I’m gay. I’m a Christian. I’m a basketball player. Until a couple months ago, I could never combine these sentences. I can now confidently say I am a gay Christian basketball player. None of my identities take precedence over the others, and now there is only one: just Derek.
It wasn’t always like that. I was an actor. A chameleon. I became a professional at switching acts and always staying in character. If there were a Venn diagram of those three aspects of myself, the overlapping parts would have been few and far between. When they did overlap, that’s where my acting skills were severely tested.
I would go to Bible study and have to talk about marriage, all the while praying that God would somehow place it in people’s hearts to accept gay people loving one another. I would be talking with my boyfriend about basketball and I would wonder how many other male college athletes had secret boyfriends. Hiding in my room to Skype with him and shutting everyone out of my life was less than ideal. I lost a couple close friends. Finally, being in such a moral-testing sport wasn’t easy as a Christian. Drugs, alcohol, temptation, greed, envy. All these things surround sports, and denying these things took dedication and will power.
It wasn’t that I didn’t think I could perform well in my different roles. I did. I was a successful collegiate athlete. My bedroom was filled with every individual and team trophy possible; I even won a state championship my senior year of high school. I had a great relationship with Christ, and I was definitely a big homosexual. The difficult part for me was meshing it all together. The nights just wondering how it would all come together, or if it ever would, were far too many.
To top it all off, I was at the MOST conservative college in the nation. Our four blocks of campus were filled with home-schooled kids who thought that the world revolved around the Republican Party. Ronald Reagan was basically a second coming of Christ. I always tell people, “it’s just different here.” There were students reading Bibles in trees, and Sunday mornings were spent with church and political talk. Being gay was outwardly and clearly contradictory to common values. Professors and fellow students hated me without knowing it. One of the hardest parts was recognizing I wasn’t alone. I knew there had to be others out there at different schools, or even my own school, who were struggling with this balancing act.
In terms of my faith, I struggled mightily in my younger years because I had a feeling I was gay, but was surrounded by the church’s teachings. I was taught that love is good, but was also given a list of terrible sins. Being gay was one of them. If you sinned, you wouldn’t get to meet God in Heaven. As a mature-for-my-age teen, I remember thinking “if all these things are abominations, Heaven must be pretty empty.” After a while, going to these classes and hearing this talk wasn’t merely annoying, it was scary. I started attending public school and God was phased out. I didn’t have time for religion if I wanted to be a star basketball player. I transferred to a private high school, and suddenly the fear came at me tenfold. I was mostly there for basketball, but I was bombarded by all this crap about gays going to Hell and facing the wrath of God. That stuff wasn’t exactly comforting to a 16-year-old kid thinking he might be into dudes. It was like I was back in Sunday school all over again, and what I had learned to forget all about came rushing back to me. The self-taught acting lessons continued, and I did all I could to pretend I was the All-American kid.
My pretending only went so far. I avoided church like the plague, and tried to mute the preachers and sermons that were attacking my mind. My pathetic search for a way to turn myself straight was failing, and each night I went to bed more conflicted and frustrated by my own thoughts. I ended my freshman year angry, scared, and seemingly alone. That summer, I isolated myself from my friends and family, and I really started to analyze why I was here. I was a good person with a good heart, I thought. I was always taught God makes people in his image. I was a great athlete and student. I was taught God gave us gifts to glorify him. Finally, I was also taught that if God is on your side, you have nothing to fear Step 1: Accepting that God loved the man he created.
I was entirely surrounded by sports, particularly basketball, from birth. I spent countless hours with my father and sister shooting hoops in the driveway and watching games. My dad was a football coach, and that added to the pressure of being masculine. I was expected to be the next star football player on my dad’s team. But I knew in my heart that my sport would always be basketball. Both of my parents were college athletes and high school coaches, and my sister was a star athlete as well. I wanted to follow suit, but it was also an expectation Here came the pressure. As an adolescent, I was better than everyone. I had been playing since I could walk, and it was pretty awesome being the best. But everything started changing, and I started to feel odd things for my sister’s male friends. Now, I was only ten, so I wasn’t undressing them in my head. But as I grew up this only got worse, and the conflict became stronger and stronger. You’re the best athlete, you have to stop thinking other guys are attractive. Stop liking girl bands. Sing in a lower voice. Don’t be a girl. Keep playing football. It really never ended all throughout middle and high school.
The main issue was always hiding my sexuality from everyone. It was this voice in my head that for years was so loud that everything else seemed dull. I hid my faith because I didn’t want people thinking I was crazy. An outcast. With athletics, I wanted to be known for on-court performance versus what I did in my spare time. My overriding fear of losing the respect of my teammates was daunting, and made me shut my mouth when I was called “fag” or “queer.” While hearing negative language was difficult, filtering my life was the hardest part. I couldn’t talk about my boyfriend. I couldn’t comment on things that would make me seem less of a man. I couldn’t wear tight jeans. I couldn’t listen to certain “girl bands” without headphones. These irrational fears had control of my life, and for a while I was content on keeping it that way. Once my eyes were opened to the love of myself and the love from others, it was easy for these walls to be broken down. I knew I was put on Earth for a reason, and that I was not a mistake. I knew God did not want me to feel this way about myself or about the world, and that it was time to accept that this was his plan. Once I finally loved myself, it was easier for others to do the same.
Coming from a conservative place isn’t easy, but it certainly gave me an appreciation for differing perspectives. When I committed to play, I was fulfilling my goal of playing Division II basketball. It never even crossed my mind that the school’s values would have a direct effect on me and my development as a person. I may not agree with someone on a certain policy or way of thinking, but it doesn’t change the fact that we are still human. There were parts of the conservative culture that I appreciated, but I’m an independent person. I don’t like labeling myself as strictly “conservative” or “liberal,” and it was difficult to be trapped in an environment of black-and-white views where nothing was to be debated. It also isn’t a bad thing not to be friends with everyone. There are a billion more people out there who understand how you feel, and will love you. The fact that some people don’t understand me doesn’t change how the most important people feel. Since I realized this, God, my family, and my friends have finally been able to to see Derek flourish into who he was meant to be. A gay Christian athlete.