Silver medalist Hailey Danz celebrates on the podium at the medal ceremony for the Triathlon Women's T2 at Forte de Copacabana during the Paralympic Games Rio 2016 on Sept. 11, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
For a long time, I didn’t feel pride in being gay. On the contrary, the primary emotion I felt was shame.
I’m not sure why I felt so much shame around my sexuality. I was raised by an accepting family in a fairly progressive community, but even still, growing up in a heteronormative world, I heard plenty of micro aggressions that sent the message that to be gay was to be less than.
Maybe I internalized those micro aggressions a little too much. Or maybe I was too overwhelmed trying to process the amputation of my leg as a result of bone cancer, and I couldn’t confront the idea that there was yet another thing that made me different.
I started to realize I was gay in college, around the same time I began competing in triathlon. In retrospect, I can see that I probably threw myself into the sport so intensely as a way of avoiding my feelings.
Over time, triathlon became a convenient excuse for why I never had a boyfriend. “I don’t have the energy to date…training is too consuming.”
That worked for me for a while.
But after a decade, carrying the weight of a secret became exhausting. My mind was constantly preoccupied as it tried to keep track of the half-truths and lies of omission. I grew resentful, and my normally sunny disposition became jaded with an edge of irritability.
It all came to a head last year when my training — the one thing that gave me solace — began to suffer as the weight of this burden literally kept me up at night.
I decided to tell my coach the reason why I wasn’t acting like myself, and his reaction was one I’ll never forget. Unfazed, he told me how much be cared about me, and how this could never change what he thought of me.
Then he said, “It would break my heart to see such an amazing person hide even a fraction of who you are, because you have way too much to offer this world.”
I don’t think I realized just how much I was restricting my own strength, but my coach was right. Energy is finite, and I was using far too much of it to build walls in an attempt to hide who I was.
I could think of a thousand other things more worthy of my energy, and I owed it to both the world and myself to use that limited resource more wisely.
I came out publicly in a social media post last November, finally freeing myself of the weight I’d been carrying. Putting those words out into the world was pretty scary, but the response was better than I could have hoped for.
I know for certain that my experience of coming out would have been very different had I done it a decade ago. Attitudes towards the LGBTQ+ community have come so far just in the last few years.
I never worried that being honest about my sexuality would negatively affect my career.
While I was certainly nervous about how some people would react, I knew that by and large the response would be positive. So much of that is because of those in the LGBTQ+ community who came before me; those who fought for the rights that I take for granted, and who dared to be out when the world was less tolerant.
This is why I believe visibility is so important.
The more coming out stories we hear, the more loving and accepting this world becomes.
I know there are a lot of people who say that sexuality has no place in sport; that the press should stop sensationalizing who we love and simply focus on the game. To those people let me say this: it was by seeing openly gay athletes that I’ve been able to work through my shame and insecurities and accept who I am.
It was by sharing my own story that I’ve been able to help others come to terms with the parts of themselves that have caused them pain and confusion.
It was by being welcomed into this community that I finally understand why Pride month has the name that it does.
Now, for the first time in my life, I’m proud to be gay.