Tennis is already one of the loneliest sports, and hiding my sexuality just made me even more lonely, both on and off the court.
Growing up in southern Louisiana and attending Catholic schools until college, I was rarely exposed to the LGBTQ community. And needless to say, when I began to recognize myself as a gay man, I had no gay role models around me, especially not in tennis.
As I better understood my sexuality, I started to project the negative feelings I had about being gay onto tennis.
I had considered quitting tennis many times in the past, even after my best singles season during my sophomore year at Washington and Lee University in Virginia. Before coming out to my team, I often felt like a robot.
Whether it was in the locker room or on the bus back from an away match, I gave programmed responses to my teammates on “who’s the hottest girl at W&L?” or “would you f*** her?”
Having to ignore and hide an important part of my identity from my teammates, people with whom I spent more time over the last four years than I did my own family, was tearing me apart and leaving my tennis to suffer.
Finally, after a summer as an intern in Los Angeles where I was completely open about my sexuality — and met my first boyfriend — I gradually began my coming out process in August 2019.
I started with my closest friends from college and continued to my family, my fraternity and my team. While coming out to my parents definitely took the most courage and strength, there was a unique nervousness that existed when I came out to my team.
Sexuality is never discussed in tennis. Through all my time playing tennis, from countless USTA junior tournaments all over the South to the college matches across the country, I never encountered anyone who identified as gay (that I know of). In fact, I had never heard of a competitive male tennis player who was gay at any level — junior, college or professional — until 2019. I also currently don’t know of any other male athletes who identify as gay at Washington and Lee.
Because of this lack of representation in tennis and in sport in general at my university, I could only rely on my love and respect for my teammates in determining how they would react to news that I was gay.
I began to come out to my teammates by telling my closest friend on the team, my former doubles partner and my fellow co-captain, Noah. I hosted Noah on his recruiting visit to W&L, helped him schedule his classes during his first year on campus and gave him advice when choosing his major. He was someone I understood very well and respected greatly, so I felt I could trust him with this.
Noah responded better than I could have imagined. He thanked me for sharing such an intimate part of my life with him. He expressed his excitement for me as I was doing what made me happy and was becoming the most genuine version of myself. He also reassured me that the tennis team would have my back as any good teammate would support me on and off the court.
Coming out to the rest of the team went smoothly. They reassured me that they supported me in all I do. A weight had been lifted off my chest that I didn’t even know was there for so long. With this new sense of self, I began my senior season playing some of the best tennis of my life before an unfortunate ending due to COVID-19.
My fear of coming out was less about targeted homophobia and more about how I would be treated differently now that I was self-accepting and open about my sexuality with those in my life.
I worried about being socially ostracized — being ignored and sometimes excluded — in various settings. I worried about being limited to the assumptions that often come with the “gay” label. But now I can say with confidence, my team doesn’t treat me any differently. If anything, they are more open and accepting of me now that I am my genuine self. I am so thankful for how my team responded to my coming out and have accepted me for who I truly am.
My team was the final hurdle in my official coming out process, but I know that coming out never ends. And while it obviously gets easier with practice and repetition, the discomfort and stress (even when minimal at times) of having to come out to people you meet throughout your life is unfair.
Sport, and the world as a whole, is gradually becoming more accepting, inclusive and representative of the LGBTQ community, but there is still much progress that needs to be made to let young children know what a happy and successful life as a gay man can look like.
Mitchell Thomas, 22, graduated from Washington and Lee University in May 2020 majoring in Economics and minoring in Computer Science. He was captain for the Washington and Lee Generals tennis team, the former chapter president of Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity, and a member of the only competitive a capella group on campus. He can be reached by email at [email protected] and on Instagram @_mitchellthomas_.
Story editor: Jim Buzinski
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