I entered college at George Washington University not sure if or when I was going to come out to my friends or new teammates.
With 35 others on the sailing team, it was a daunting thought to think about coming out to all of them. I thought about it frequently in the summer leading up to school, but the fear of being labeled as the “gay” kid kept me from saying anything.
Nearing Halloween of my freshman year, a junior on the team invited me to come along with his friends to an event. At one point it was just the two of us and the topic of significant others came up.
“Well, not exactly with girls,” I said, “I’m not sure what to call it, but I’m kinda with a guy right now.” Without pause, he gave me a high five and wanted to know more about the guy. As soon as I said it, the same feeling returned that I felt after coming out to my friend in high school: how much better I felt when someone knew who I was all the way through.
It started slowly. I told a few more teammates by the end of the fall season. Each time, saying it got easier. Sometimes it would come up in a funny conversation where others it was a more serious one. With each person I told, the feeling of support grew tremendously.
With the sailing team and my other friends knowing, I began to live a double life. When I was in DC, I could be open about it. The team, my fraternity and friends could not be a better support system.
Back home in San Francisco without any of these groups, I felt like I was always walking on eggshells to make sure I didn’t accidentally out myself. I worried that I’d slip up or a friend who thought everyone knew would say something. I hated it.
I came out to myself at the end of the summer, originally as bi. before my senior year of high school telling few close friends, but not my family.
My parents were a much larger piece of the puzzle. I knew I wanted to tell them, but I couldn’t come up with the first idea on how to do it.
I thought about telling them during a holiday while home from school. “But do I tell both of them at the same time? With Henry and Kat (my brother and sister)? Tell one then the other? Or would it just be easier to do it over the phone?”
Sometimes, I’d catch myself completely zoned out from practice thinking about it. When I was at school, I shoved these painful questions into a box and locked them away. It wasn’t healthy. I knew it then and especially know it now.
As freshman year came to a close, I started thinking that if I were to ever have a boyfriend, then I’d tell my parents. The idea provided comfort in that my coming out to my parents relied on something else to happen first, something I didn’t foresee happening for a while.
As freshman spring turned into summer and into fall, I found less and less comfort in that idea. The side of myself hiding from my parents began to mean more to me. I realized that while being gay certainly doesn’t define me, it’s an undeniable part of my character that I’m proud of. With them not knowing, I couldn’t be myself around them.
Throughout the fall, I worked on an application for an internship in the U.S. Senate office of Kamala Harris, and the day before I came home for Thanksgiving, I received my acceptance.
Excitement was running through my veins as I read the email. On the drive home from the airport, I told my dad. The idea suddenly thought that maybe I should ride the coattails of that news and come out to him in the car. Again, I couldn’t get myself to do it.
I knew I had to tell them, but as anyone who has ever come out knows, how? Last time I checked, there isn’t a “Coming out for Dummies.”
With my parents planning to come for a weekend in April this past spring, I penciled the date into my mind that this was going to be it. As their arrival drew closer, my stomach would churn thinking about what to say.
The small logical voice in my head would say that I have nothing to worry about: I’m following in my dad’s footsteps as a varsity athlete, I have an internship that they’re incredibly proud that I had, I lined up a summer job at a firm with a great reputation — what could they fault me for? Then another voice would take over and the spiral would start again.
I got the text that they arrived in DC and was still without a plan. I knew I wanted to do it while we were together, but how? With an idea of the weekend, I knew I would only have a few chances with them alone between seeing our cousins and friends.
The first opportunity came. And went.
The second. The same.
Third time’s the charm? On their last night in DC, the three of us went out to dinner. I knew this was it. Throughout, I kept puzzling on how to do it. Our appetizers came. Our appetizers were cleared. Our entrees came. Our entrees were cleared. Our dessert came. Our dessert was eaten. Still, I couldn’t say anything.
After we said goodnight and made plans for the next day, I started to walk towards campus. I was kicking myself because I thought I wasted my last chance.
I thought about my teammates support, and for the first time, my desire to come out overpowered the fear. I unlocked my phone and typed in my mom’s number. Before I could press dial, the fear returned and I froze again.
As I was doubting myself, I got a text from my friend John asking how it went. He knew that I was planning on coming out and said how he knew from coming out to his own parents how hard it was. His text pushed me over the edge and I pressed dial.
The call with my parents lasted less than three minutes, and without hesitation, they both said they loved me and this absolutely didn’t change anything.
All of the fear, anxiety, doubt and pessimistic thoughts were replaced with the most genuine feeling of belonging I’ve ever felt.
The next morning, I ran down to the Lincoln Memorial for the November Project. I didn’t realize before coming that is was personal record day. Simply, the goal is run as many times up and down the stairs of the memorial and around the base of it in the set amount of time. The sunrise that morning was the most spectacular I’ve ever seen over the National Mall, and I beat my record with what felt like no effort.
About a month after that night, my dad and I had the chance to have lunch while he was in DC. Since coming out, we had exchanged pleasantries and a few longer phone calls, but nothing as direct as having lunch with each other. I’d felt for a long time like there was something between us that prevented us from being close.
While it pained me to think this, I was worried that lunch would be awkward, difficult, quiet or painful. Proving the pessimist in me wrong, lunch was filled with a great conversation at one of my favorite restaurants on the water.
While we were eating, my pocket kept buzzing from texts to the point that I was thinking that something must be up. As we were getting up from the table, I looked down and realized what happened: our team captain elections were over and my teammates had chosen me, along with two rising seniors, to be the captains for this upcoming year.
There was no other news that I could have been more excited to share with him right there. I remember his face carrying only the look parents have when they’re so proud of their kids.
Since that night, I felt like my relationship with my parents has grown in ways that would have never been possible without telling them. I also felt like I was able to sail better, with a clearer head than ever before.
I’ve returned to thinking about how much of a profound difference it can make to have the people in your world know who you truly are.
John DeRuff, 20, is a junior at the George Washington University in Washington, DC. Originally from San Francisco, he is captain of the varsity sailing team while studying civil engineering and sustainability. He can be reached by email ([email protected]) or Instagram (jcderuff).
Story editor: Jim Buzinski
If you are an out LGBTQ person in sports and want to tell your story, email Jim ([email protected]).