I had hit the lowest point in my life.
I was a 21-year-old senior in college who had just been sexually assaulted by a person I was close with.
It’s hard enough to type this, let alone actually have to endure it. But I say this not only to share the reality of what I went through but also to help those out there who may feel isolated, like they are the only ones this has happened to.
This moment was one I would never wish on anyone, but it proved to be a catalyst for me to embrace my sexuality and take control of my life.
Let me take you back to when I was in kindergarten. I grew up in the small town of Whitinsville, Massachusetts. I knew I was different, but I had no idea why. I vividly remember caring for the well-being of my male classmates. I always desired that they were happy. I constantly thought of them before myself. Who feels this way in kindergarten?
As my feelings continued to slowly develop for boys, sports became my primary method of escape. I spent countless hours practicing, depending on what sports season it was. I was a three-sport athlete from the age of 5 until I graduated high school.
During the fall and winter, I played soccer and basketball all the way through school, and during the spring and summer, I played baseball. In sixth grade, I decided to trade in my baseball glove for a tennis racquet to try something new. On the soccer pitch, I was known for my speed, left foot and throw-ins.
On the basketball court, I was known as the three-point specialist. The further away from the hoop, the more accurate I became.
On the diamond, everyone knew me as the left-handed pitcher who could strike you out with a dastardly change-up or a blazing fastball, and I still wonder to this day what my pitching career would have been like as a left-handed pitcher had I continued to pursue it. On the tennis court, I was known for my 100+ MPH serve and tenacious net play.
I learned early on that the more I practiced at each sport, the better I became. The better I became, the more playing time I received. The more playing time I received, the more I contributed to the outcome of the game. The more I contributed, the more control I had. This control felt great, and it was something I was dedicated to keep and not relinquish any time soon.
Upon entering high school, classmates and other students began to gossip about whether I was gay. I started to get bombarded with the same question over and over again, “You gay, bro?” I had no choice but to lie.
If my secret got out, I had no idea what the consequences could possibly be at my conservative, Christian school. Would I get treated differently because of something I had no control over? My father was the high school Bible teacher. Could he potentially lose his job because he had raised a gay son?
With all of this weighing on me, it finally got to the point where my play was suffering, especially on the basketball court. I got very nervous on game days, playing in front of any fans, whether it be home or away, for fear more ridicule and gossip would occur.
I could barely focus when I was on the court because I was carrying such an immense burden but could speak to no one about it. I had no LGBTQ sports role models to look up to for guidance or hope. Instead, I asked God to take this burden from me night after night but to no avail.
When I moved out to Calvin College (now Calvin University) in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I was excited for the possibility that things would be different. Unfortunately, they weren’t. I remember just sitting in silence with God, asking for a change. I just wanted to take a deep breath and feel relief. I wanted this secret to be out.
However, the peace I had long been searching for didn’t come without more pain.
The final day of spring break during my senior year of college, I drove a close friend home after a praise and worship service. We began catching up immediately as it had been months since we had last seen each other. As I parked outside his house, the conversation died down, and I thought he was about to exit the car. What happened next was something I never predicted and would never wish on my worst enemy.
He raped me.
He got out of the car, shut the door and said one final thing to me: “Don’t tell anyone this ever happened and if you do, I’ll deny it.” To this day, we have never spoken again.
I drove home in stunned silence, shaking uncontrollably. At that moment, I had two options: I could give up because the pain was too great or I could fight back.
I chose to fight back, but I knew it wouldn’t be easy.
Once I got back to Calvin, I immediately hit an emotional brick wall. I didn’t speak to anyone for two days. Feeling like I was ready to explode, I couldn’t hold in my silence anymore. I was going to graduate in less than six weeks, and I had kept silent about my sexuality for 14 years. I knew at this point if I didn’t take advantage of the free counseling on campus, I’d regret it.
It took two one-hour counseling sessions just to get the entire story out. Once those sessions were finished, I finally had a sense of peace because my truth had been shared and that I had taken back some of my power.
I continued counseling with our male and female chaplains on campus. I appreciated how real I could be around both Pastor Mary and Pastor Aaron.
Pastor Mary engaged me outside of her office when we saw each other on the path or in the chapel. She helped me not only regain confidence in myself but also gave me some of my happiness back I had been missing. Pastor Mary gave me the book “Torn” by Justin Lee. This book helped me learn that there are so many of other people in the LGBT community who feel the same way I do.
Pastor Aaron challenged me to go a whole week living out what I thought being a gay Christian meant to me and how that would take shape in my life. A week went by, and I returned to Pastor Aaron’s office with the biggest smile on my face. I quickly told him that that was the most freeing week of my life.
I told him that it being gay is an important part of me but it is not all there is to me. There is so much more to me than who I am attracted to. I am still the same Jonny everyone knows and loves. I thought a lot about how loved I am by God, family, and friends.
Two weeks before I graduated college, I finally said the words “I’m gay.” I felt the biggest sense of peace I ever had in 14 years. I finally had accepted the truth I could no longer hide or deny. The more I shared my story, the more confident I became. I finally felt comfort in bridging my faith and my sexuality. At this moment, my secret was finally over!
If my own journey has taught me anything, it’s that the darkest situations in life can open the biggest doors to opportunities you never imagined possible. Never did I think that this specific chapter in my life would turn into a passion for teaching inner city students.
Never did I think my journey would turn into my dad and I co-authoring a book together that shares my testimony as an openly gay Christian and his role not only as an ally but also a loving, supportive parent.
Never did I think this part of my life would heavily influence my decision to pursue a PhD in Physical Education with a goal of writing a dissertation about inclusiveness for LGBTQIA+ youth in PE.
It was the pain I endured that made this all possible. Instead of wishing these trials and tribulations away, I always pray that God will guide me and help me endure these difficult times as they will allow for growth for the future.
Through this journey, I have decided to use my gifts to turn my trauma into a testimony that will not only impact the community around me but also so many LBGTQIA+ youth, adults, and allies all across the world who don’t have the voice or the platform I have been blessed with.
Jonathan Vriesema is entering his fifth year as a physical education teacher and is currently teaching in the Worcester Public School system in Worcester, Massachusetts. He is also beginning his PhD in Physical Education – Teaching and Higher Administration at Springfield College in Springfield, Massachusetts, with a goal in mind of writing his dissertation about inclusiveness for LGBTQIA+ youth in PE. He can be reached via email at [email protected] and followed on Facebook (Jonny Vriesema).
Story editor: Jim Buzinski
If you are an out LGBTQ person in sports and want to tell your story, email Jim ([email protected]).