By: Nicholas Lee, Former Vassar College Varsity Tennis player, Class of 2019
“There are millions of people out there just like you.”
Reading that text from my friend Sam, the first person I ever came out to, was an enormous relief. It was the fall of 2013, the beginning of my junior year of high school.
Like many other closeted LGBT+ individuals, I had fallen into a deep depression and constantly had severe anxiety. I was too ashamed of being gay to face the world around me. I hated myself. I would cry at night, asking myself, “Why me?” I could barely crawl out of bed in the morning, and had little desire to go to school or be around my friends. I would come back home after school and lay in bed, trying to escape from reality. I felt lost, helpless, and so alone. I saw no future for myself. I thought that I wanted to die, so I could finally be free from what felt like never-ending sadness, worry, and pain.
All around me — coaches, peers, teammates, and the media — were voices telling me that there was something wrong with being gay. I was terrified of being rejected. So I held back this part of me, feeling unable to just be myself.
This only made it more difficult for me to play sports freely. Worrying excessively about my sexuality drained me of my energy, both physically and emotionally, and made it more difficult to succeed as a competitive athlete. I felt completely burnt out. It was hard to find joy in my favorite sport, tennis, which I had been passionate about for so many years.
Desperate for help, I reached out to Sam. He had been one of my closest friends for years and was also my varsity tennis teammate. I was sobbing, feeling more lost and alone than I had ever felt in my life.
I needed to tell someone. But I hadn’t yet built up the courage to even type the word “gay.” He had to pry it out and write it for me, as he knew through our conversation that something was not right.
What Sam did for me that day, in my moment of despair, was something truly beautiful. Although I was too afraid and ashamed to accept it myself, he told me that it was okay for me to be me and that he would still love me unconditionally. It was okay for me to be gay. There was a future for me.
I now had a true ally. It was a glimmer of hope in one what was, would be, and still is, a long and difficult road.
As I look back six years later as an out athlete, I realize that being comfortable with who I am is something I still struggle with on and off the tennis court. I still fear the disapproval and rejection of new people that I meet. I still have internalized homophobia. Daily, I am judging myself, over and over again.
I have to accept that I cannot escape my past. Even with all the love and support I have received from friends, family, and others as I have come out to them, shame and self-ridicule for being gay was ingrained in me from an early age. The hateful messaging that I internalized is still a part of who I am. Becoming comfortable with myself is no easy task. It is a process that will forever be a part of my life.
I am fortunate enough to have the privilege to be accepted for who I am, more so than I would have been in past generations or would be in other parts of the world. With this privilege comes the opportunity for me to live more authentically, and hopefully change the hearts and minds of others. I also try to sometimes push myself to step outside of my comfort zone in new environments with new people and bring my full self, with the hope that those people will embrace me for me. If they choose to judge me for who I am, then that’s on them, not me. Their unwillingness to be compassionate towards me is their loss, not mine. At the end of the day, I know that I strive to live a more fulfilling life by just being me.
A lot has happened and changed over these last six years. But one thing has remained constant – the unconditional support that my friend has given me along the way. It’s my hope that I can support and inspire others, like he did for me. When we stand together and support each other, we can see that we’re not alone.
Follow Nicholas on Facebook, and at @nicklee.aka.licknee on Instagram.