The moment was surreal. There I was having been crowned homecoming king of my high school and students from both campuses were cheering, screaming and just simply happy for me.
As I stood there in September with all of my football, hockey and baseball player friends from East Leyden High School, I was thinking of what a beautiful thing it was that all of those people defied the stereotypical “athlete” attitudes towards LGBT people and how I wish this level of acceptance was worldwide.
To have this happen just months after coming out as gay was something I could never have imagined and made me reflect on how I got to this place.
Last December I came across a YouTube video by openly gay wrestler Dylan Geick with his advice on coming out and it moved me to finally own who I was.
I find it crazy how hearing just a few words from someone I never met could be the cause of an experience that will forever have an impact on me, because it showed me I was not alone.
Growing up in the Chicago suburb of Franklin Park playing ice hockey, I always knew that I was somehow mentally separated from other teammates, I just never knew why.
As time passed and I learned more about myself, I became very resentful and angry with the feelings that I was having and taught myself to repress those thoughts and feelings deep within me.
Little did I know that as I moved into my teenage years, the locker room conversations about girls and other teenage boy topics would bring those repressed thoughts back to the surface.
It hurt having to lie every time I got asked what girls I liked or found attractive. For the longest time I played along just so that I could fit in with the rest of my teammates, while becoming more and more aware of what these feelings were.
These were the questions that I was asking myself all of the time: Was I gay or was this just a phase? Did the rest of the guys feel these feelings too? What was wrong with me that I felt that way?
Not only was it hard enough to deal with this by myself, it only grew harder as I entered high school on the varsity team. By this time, I knew that I was gay, but I did not accept that part of myself. I figured the longer that I denied that part of me, it would eventually go away.
I tried my absolute hardest to be like my peers and teammates in hopes that these feelings would go away. Once I got into my sophomore year, I had finally let this part of me invade my head. Once I accepted who I was and realized it wasn’t going to go away, that was all I could think about.
Every last millimeter of my head space had been overtaken by anxiety on what I was going to do next. I didn’t know if I wanted to come out in high school or wait until after. I didn’t know how my friends would react.
I didn’t know how my family would react. Every second of every day, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, was occupied by these anxiety-provoking thoughts, with a little voice in my head constantly reminding me of the issues that I was faced with.
Generally speaking, at my school I have been considered a “popular kid,” which only made this anxiety worse because I knew that coming out as gay would be news that everyone would know about.
Life was starting to feel more and more heavy, as if each day was another weight being added on to my feet, dragging along with each step. As I entered my junior year, I had overcome the hesitation of accepting myself, and finally decided that I couldn’t keep this secret in any longer.
Last winter, when I watched the coming out video by Dylan, a fellow Chicago native whom I highly respect, it gave me my final boost of courage. Seeing someone about the same age, from around the same place allowed me to see a future that was quite difficult for me to conceptualize at first.
I realized that it didn’t matter who was or wasn’t happy about my big news; as long as I was finally able to live my life the way I wanted, I had all the happiness that I ever needed at my age.
The week after watching that video, I told my very good friend Julie that we should grab a coffee after school because I had something very important to tell her. After a nerve-racking, very uncomfortable car ride, I eventually came out to her.
Her reaction was very positive, which in turn gave me more ambition to get this off my chest once and for all.
Eventually I came out to my parents, family, and made an Instagram post for the rest of my friends, but more specifically, my hockey team.
The day that I posted on Instagram, March 24, I quickly found out that all of my friends had my back and continued to stick by my side no matter what. My teammates not only accepted me, but have been comfortable enough to carry on as if nothing had changed, which in reality, it didn’t.
Throughout this whole experience I was fortunate enough to not lose a single friend or even be degraded by a single person, in any way. I will forever be grateful for the friends and family that I have, who have made this experience an eye-opening and enlightening journey.
Being able to start this season as the out version of me has been extremely liberating. I have been able to walk in the locker room without worrying about putting on my fake face in order to fit in with the rest.
I feel as if the whole team feels the positive aftermath of how our friend group, school, and community changed after I came out. My homecoming experience confirmed that when I received so much love. It made me feel almost foolish for thinking I wasn’t going to be OK.
My goal with sharing my coming out story is that any person sitting at home confused on what they are feeling, just as I had been, can use my experiences to realize that they are not alone. Even if my story helps only one person, I will be satisfied. There will be one less person that feels as if they have to go through this alone.
I want to be able to look back on this portion of my life and see the changes in society from where kids and teenagers are feeling this way now, to a society where people don’t have to be afraid to be who they are.
I firmly believe that every story that is shared will help someone get over that obstacle that has halted them. I believe that every story that is heard has enough power to change someone’s life, just as that 14:42 coming out video has changed mine.
Coming out as a gay hockey player hasn’t always been the easiest thing to do, but I will forever be grateful that I made the decision to be who I am.
Anthony Arnoni, 17, will be graduating from East Leyden High School in Franklin Park, Ill., in May 2020. He hopes to study neuroscience at UCLA. He has played on his high school hockey team for all four years as a defenseman. He can be contacted via email ([email protected]), Instagram, Snapchat (@anthony_arnoni ) and Twitter.
Story editor: Jim Buzinski
If you are an out LGBTQ person in sports and want to tell your story, email Jim ([email protected]).