On Being a Gay Athlete

This post has been a long time coming. When tour started, I brainstormed possible topics to write about, and this was always top of the list.

And yet, it’s taken me 6 months and over 50 gyms to get here. Along the way, I’ve met some unbelievable coaches, members, and gym owners, but there wasn’t one where I felt comfortable to discuss this topic. I blame myself mostly for not having the nerve to broach the issue, but I also blame the toxic masculinity engrained in our society that makes this topic difficult to approach.

There are two points that sum up a HUGE problem I see in fitness.

  1. Sports are one of the best ways to stay active. As a sustainable fitness option, they are second to none because they encourage community, play, health, longevity, and so much more. I’m talking about sports in the broadest sense – from walking clubs, to CrossFit, to soccer, to yoga to virtually any activity that encourages a non-sedentary lifestyle. We’re not exclusive here.
  2. The inherent masculinity that has defined sports for hundreds of years DOES feel exclusive. For whatever reason, society decided long ago that sports should be driven by masculinity, and if you weren’t masculine, sports weren’t for you. So we must reconcile how important sports can be to a healthy lifestyle, with how inaccessible they can feel to people who don’t fit the typical “athlete” archetype.

These aren’t facts. You can absolutely disagree with me on either of these points, but I do have some personal evidence I want to bring to the table.

Growing up, I wasn’t overly bullied. It honestly could have been a lot worse. I was always more feminine than my friends, but that didn’t seem to bother them at all. In middle school, truly the worst of all stages of development, there were kids who would call me gay. One nicknamed me “Sunshine” from Remember The Titans because of the scene where he kissed another guy in the locker room. It wasn’t THAT big of a deal. I remember getting disinvited to trick-or-treating (whatever – 7th grade was too old to put on a stupid costume and beg for candy anyway…), and it caused some tears but I got over it.

I found my tribe in high school with the best friends anyone could ask for, which made the shitty experiences easier to bear. I didn’t come out until after high school, but I think being besties with all of the girlfriends made me a target that some of the guys just couldn’t resist. Freshman year track came and I felt like an outcast. All of the football guys were there and my only friend decided to be on the distance team instead of sprints.

But then I was good. Varsity track was a weird equalizer for me. Sure, they all still thought I was gay (or maybe they thought someone good at sports couldn’t possibly be queer, who knows), but being on Varsity helped me earn respect from my peers. The same guy who nicknamed me “Sunshine” ended up being a good friend, and I led upperclassmen and underclassmen in workouts. I was the guy who made Varsity as a freshman and State Track in two individual events as a sophomore. I was a great athlete and I didn’t realize at the time just how much that made up for the fact that I wasn’t like everyone else. AKA I was gay.

We had maybe two out kids in my high school and I’ll never really know what they went through, but I can imagine it wasn’t great. They didn’t have that equalizer at school to help ease their differences, and that really sucks.

Homophobia runs rampant in sports and I’m not really sure why. How does having a gay guy on your team make you feel threatened and uncomfortable? Maybe they feel they could be called gay by association? Every straight man’s worst fear? There’s definitely more to this conversation but I digress. There are a couple of organizations that work to combat the stigma surrounding gays in sports, and one that comes to mind – “The Sports Allies Foundation” – gets a generous donation from The Warwick Rowers every year. If you don’t know who they are, look them up immediately. You won’t regret it.

The longer I do sports, the more I see the importance of leveling the playing field. Sports are an incredible platform for sustainable fitness as I said earlier, but they shouldn’t be reserved for only the most masculine to participate.

My CrossFit peers take me much more seriously once they see I’m good at sports. I’ve dropped into SO MANY GYMS over the past 6 months wearing pride CrossFit shirts, short shorts, and really just being my gay self. I’m tall and skinny, I don’t look like your average CrossFitter, and keeping all of this in mind, I generally get a colder reception compared to the wide grin I have walking into a gym. Honestly, I should give gyms the benefit of the doubt because I believe that 90% of the gyms I dropped into didn’t give a fuck about my sexual orientation. But it’s unmistakable how much friendlier and how much more engaged gyms are after seeing me work out. Just like high school, I won a few races, I was part of the team. In the CrossFit world, I win a few workouts and suddenly my quirky (gay) New York self is completely aligned with the “values” of this gym*.

*I don’t want to delve too deep into this now, but religion can be a huge source of alienation when it comes to gays wanting to try sports. There is a correlation with religion and sports that isn’t going away and it furthers the exclusivity of it all. It feels very much like the grandma scenario in gay culture that goes like this:

Grandma: Oh no no, marriage should be between a man and a woman.
Me: Okay grandma, but what about my friend Dave? He’s gay and you LOVE him!
Grandma: Ohhhhh yes, Dave is fine. I love Dave! He can marry whoever he wants!

This is how I feel about some religious athletes. One second I feel like they’re damning us to hell, then you beat them in a workout and suddenly your sins are washed away. I’d rather it be all or nothing. Either damn me to hell or fully support the queer community for being BORN THIS WAY (thanks Lady Gaga). You don’t get to pick and choose which gays are cool and which gays aren’t because of their abilities or because you feel uncomfortable around femininity in males.

ANYWAY. BACK ON TRACK.

I’m just going to say this once – I’m not arrogant in CrossFit. I know that I’m really good at the sport for me and that is NOWHERE near the top 1% of CrossFitters. But just like in track, I work my ass off and I’m a competitor. And that is what has “earned” me this weird respect in gyms.

But this is perhaps the biggest problem. Gay people should not have to be a certain fitness level or skill level or anything level to be accepted in sports.

Sports are an invaluable tool for sustainable fitness and a tool that should be for EVERYONE. I am so sick of gay men wanting to look a certain way and spending 6 hours on the stair master to achieve it. Society has told gay men that they need to be fit to fit in, but left equinox weight training (literally the most unsustainable form of fitness, fight me), as the only option. And this makes sense to me. Traditional vanity weight lifting feels like the only alternative left when sports perpetually feel like an exclusive straight boys club.

So to the men out there who feel like sports are “their” thing (literally no one reading this lol), it’s time to step aside. I’m done letting sports be a vessel for the toxic masculinity in the world. We have to be more accepting. We have to preach that sports are for EVERYONE, not just the most masculine. We have to encourage people to try sports even if they have been a source of shame and bullying in the past.

Sports are free agents. No one owns sports and we HAVE to be more inclusive regardless of sex, ethnicity, sexual orientational, political affiliation etc. And here’s the kicker – we CANNOT just be inclusive to the people who “prove” themselves as athletes. Showing up to a sport is the only proof you should need to give people the respect you would want to receive.

5 thoughts on “On Being a Gay Athlete

  1. Hey! This is an awesome article. Props to you for writing this, I admire the amount of courage you have to openly write about this topic. I am 15 and I go to the gym often(with my parents)and I feel so concious all the time because not only of body image issues I have but also because I am one of the you get there and I am a female. This article made me feel a bit more comfortable so thanks. Also, what is left equinox weight training?
    Have a nice day!

    1. Hi Soleil!

      Thanks for your comment. I’m so happy to hear that the article made you feel more comfortable! Keep up the great work!

      And Equinox is a gym in NYC 🙂

  2. Hey Sam. There were more of us out than you think in the red and white! I’m so happy to see you in a place in your life where you feel comfortable repping the rainbow. This entire piece is pretty interesting, and I thank you sincerely for sharing it. Machismo and toxic masculinity have ruined so many things in this world, and we should all work to make sure it doesn’t ruin sports too. Happy June (even though it’s July)

    1. Hi Kane,

      Thank you so much for your kind words! Can’t agree more that we need to work together to make sure sports stay a positive place for everyone! Happy July to you! (Even though it’s almost August! haha)

  3. Hey Sam,

    thanks for sharing this. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to write this post. I usually don’t comment on things, but something about your experience resonated with me.

    I grew up in rural Germany and I experienced the “toxic masculinity” myself in the soccer teams I was part of – at that time during my teenage years as well as my college time I wasn’t openly gay, it would have immediately excluded me from my team. Gay was not your sexual orientation, it was an insult for pretty much anything: feminine behavior, style of clothing, a bad pass. I am lucky enough, that I am not overly feminine and I can pretend to be straight, just to fit in. I liked playing soccer, but yet I felt I could never truly be myself.

    Fast forward, I live openly gay and moved to NYC for my graduate studies. But I never tried again to be part of a team. While NYC is probably the most accepting place on earth, I never really found the right thing. All I do is what you describe as “vanity weight lifting”. I haven’t really found a place where “it doesn’t matter”.

    I think we sometimes underestimate how much of an impact it has on us to pretend to be someone else. But that goes both directions: pretending to be straight to fit into a straight community as well as trying to be gay-er to fit into the expectations of an Equinox gay community.

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