Coming Out of the Closet, Going Into the Locker Room: The Experience of a Gay Athlete at W&L
By Thomas Agostini
I often joke with my friends that I was the only person who didn’t know I was gay as a freshman. I’m not exactly someone who is known for subtlety or discretion, so people closest to me my first year were quick to assume my sexual orientation. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve known I was gay since the Toxic music video came out. I even asked to go as a unicorn for Halloween as a 5-year-old. I arrived to W&L as a closeted gay man with two goals: swim fast and don’t fail. I created an entire athletic career channeling frustration from my “secret” identity as fuel for my swimming. I ended my first season for the Generals with a few accolades and sense of accomplishment, but I was unprepared for what was ahead.
The brilliance of my model of self-denial up to this point rests in the structure of a typical high school swim season: it never ends. I never had to worry about confronting my sexuality because I could just divert my focus to swimming every day. College swimming, however, only offered me 18 weeks of aversion. During March of my first year, I really began to notice that my sexuality wouldn’t stay suppressed for that long. What was my solution, you may ask? Keep swimming. I made some bullshit excuse to keep swimming with two of my teammates preparing for Olympic Trials, as if I could actually keep up with them. This surprisingly worked for the remainder of the year, keeping my psyche so exhausted that I didn’t even have time to think about my ungodly obsession for Chris Hemsworth. The real trouble ensued the beginning of my sophomore year.
Entering the ring for round two, I was unprepared for the TKO that I would face two months into the brawl against myself. My classes and swimming were persistently trying to see who could drown me first, whether literally or figuratively. Grades were slipping, times were fading, and I began to feel 19 years of denial pulling me down to the bottom of the pool. I was too exhausted to use swimming as an avenue for release, leaving me defenseless against my own sexuality. It wasn’t long until I couldn’t bear to hold my truth in anymore, so I did what any sensible W&L student would do: I put together focus groups. It may be a stretch to call them focus groups, but drunk individuals that you take to the health center do make for great practice audiences. I only told one drunken student that I was gay, but it gave me a good opportunity to get the nerves out before telling the ones closest to me. One by one, I began to tell friends, coworkers, family, and coaches, all of whom embraced me for who I truly am.
Sigh. This is where they say it gets easier. Let’s just say that’s all relative. I no longer have the stress of staying in the closet, but I recognize that my journey of self-discovery hasn’t even passed the safety check yet. I no longer have that drive to push me through my swimming, and my best times from years ago are sitting in the back of my head collecting dust. The efficacy of my identity as a swimmer is slowly fading as my identity as a gay man begins to flourish. I’m extremely self-conscious about my lack of performance in the pool, and I constantly worry about how my team perceives me. I no longer have the happy-go-lucky attitude I had as a first year, and I feel like I am just the slow gay kid who is taking up space on deck.
Leading into my junior and senior year, these internalized fears festered as I became hypersensitive to my teammate’s impression of me. Dreading the locker room, I walk swiftly with my eyes fixed on the floor tiles to change and get out. I rarely shower with the team in fear that people would think that I’m looking at them. I oftentimes just wait to get home or come back to the pool to shower once everyone has left. To be perfectly clear, my teammates have been nothing but supportive of me and I thank them for that. I would just rather not invite the opportunity for my intentions to come into question. Worrying about every public action, I resort to an artillery of self-deprecating humor to try and ease what I perceive to be tension between my teammates and me. Undoubtedly, this type of joking comes across as simply off-putting and is completely counterproductive to its intentions. Little by little, I chip away at myself with each and every joke I make about my sexuality. I relate much more with the women’s team, but there’s a limited window for interaction. Oftentimes events will get labeled as “women’s team only,” excluding me from the majority of my friends on the team. While I am grateful for the love and support my team gives me daily, I recognize now that my path to self-acceptance cannot happen through swimming.
In an already extremely small LGBTQ+ community at W&L, I feel sequestered from the rest of my queer classmates as swimming consumes most of my available time. I don’t have the luxury to go to General’s Unity meetings or small groups, as my already overbooked schedule restricts me from joining others who have similar experiences coming to terms with their sexual orientation or gender identity. I have been fortunate enough to have a satellite of overwhelming support from my friends, family, and coworkers, but I struggle to find a place where I truly fit in here on campus. In no way do I regret coming out, but I was prepared for it to be the end of my problems and not the beginning of new ones. I feel like I have regressed back to trying to overwork myself to the point of desensitization: if I just keep moving I won’t have to deal with how isolated I feel. I don’t regret swimming or coming to W&L, but I can’t help but feel secluded by everyone around me.
However, I recently have felt like there is hope for gay student-athletes here, as many efforts on campus are beginning to arise that weren’t an active part of my freshman experience. The Office of Inclusion and Engagement continues to employ a wide variety of initiatives and programs to make sure all students feel invested in the W&L Community. Programs and social groups, that did not have much traction my first year, now find themselves with active membership and instill a sense of hope in developing a more robust W&L experience. I advise any other student-athletes who may identify in the LGBTQ+ community to appreciate the individuals who show a reciprocal appreciation for you. Without the unwavering support of my coaches and my small group of friends on the team, I do not believe that I would be swimming today. I cannot express my gratitude for them in helping me through a difficult few years. Find that core group of people who care, and never stop being you.