Celebrated Personal Trainer Shawnee Harkins Tells Coming Out Story

  • Sep 23, 2013

Shawnee Harkins is an internationally renowned fitness trainer and consultant, and has appeared on programs like the Dr. Phil Show and many fitness industry advertisements. She is currently enrolled at Orange Coast College in a Master's Program, and is a standout member of the school's crew team.

When I think of  "coming out", I think of two stories. One story begins with the valiant soul who makes the courageous decision to “come out” and share their sexual orientation with their family, friends, colleagues, sports team, and even in a space so daring as the public arena. The other story is of the fearless warrior who was denied their right to "come out," instead was "outed," but indomitably stood brave through their truth. Both stories are of heroic men and women whom contend with their own personal crusade for love, acceptance and equality within themselves and society.

My story is of a little girl who knew she was different, frequented "playing house" with all the other little girls in the neighborhood and insisted on playing the husband and the daddy. I knew I liked girls in the first grade, I knew I was gay at the end of elementary school because I had finally learned "what to call myself," and I accepted that I was a lesbian at fifteen, but the road to my acceptance was not an easy one. Then there would come a point, when the truth about myself would be shared - the later story – with my family as I was “outed” by my best friend, my big sister. I was exposed – the truth was on the table - at the age of seventeen to my parents and my family.

From as long as I can remember from elementary school to the very day I accepted myself as a lesbian, I prayed for God to take away my attraction towards girls. I wanted God to take away my gay feelings. I was raised in the Southern Baptist faith, as well as Catholicism. My father is of Baptist faith, and my mother, Catholic. In the Baptist church I attended as a young girl, it was permanently imprinted in my mind that homosexuality was a sin that would send me straight to hell. And as a young girl, a child of God, heaven was the only choice in my heart. My prayers started with clenching my hands, asking and most of the time begging God to have mercy upon me. Prayer after prayer, each year passing the one before and I was still the same. I was a good little girl, who loved school, pleasing her parents, excelled in sports and just happened to be gay. By the time I turned fifteen, I had developed a beautiful relationship with God, and I knew he loved me for my heart. I braved through the storm, and with acceptance of myself I finally felt it was as if I could breathe for the first time in my young life.

My plan to tell my family and friends felt like another mountain to climb, and I wasn’t ready. I planned on finishing high school and at least sharing my truth with my older sister while I was in college. My sister has always been my best friend and my protector. I felt she would understand, accept me and by telling her it would be the first step in opening my world to those who care and love me. I wanted the same things as my sister; to be loved, marry my soul mate and build a family.

The day my truth would be shared was by my sister’s curiosity and instinct. She noticed some patterns had changed. I once had a long-term relationship with a boy, and now I had become quiet, distant and secretive. The truth is I was in my very first lesbian relationship. It hurt me deeply not to tell my sister and it actually felt unhealthy. There are the colorful details to everyone’s coming out story, and sometimes we are not honest with others because of fear, the unknown or what we know is to be expected. On that day, my sister overheard a telephone conversation with another woman’s voice and myself. It was evident the other woman was my girlfriend, and I was a lesbian. As my sister held the phone in her hand, it was clear to me that I had to be brave and finally honest. The truth poured out of me as if it had been hanging on by a single thread. I was no longer silent. My sister told me how much she loved me, and she didn’t care if I was gay. The part that hurt the most is that I had felt I needed to hide who I was from her. She had always been my best friend, my protector – that would never change. She is my biggest supporter in every aspect of my life. We had the most pure and honest heart to heart talk. I was incredibly thankful. There was one request - one very important one I had to ask of her – to please not tell my parents. I needed to tackle this challenge later, years later. On that day, she told me she would honor my request, but unfortunately it was short lived due to her natural protective instinct and fear, fear of the unknown. She needed to tell my mom and dad. This was not a secret she could carry around alone. My sister rolled out the red carpet for me to take the stage – to tell everyone – the very next day. I faced my parents, step - parents and anyone else who felt the need to be there. As intimidating and dreadful as it was, in the end I had spoken, my voice was heard, my words were clear, and I was “out” to my family. From then on I was not the voiceless closeted lesbian. I was a jubilate confident young woman who was ready to take her place in the world. I was whole. I stood brave through my truth, and in the end – I triumphed. 

Physical fitness is like breathing to me, without it I’m not living! I love every aspect of fitness; how you feel during exercise mentally and physically pushing yourself and after the sense of pride. Fitness is my greatest passion. Knowing the benefits of exercise and sports both mentally and physically is why I am a personal trainer. I know personally when the mind believes, the body achieves. I look at the body as art, a piece to be finely sculpted into beautiful work. Personal training is about human connection. There is an incredible bond established between two individuals trusting in each other.

Each and every one of us has "the ultimate goal" whether it for health, appearance or sports. And sometimes we need to know the path in order to reach our goals. This is where I am fortunate to bring my experience as someone who struggled with physical challenges at age eighteen after sustaining a traumatic brain and spinal cord injury due to a serious roller blading car collision. My ultimate goal was to beat this thing, become strong again, and to pursue my childhood dream to become a firefighter and emergency medical technician. Through mental focus and the help of a great personal trainer, we as a team accomplished both! With every client, fitness program, or fitness video - I bring my personal journey to the table, and because I was once in the shoes of someone vulnerable I understand what internal strength it takes to hop on the path and continue the journey. I subsequently chose health and fitness as my lifetime career knowing I found my true calling. I was the thirsty client, the woman whom pushed the boundaries and I loved helping people whether under a high stress environment or through the bond of human connection.

I am also able to pull my experiences as an athlete and bring them into my personal training philosophy. I am a lifetime athlete. There is a quote I am especially fond of by George Lorimer, an American author and journalist. "You’ve got to get up every morning with determination if you’re going to go to bed with satisfaction." My mindset as a trainer is – show me your will, and I’ll show you the way. Growing up playing team sports as a youngster gave me confidence and the belief that I could achieve anything. Sports taught me accountability for myself and to my teammates, the importance of focus and consistency, and priority in taking care of my body. Being apart of a team brought countless friendships, taught me teamwork and how to achieve the ultimate win by coming together individually to work together collectively.

My background and knowledge gives me the expertise I need to assist and push my clients past their limits, so they will undoubtedly reach their “ultimate goals”. I want both of us to smile, relax and have fun on the ride! Physical fitness is a lifestyle and it is meant to be enjoyed! I’m lucky that I get to go to work knowing I love what I do and help people better their lives, which is my ultimate fulfillment! 

Athlete Ally gives everyone in the sports community a platform to come together as one human voice to evoke change and take a stand against homophobia in sports. Allyship brings awareness, knowledge and the ability to revolutionize the treatment of athletes in the LGBT&Q community. Athletes should not feel “silent” on their team because of their sexual orientation, but instead rightfully be a contributing voice to their athletic community. I am an Athlete Ally because I believe we should be judged for our hearts as people and for our performance as athletes.