by Justin Case
In 1995, I was a freshman playing college soccer for an IIAC school. I had been playing soccer since I was five years old. When I was 12, I was cut from a traveling team. Getting cut ignited a fire in my belly. I spent my teenage years outworking everyone else. I spent hours practicing and playing pickup games with older players. My hard work paid off. I tried out for the team that cut me and was selected to join the squad. I was a regular in the starting line-up all three years I was on the team. My goal since the 7th grade was to play college soccer. I accomplished that goal and reported to training camp two weeks before the fall semester started. I performed well and it was clear that I would be seeing significant action as a freshman. I started half the games and saw significant playing time in all of them. This was at the same time I was becoming aware of my sexual orientation.
My first inkling that I might not be 100% straight was during the winter of my senior year of high school. I kissed another guy for the first time and realized that I liked it and that I was attracted to the guy I kissed. At the time, I just chalked it up to some sort of weird teenage experimentation and put it out of my head. I proudly identified as an athlete. I was a two-sport athlete at one of the largest high schools in the state. I earned 5 varsity letters and was a significant contributor in both sports. Soccer was my true love and I played it year around. I even played during my winter-sport season. The summer after I graduated from high school I felt free from the burden of the boxes and labels high school kids put each other in. I began to reinvent myself and seeking out new friends and new experiences. Being a young man in Iowa City meant that I was exposed to gay culture and had known openly gay people my entire life.
During the school year, I returned to Iowa City often and discovered the old University of Iowa BBS ISCA. It was basically the Facebook of the 1990s for college students. I was able to explore my sexuality from the safety of a computer screen as being queer was not something that was accepted at my conservative small college. I felt different from the other guys on the soccer team. I was finally understanding what I was. Only 6% of high school athletes will ever play their sport at the collegiate level. It’s a hyper-macho environment and you’re spending a lot of time with a group of very competitive guys, all of whom were high school standouts. Being queer in that environment is a very lonely experience. Especially for a freshman. Even though I couldn’t actually say the words out loud, I knew I was different. I suspect my teammates knew I was different because I wasn’t ever really accepted. I expressed left-wing views, after all, I was a kid from Iowa City. I didn’t dress like the typical student at the college I attended. I listened to different music and started exploring left-wing political activism.
Being different on a soccer team where you don’t fit in and aren’t accepted is a lonely experience. I was not one of the guys. Since I was bigger and stronger than all of them they couldn’t physically bully me. Every single “faggot” or “queer” epithet felt directed at me. My teammates thought it was funny to prank call my dorm room and be obnoxious. They would tell me to quit the team and not go out next year. The prank calls that hurt the most came from my roommate. The worst came when someone I thought was a friend found out I kissed a guy and told a bunch of my teammates. I was no longer invited to offseason scrimmages or acknowledged when crossing paths around campus with fellow teammates. I was harassed online and a random football player tried to start a fight with me at a bar.
The online harassment wasn’t as bad as it would be today due to a lack of cell phones and social media. My saving grace was a friend I made who was dating one of the biggest linemen on the football team. I told her about the harassment I’d been receiving and she was so upset that she considering breaking up with her boyfriend. When he caught wind of this approached the guys who had been harassing me and put the fear of God into them. I was never bothered by another football player again. The rejection by the soccer team really hurt. Especially since they were the first people to know. The person who told my team happened to be a member of the women’s team. I wasn’t close with my coach and he probably would not have been sympathetic. Freshmen year of college was one of the loneliest years of my life. I didn’t stay at that college and ended up with a 10-year gap in my education before I finally returned. I think that experience lead to issues with substance abuse and a poor body image. I wonder how much has changed.
In 2017, there are many examples of openly gay athletes but they are few and far between. In the major US sports leagues, Robbie Rogers of the LA Galaxy is the only openly gay player. Writing this article has been an extremely emotional undertaking. I did not realize how much I had buried this pain. I did not realize how traumatic of an experience my freshmen year of college was until I tried to write about. No athlete should ever feel like he or she isn’t a part of the team. Toxic masculinity is harmful to straight people too. The idea what one can’t like other men and still be an athlete is a harmful stereotype. If it wasn’t for a few members of the women’s soccer team befriending me, I don’t know how I would have made it through freshmen year. I never did complete all four years of eligibility and I feel cheated. I didn’t ask to be born bisexual. I didn’t choose it. It would be easier if I wasn’t. I was out for quite a while but then I moved to areas that weren’t accepting and know my safety would possibly be in jeopardy. I’m not out at work or the little town I live in. I’m invisible. There isn’t an active player in MLB, NFL, NHL, or the NBA who is openly gay. Has it gotten better? In many areas of society, it has. Sports will be one of the last frontiers. We still have a long way to go. They still can’t see me.