Story by Brandon Stoneham, from April 30, 2011
As I start walking towards my coach's office, it hits me that this is a huge turning point in my life. A little over a year ago, I didn't think I would ever have the courage to tell anyone I was gay. Now, my coach was the last person I had to tell before I could consider myself an openly gay athlete.
I was nervous, but a good nervous. I embraced the feeling and felt excited at the same time. The walk felt extremely short because I was so occupied with what I was going to say. I went through multiple scenarios in my head trying to prepare myself; I wanted to be ready for any reaction he might have. When I got to his office, I forgot to be nervous. I walked in and felt really confident. When I told him, I felt really empowered. It felt good to know I was confident enough to tell him. I was proud of myself. After I told him, he had no problems. We exchanged a few jokes and talked about it for a few minutes. I told him that I wanted to write a coming out article and he was fully supportive. I started writing the very next day. ...
I remember the exact moment I knew I was gay. I was in Grade 9 and my religion teacher had the class close their eyes. He told the story of an average young boy who was getting ready for the biggest day of his life; the young boy was gay and was preparing to tell someone for the first time. The story recounted the boy's emotions leading up to his coming out. Prior to this class, I had always known I was different. I wasn't sure how, but I knew I was. As my teacher was reading, the world appeared clearly for the first time; I knew I was gay. I knew it because I felt so self-conscious throughout the entire story. I felt like my classmates were burning me with their Cyclops-like stares. Of course their eyes were closed, and no one had any clue I was gay, but I knew.
I would go on to have many similar heart-stopping experiences. For the five years I lived in the closet. I was always conscious of making sure I never made any "gay" moves. I dated a girl, who is one of my best friends now, on and off during high school. I also had a Hooters magazine that I would occasionally leave out at my dad's house. I figured it was something a straight guy would do. It wasn't until I was in grade 12 that I finally accepted the fact that I was gay. Before that, I always tried to convince myself it was a phase that would pass.
In 12th grade, I had what I like to call a quarter-life crisis. I was really unsatisfied with my social progress in high school. I feel like I had repressed a part of me because I was always nervous to go to parties and be put in an awkward, pretend-your-not-gay situation. I changed that and started going to more parties and trying to make up for lost time. I knew I was gay and couldn't change it, but I wanted to feel what it was like to be an average straight guy in high school. It was fun but it wasn't what I really needed. The burden of pretending to be someone I was not started to feel heavier and heavier.
That year of my life was really stressful for me. I was being recruited by a few different universities for soccer and I felt overwhelmed. I was scared about being in a new team environment and having to convince 25 more guys that I was a normal guy. I couldn't make my parents understand why I was so nervous without telling them I was gay. I was in the worst position because I wasn't ready to come out, but couldn't fix my problem without doing it. I had worked my whole life towards getting a scholarship, and now that the opportunity presented itself, I wasn't sure if I wanted it. Thankfully for me, my best friend was being recruited by one of the same schools. Having already visited and knowing my best friend would probably go there too, I chose Adelphi out of pure comfort and proximity to home. As much as I was afraid, I knew I couldn't pass on the opportunity I had worked towards for so long. For me, it was a small leap of faith when I committed to Adelphi. I was headed towards the unknown. I just hoped I would fit in and find my own.
I reported to Adelphi in August 2009 for the start of preseason. It was the most physically and mentally draining two weeks of my life. I broke down when my dad's side of the family came to visit me. When they left, I started crying and didn't think I could go on. I missed home so much and I was exhausted from being on the field twice a day in the heat. It was a major shock to the system.
I really tried to fit in with the team during my first semester. I talked about girls like I was an expert in the field, and I had the odd hook-up to avoid any speculation. There were a few girls who liked me so I always had to pretend I was interested, but not enough to make any moves. I mastered the art of deflecting questions about girls without giving away anything. It sucked to do, but I was lucky that I didn't have to do it often. I was fortunate enough to make some really good friends on the team and talking about girls wasn't something we did a lot.
During the season, I didn't have much time to think about my social life because of how much soccer we played. Once the season ended, there was so much more time to think. We started going out more and I started to feel more uncomfortable than usual. I was missing home a lot and it just didn't feel right. I started to do a lot of online research about gays and sports and didn't find much. Despite trying to hide it, I wanted to get more in touch with the gay side of me. I watched more gay-themed movies and started to feel a connection with the characters. I saw "Milk" and it really affected me. I couldn't believe how much hardship the main character, Harvey Milk, went through. After seeing it, I was ashamed that I felt sorry for myself and that I wasn't proud of who I was. I started to feel more and more like screaming out to the world that I was gay but I still wasn't ready.
When I went home for Christmas break 2009, I had to tell everyone about my first semester in university away from home. I got the same questions from most people, and the more I heard myself give the same answers, the more I realized how fake it was. It was like rehearsing lines for a play; saying the same thing over and over again. I was talking about my life like I had actually lived it the way I wanted to. I pretended like everything was perfect the first semester but I knew I wasn't happy.
In many ways, my first semester was everything it could have been. I had made a lot of friends, I finished with a 3.9 GPA, and my team had won its conference with a record of 13-2-4. Despite all these accomplishments, I felt like I was a puppet in a master scheme. Nothing seemed real, and I felt that all I had accomplished was for nothing.
Solace through music
After Christmas, I went on a vacation with my family to Florida. It hit me the hardest during that trip that I had being living a lie my entire life. It seemed as though all of my internal struggles had reached a peak.
I had always liked "American Idol," but never as much as when Adam Lambert was performing. I found his voice to be unlike any other. This combined with the self-confidence he exhibited every time he was on stage had me convinced; he was my first gay role model. I loved how much confidence he had in himself and how in-touch he seemed with his own emotions and feelings. I envied his confidence. The song "Aftermath" from his first album would change my life; it was the first "coming out" song I had heard. The more I listened to it, the more I realized I had to take control of my life for the first time.
Wanna scream out
No more hiding
Don't be afraid of what's inside
Gonna tell ya you'll be alright
In the aftermath
I knew I had to come out but I was so scared and unsure of myself that I didn't think I could do it. For five days, I had "Aftermath" and John Mayer's "Say" on repeat. Every time a song played, I gained a little more strength and courage. The words in their songs spoke to me. From "Say":
Have no fear for givin' in
Have no fear for givin' over
You better know that in the end
It's better to say too much
Than to never to say what you need to say again
For the first time, I believed the cliché, "It's better to be hated for who you are than to be loved for someone you are not." Since I was in Florida when I came to this realization, I decided to come out via email.
I had always planned on telling my mom first, so it was an easy decision to tell her. Not only did I have the safety of being away from her initial reaction, we both would have time to reflect before seeing each other. I would also be able to get all of my thoughts and feelings in the open before she could react. I hoped she would understand and appreciate where all my feelings were coming from. I put on my headphones, and I wrote the most honest email I could.
Mom: You may not be able to understand but telling you is the hardest thing in the world...it's taken me 5 years to do it. I don't have the courage to tell you face to face because I just can't say I'm gay out loud. I just can't do it. I've tried so many times but it's just not possible. ...
I knew complete honesty was the only way to overcome my own barriers. The email ended up being five pages of raw thought and emotion. Once I was done writing, I expected myself to start second-guessing what I was about to do. Thankfully, I was smart enough to hit send right away and spare myself another period of self-doubt.
After the email was sent, I didn't feel any different. I expected to feel 100 times lighter as everyone says but it didn't happen for me. Mom responded a long two hours later, and I couldn't have asked for a better reaction. She told me everything I needed to hear. She still loved me unconditionally and was going to do everything she could to help me. That was the message behind every sentence. I felt much better because for the first time, I had an ally. I had one person who I could be myself to and that felt amazing.
I told my brother, who was 9 years old at the time, a few days after. I had a few too many glasses of wine at dinner that night, so telling more people seemed like a great idea. When I told him, he didn't believe me and thought it was a big joke. It went on for so long that I started to laugh because I couldn't convince him. After he finally understood I wasn't kidding, he was a bit overwhelmed and confused. I knew it would be a lot for him to handle so I just sat with him and tried to explain as simply I could that I was the same person. I feel much closer with him, and our bond has grown. He has been very supportive and always seems to try and make me happy.
I told my dad and step-mom the same night I told my brother. It was really hard because I had to say it out loud and witness their initial reactions. I remember the look both of them had on their faces when I told them. It was like I had just told a bad joke; they were confused and unsure as to laugh or believe me. My step-mom looked at me like I had five heads and said, "Bran, if you're kidding, I'm going to kill you." Once the initial shock wore off, we started talking about everything, and I answered a lot of their questions.
One thing that I told them during the talk was that I wasn't going to go back to school. I had really struggled with my confidence during my first semester of university, and I couldn't imagine telling my teammates I was gay. I was afraid my teammates would alienate me. My rationale was that every in-the-closet athlete had to choose between their sport and their desire to be themselves. For my whole life I had chosen sport and I wasn't prepared to do it anymore. I couldn't rationalize coming out to my team because it was such a foreign concept. I had never heard of an openly gay athlete and wasn't prepared to deal with the potential hardships.
After listening to all I had to say, my dad told me, "I have no problem with the fact that you are gay. What I do have a problem with, is you giving up on your dream because of it." I promised him I would at least talk to a therapist before making such a drastic decision. I had two sessions with a therapist and she helped me talk through all my concerns and issues. My main concern was how I never had the expected uplifting moment after telling people. After hearing what I had to say, she suggested the reason for this was because I hadn't combined the two main aspects of my life: personal relationships and sports.
When I got back to school, I was overwhelmed with emotion. It was probably the most mentally straining month of my life. I went from having a huge support system in my family, to being by myself again.
Telling friends and teammates
The first person I told at school was my best friend Brandon. We knew each other prior to Adelphi and had played on the same club team for four years. Telling him was hard because I knew without his support, I would really struggle telling anybody else. I told him at a party that I wanted to talk with him when we got back to campus. Of course he wouldn't let me wait and made me tell him at the party. After I told him, he gave me a hug and said nothing would change between us. We sat down and started talking about everything and one of my other good friends noticed. He came over and wanted to know what was going on. I didn't want to tell him at the time, but he made me feel bad for keeping a secret. I told him and made sure he wouldn't tell anyone else because I wanted to come out on my own terms. He was fully supportive and didn't care at all that I was gay. For the first time, I could be myself around my best friend and it was a surreal emotion.
Two days later, I heard a knock on my door and it was Brandon. When I opened the door, he came into the room and started crying. I had never seen him cry before so it was really unexpected. He started to tell me how scared he was for me and for our relationship. He was afraid he would change and act differently around me. I felt really special seeing how much of an impact telling him had. It was really comforting knowing he cared so much and was worried for me. I told him that our friendship wouldn't change because I knew I wouldn't change and I knew he wouldn't either.
We both talked about how hard it would be to tell people on the team. He was scared nobody else would understand and I would be isolated. That semester, I ended up telling only three more of my teammates as well as a few friends at the school. I only told people when the topic came up or if it felt right at the time. It's annoying enough to think of how to start the "I'm gay" conversation. The teammates whom I told were very supportive. I knew I could always fall back on them and still have good friends on the team. Knowing that made it easier to tell the rest of my teammates.
I had one teammate who has always been very open about his extreme dislike towards gay people. Ironically, over time he has become one of my best friends. He obviously didn't know I was gay when he used to say it so I didn't take it personally. It did hurt to hear, but I knew he never had any experience with gay people and was engaging in stererotypes. How do you tell someone who hates gay people that you are gay? I decided the best way to tell him was through email.
I got a text from him that night saying, "Don't worry. It will take time but it will be ok. It is hard for me, but I know it's even harder for you. Just give me time and it will be alright." I was prepared for the worst so I couldn't have been any happier with his response. The concept of having a gay friend was foreign to him. It took him some time to accept it but our relationship hasn't changed. He remains one of my best friends and we share a mutual respect regarding any gay issues. Even though he isn't fully comfortable with the gay thing, he stood up for me when one teammate found out and was uncomfortable with it.
I ended up telling more of my teammates during my sophomore year whenever a good opportunity presented itself. It was at this point that I started to think I was in a position to help others like me. I had no problems with anyone knowing I was gay, so I wasn't afraid to promote something gay-related. I started doing some research on how I could make a difference and promote gays in sports.
On a routine visit to Outsports, I came across a blog by Brad, Robert and Ben, the high school kids who were openly gay athletes. I thought it was an awesome idea and admired them for having the courage to do that in high school. Seeing their blog confirmed my desire to do something. I contacted Jim from Outsports to get an idea of some things I could do. He suggested I write a coming out article. I remembered back to when I was coming out and barely had any similar people to look for guidance or advice.
I felt like writing this article would give people who are struggling to come out some confidence. I believe knowing somebody went through the exact same thing is very powerful. Needless to say, I loved the idea. Before writing it, I wanted to make sure my coach was aware that I was gay and knew that I would be writing an article. I went to his office the next day and told him my plan. He was fully on board.
Brandon Stoneham, born in Ottawa, is a sophomore at Adelphi University in Long Island, and plays forward on the men's soccer team. He can be reached by email at email@example.com .