By Karen Price | June 27, 2020, 10 a.m. (ET)

Haylie McCleney poses for a portrait during the Team USA Tokyo 2020 Olympic shoot on Nov. 22, 2019 in West Hollywood, Calif.

 

Kylee Hanson isn’t easy to surprise, so when U.S. softball star Haylie McCleney was planning her marriage proposal she wasn’t sure she’d be able to make it happen without her very on-top-of-it, highly organized girlfriend catching on.

When McCleney dropped to one knee at sunset on a private beach in Florida and saw Hanson’s expression, she knew her plan had worked.

“I completely blacked out; I don’t remember anything I said,” said McCleney, 25. “But whatever I said worked because she said yes.”

That was in February 2019, and had things gone according to plan in 2020, McCleney would have made her Olympic debut as softball returned to the Games for the first time in 12 years this summer in Tokyo and the wedding would have followed in February 2021. With the Tokyo Games now postponed until summer 2021, McCleney’s and Hanson’s wedding plans are on hold, too. But that’s OK. 

“We’re just enjoying the engagement life,” said McCleney.

McCleney doesn’t have a coming out story, per se. She has a love story.

McCleney and Hanson met playing softball when they were 17 years old and immediately became friends. Neither had ever dated another girl before, but they were soon inseparable and eventually their relationship evolved.

“We both realized our feelings had taken the next step and yeah, it was crazy because it was so obvious probably to anyone else that OK, you guys are more than friends and it’s amazing that you don’t know that,” said McCleney. “Looking back now I was so in love with her. I still am so in love with her. I’m sure it was all the social constraints of, ‘Do I really feel this way?’ and maybe just not allowing yourself to be comfortable with what really is deep attraction and feelings, but over time this was something I couldn’t ignore. She makes me so incredibly happy.”

After McCleney and Hanson recognized their love, however, it took a long time to be able to share their news with others. They dated for about two years and were both in college — McCleney an outfielder at the University of Alabama and Hanson a pitcher first at Florida Atlantic University and later at Florida State — before they came out to their families.

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McCleney grew up in Morris, Alabama. It’s a small town and a very conservative area, she said, and she didn’t know how her family and friends would react to her being romantically involved with Hanson. She also grew up a devoted member of the Southern Baptist church and struggled initially with how being gay meshed with her faith.

“Faith is a big part of my life; always has been, always will be,” said McCleney. “I kind of got away from it up until the coming out process because I didn’t think I could be gay and be faithful. Now I’m at a point in my life where I’ve accepted myself because God has accepted me, and I feel very strongly about that. I feel more loved by God now as a member of the LGBTQ community than I ever did before, which is really, really awesome. I think that faith process really helped me have difficult conversations with my family and friends.”

Although the conversations weren’t easy to initiate, McCleney said, their families and friends embraced the couple. The people McCleney loved and grew up with and had as coaches, teachers and mentors were accepting and none of their feelings for her changed.

“I feel very, very lucky to have had a conservative upbringing and still be fully loved and accepted,” said McCleney.

It wasn’t really until the engagement, McCleney said, that she began posting openly on social media. Putting who you are out there is a process, she said, and hers was admittedly a bit slow. Whether you’re a member of the LGBTQ community or any member of a minority group, she said, when speaking up about what you believe and what you feel is right there’s likely going to be some backlash.

That no longer makes a difference.

“As human beings it’s our nature, especially as females, to want to please everyone, but we have to come to terms with the fact that what pleases everyone is not necessarily always what is right,” said McCleney. “And to be a leader and an advocate you have to push peoples’ buttons on certain things and certain issues. You have to be vocal about what you believe because you won’t help anyone being on the fence or hiding. You help yourself and other people by having conversations, by putting things out there, by leading from the front, by letting people see you let and letting yourself be vulnerable enough to be seen. It was a process for me, but I’m at the point now where my life is my life, I’m with the love of my life, I’m living my best life every day with her by my side and love it or hate it, I don’t care because I’m over-the-moon happy.”

That happiness grew recently when McCleney and Hanson closed on their first home together, a beachfront condo near Hanson’s hometown of Jupiter, Florida. It was another big moment in building the life together that they’ve both known they wanted since the age of 17.

McCleney hopes that her story — being a small town girl, from a conservative area, playing for her hometown university and growing up with all the stigmas and stereotypes of being gay who’s now found love, acceptance and happiness — can help others.

“I’ve gotten really encouraging messages from people who grew up pretty much the same way I did, asking me what the process was like, was I ever scared, how I handled it,” said McCleney. “There are a lot of people out there that are just so careful of what people think of them and it’s very, very difficult to truly feel like they can unapologetically be themselves. For me, I’ve really just lived my life and never expected to be in this position, but it’s really cool for me to be able to help out people I think have similar life experiences. A lot of kids who grew up in the south in conservative households are petrified (to come out) and that can drive anxiety, depression and an awful mental state when they don’t have the freedom to be as God created them to be.”

“If we can change that at a fundamental grassroots level to let people be who they are, we can make a lot of difference.”

Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.