Coming of Age

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Life was good for a 19-year old kid. I was a Division 1 athlete, attending the same top tier university as my grandfather and uncle. I had made it out of my small rural hometown—where holding down a 4.2 grade point average, competing year-round in sports, and serving as student body president all came too easily. Getting out of this mediocre environment made me proud and excited. I was now attending classes taught by some of the brightest professors in the country. And when it came to my sport, water polo, I was playing for one of the top programs in the country, being coached by two Olympians and competing against many players who would go on to represent the United States in Beijing, London, and Rio.

My parents were proud of their scholar-athlete son, receiving a scholarship to play water polo for the University of California at Berkeley, and I was thrilled with my new life in the classroom and in the pool. But there was another facet to my life that was not on display, one that did not fit in well with the cookie cutter image of a premier athlete. I was gay and I was closeted. I was also ashamed and terrified of the thoughts and feelings that had been with me since middle school. I was scared because I did not grow up with any positive images of gay people. While my family was never homophobic, gay issues were never discussed at home, and gay people were not at all present — in an open way — in my small town.

I found myself in a challenging situation. I was in college and the main aspects of my identity — up to this point — were all wrapped up in a boy-next-door, cookie cutter package that revolved around athleticism and scholastic success. Why would I “tarnish” that by adding this gay thing into the picture? But I was also at a liberal college, with a noticeable gay community, and San Francisco was only a 20 minute train ride away. I slowly built up small acts of courage here and there and began to pursue a guy who I met through mutual friends. And he was amazing. Smart, funny, confident, strong, and stubborn as all hell (something I’ve always been, and still continue to be, attracted to). We started to date, even though I would not have admitted that to myself at the time, and I quickly became the epitome of a closet case. Hiding and sneaking away. Avoiding pronouns when my roommates asked where I was the night before, and stealing the I.D.’s of my older teammates in order to head to San Francisco’s Castro district to meet my ‘boyfriend’ at the gay bars. This double life quickly became stressful. Stressful because all the lies and half-truths built themselves into a tangled web of false stories that I had to keep track of. What did I say to whom? When did I say it? How can this and that fit into the many narratives that I was weaving together like staircases in an M.C. Escher painting? Needless to say I became exhausted and knew that this was unsustainable. But I also didn’t know how to reconcile these two parts of my identity. The locker room was so straight and masculine and I didn’t know of any other gay athlete at my school or anywhere else (in 2003). I needed a break and wanted desperately to be out of my predicament.

II.

Allison and me

Growing up, I was in awe of my cousin Allison. Her energy and larger than life personality filled every room she walked into at all family gatherings. Her voice was dynamic and engaging. And it caught everyone’s attention whether you were a kid or one of the grandparents. It was the 90s. Her room was full of Nirvana fandom and a huge poster of Courtney Love. She had, and still has, a beautiful singing voice and was routinely cast as the lead in all the musicals in her high school. Charm and charisma came to her with the greatest of ease.

Fast forward to 2003. By then, cousin Allison was a young professional and living a fabulous cosmopolitan life in San Francisco. Her friends were made up of D.J.s, hipsters, and gays… a ton of gays, or, rather, “the gays” as she always put it.

I left for San Francisco on a sunny Saturday afternoon. I thought I was only going for a much needed break. I thought I was going to see my cousin and simply be around people that didn’t know. A place where I didn’t have to lie or cover things up. But this trip ended up being much more.

I honestly cannot recall exactly how I came out of the closet to her that day. What I said or how she responded isn’t clear to me as I write this 14 years later. But what I will never forget is how she made me feel with her response and reaction.

There is a famous quote by Dr. Seuss that perfectly sums it up.

“Those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind”

Life didn’t change overnight for me. My coming out was a process that took course over the next several months. It involved family, friends, and my teammates; but this visit with my cousin was the first moment that made it real.

It was my first step towards living who I actually was and not some idea of what I thought I should be. Over time I would realize that being gay was the best and most interesting part of me. It has made me more empathetic and resilient in my life, and it has brought me into contact with an amazing mix of people and experiences from all walks of life across this country and across the world.

I hope to add more stories to this forum, but wanted to start with my own coming out story.

I also want to dedicate this story to my cousin, Allison Marie, who has always inspired me by simply being herself — in the way that she has always been since childhood.

Unapologetic about who she is. Unapologetic with what she thinks. And unapologetic with what she wants in life.

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