I graduated when I was 15 in the Seattle suburbs, where I attended predominantly white high school.
I knew I was gay when I was 12, but I didn’t come out to my family until I was 13. They took it well, but going out to my high school was a different beast. Fortunately, I had a twin and an older brother who went to school with me. I didn’t feel like I was alone when I came out, but as almost all gay people know, coming out feels like a lonely experience.
At the age of 15, I was the only openly gay black person in my high school, which was odd. I was the president not only of our Black Student Union, but also of the Gay-Straight Alliance.
I had become comfortable with my sexuality and myself. I was the captain of my cross country and track teams, where I made several appearances in the state and met kids from other schools. They knew I was gay, and many people across the state came to know I was gay. Everything changed when I arrived at the University of Washington in 2017.
While at UW from 2017-21, I had many experiences that tested my character and determination. As a student-athlete, I had normal difficulties – having to train hard, having to study for a test or having to travel, and then schedule a make-up exam for my return. But there were special situations that required me to take into consideration who I was.
There have been many times that I have heard different of my teammates use slurs that I find offensive. It was tough walking through the locker room and being the only queer man of color. Some of my teammates were walking around with just a towel (which I didn’t think about), and I had to shut up.
I became hyper aware of the conversations going on around me because that’s how I learned to survive. As I looked down in fear that one of my straight teammates might think I was ogling them, I heard an insult casually thrown in a conversation by one of my white teammates. It was the n-word.
In another situation, I was running during a workout and it was starting to get tiring. On both sides of me, my teammates started to playfully prick each other as a way to motivate themselves, and one of them said, “Don’t be a queer and run. The only teammate looked at me and again the teammate who made that statement.
What should I do with a teammate who made homophobic jokes? How should I react when I hear teammates using racist slurs? It was difficult terrain to navigate, especially since I was alone at the intersection of race and sexuality. These situations were frightening, especially since they were about people who were meant to be close to me and who expected to be treated like brothers in arms.
How many other young black gay athletes were at UW? Not that much. I thought it was common knowledge that I was the only openly gay athlete on the UW track team. Lots of other athletes knew I was gay, but it wasn’t something the staff and faculty knew.
In June, I had an eye-opening experience at the Pac-12 Track and Field Championships where I was able to converse and learn from other queer athletes and conference sport faculty members. Although this was at the end of my athletic tenure at UW, I was able to acquire skills and tools to pass on to other student-athletes at UW before I graduated.
I think the biggest lesson I learned as a queer athlete was never to be ashamed of who you are and where you come from. I have met so many people who have strong personalities and they often do not take into account other people’s backgrounds. Sometimes these personalities make it difficult to be who you are, and that includes being gay. But when you start to cover up parts of your personality and character, you start to miss out on many opportunities.
There were many days when I was so busy trying to keep the peace and comply, that I missed it. These chances were academic and athletic. When you start to forget who you are and what you stand for, you start to lose interest in a lot of the things around you, and this is something that we as gay athletes cannot compromise on. .
Who we love, how we love and the love around us extends to our sport, whatever the circumstances. It is our support network and it is our life. When we have to hide this part of ourselves to appease others, we end up missing out on so much. It’s not fair to us and it’s not fair to the people around us.
Now that I live in the Netherlands, I try to relearn who I am and what I love. I know I love watching dogs at the park, playing card games and pound cakes, but it goes beyond that. I want to relearn how to love healthily, I want to relearn to love running, I want to relearn to love my body as before.
If running has taught me anything, it’s that you have to take one step at a time. These steps turn into a walk and finally into a race. At some point you will be running towards what you believe in and what you love. I hope we can all learn to be in this space.
Devan Kirk was a track and field student at the University of Washington, where he ran the 400 and 800 meters. He obtained his Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology and another Bachelor of Arts in Art with a minor in Art History. He is now studying at the University of Amsterdam where he will obtain a Master of Science in Social and Cultural Anthropology. He can be reached by email at (email@example.com) or on Instagram at @jacket.
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