyone else, found out I was gay when I was invited to speak on a ClimbingQTs panel in Australia about Pride and LGBTQIA+ inclusion within the climbing community.
I stood on a stage, microphone in hand, in front of a crowd of 100 people talking about my experiences as a gay athlete. Fear and apprehension were present, but I was empowered and emboldened by the notion that I could be that one thing for others that I had so desperately craved in my youth.
I’ve written before that pride isn’t always easy, but it’s through visibility and our strength in numbers that we can overcome these hardships and facilitate a changing world. To be open, out and proud is how we pave the way for a new generation of tolerance, acceptance and inclusion.
By normalizing our presence in all spaces, especially those that choose to shun or ignore us, we open the hearts and minds of others to the idea that we are just as much a valuable part of this world as any other. We also embolden those who would otherwise hide themselves behind fear and insecurity that there is a vast, wonderful and accepting community awaiting them beyond the veil of the closet.
Sport as a social space is notoriously harsh and uninviting towards the queer community. Gender and heteronormativity, particularly in male-dominated sports, is the backbone upon which many of these cultures are built.
It would be rare to find a queer individual who couldn’t relate to the fear and shame associated with the locker room. Inherently gendered and often a roundtable of sexist, racist and homophobic banter all in the name of a “good laugh,” these spaces are a stark reminder of all of the ways in which we don’t quite fit in.
Rarely are we truly struggling alone, but all too often we are struggling in silence. Queer people exist in all walks of life, from climbing gyms, to sports club locker rooms, to houses of parliament. And yet, the LGBTQIA+ role models we so desperately need are few and far between. The days when coming out as queer would see you fired from your job or kicked off the team are moving behind us, however it was only by the hard work of our out-and-proud champions that we were able to see this reality begin to take form.
My coming out was a somewhat unusual one, and yet one that I think a lot of people can relate to. My friends within the climbing community were some of the first who I was able to share my identity with. With time, I felt comfortable enough to share this part of myself with my peers at school.
For me, the hardest people to come out to were my family. Despite being the most kind, caring, progressive and welcoming people I know, I couldn’t shake this fear that everything would change for me once I told them I was gay. There was a sense of grief and loss in letting go of the person I had once thought I would become.
All of these values and ideals, so many of which were imparted upon me by society in my inherently heteronormative upbringing, would suddenly vanish. This scared me, despite knowing that it wasn’t who I wanted to be anymore, and I think this was due to the lack of queer role models I had to look up to whilst growing up.
I had so few real, tangible and relatable examples of queer people leading successful lives that I think I internalized some kind of notion of queer inferiority. Had I only known of all the incredible queer people who were out there thriving in all manner of athletic, creative and professional pursuits, then perhaps I would have been able to take ownership of my own identity sooner. Perhaps sharing who I was with the people I cared about wouldn’t have carried with it so much guilt and shame.
Future generations of young people within the Australian climbing community would have at least one queer person to look up to and show them that life opens its doors to you when you quit shying away from it.
I’ve accepted that not everyone would like me or respect me, but in my position as an openly queer athlete I have had the privilege of normalizing queerness in sport for even just a small fraction of the community, and that’s an opportunity that I’ve found endlessly rewarding.
I’m often asked if there are many LGBTQIA+ athletes within the climbing sphere, and while I know of some, many are a mystery to me. Everyone is entitled to whether they choose to come out publicly or not, and for many it’s not safe to do so.
However, there is an ever-increasing need within the sporting community at large for more openly queer role models. In standing proudly by who we are at what we can accomplish, we can empower the next generation to have it better than we did, and to feel safer than we did. Locker rooms and sporting fields that “otherize” queer identities are only able to exist when we choose to sit back and remain silent.
As queer people, we don’t owe coming out to anyone. Not to our friends, not to our family, and certainly not to the wider public. However, in choosing to outwardly be our honest and authentic selves, we can further empower the next generation, and even our peers, to live their dreams, and to just feel welcome in the spaces that would otherwise seem scary and uncertain.
To anyone thinking of coming out, I would encourage you to look at it not as some obligation to those around you but in terms of the joy, love and empowerment you can bring to other queer people who need a hero, or even just a friendly face, in which they can see themselves.
Campbell Harrison (he/they), 25, is a professional sport climber from Melbourne, Australia, and a 2022 national champion, lead and combined. You can follow his journey on Instagram at @campbellharrison547 .
Story editor: Jim Buzinski
If you are an out LGBTQ person in sports and want to tell your story, email Jim (email@example.com)
Check out our archive of coming out stories.