I come from a long line of athletes in Missouri and South Dakota. My parents were both college athletes, as are my brother and sister. I even had an uncle who played in the NFL. But for me, being an NCAA athlete came with an additional hurdle. It meant I had to make a difficult choice — whether to share with my team that I am gay, or whether to hide part of who I am and live a thriving wrestling career while still in the closet. I’m speaking out because there are anti-LGBTQ bills being proposed in South Dakota, where I started my wrestling career, as well as in Missouri, the state I currently live and serve as the student president of the University of Missouri, Kansas City.
I chose to live my full authentic life and share my identity with coaches and teammates. It doesn’t mean I wasn’t a little nervous. I started with my coach, who accepted me right away and gave me the choice of how to tell my team. The same day, after practice, I circled up my teammates and shared with them this deeply personal part of myself. I was met with only positive feedback and many of my teammates congratulated me on being open. I truly believe we became stronger as a team because of my decision to be honest and my teammates’ willingness to affirm me. We were able to fully concentrate on winning.
I love athletics because we see our similarities and not the differences. Teammates from every different background and identity can come together to form a team and camaraderie like none other, and everyone is equal on the field. As long as you come to practice every day ready to work and you build up the skills and talent to compete, you can be successful — and that opportunity should be open to everyone.
But that will change if state legislatures pass bills aimed at limiting access for transgender students to participate in athletics. The bill would not only hurt transgender athletes by taking away current protections, but it would send a message to all student athletes across the state that the word “teammate” only goes so far.
As an openly gay former athlete and now the student president of the University of Missouri, Kansas City, I have had many teammates who tell me they have never met an out member of the LGBTQ community before. Many of them had questions and it took some time for them to fully understand what it means to be LGBTQ. But the great thing about a team is that those differences fade away. Through the process of training and competing together, we become a team and friendships grow. Respect on the field inevitably leads to understanding, and usually friendship, off the field. Witnessing the acceptance and affirmation I have received on and off the field, I know the experience of transgender athletes would be similar.
A teammate once said to me he never thought he would have a friend who was part of the LGBTQ community before he met me. But that is what sports is all about. It’s about more than just winning and losing. Athletes learn about perseverance, hard work and how to come together to form something greater than yourself. For most of us, high school sports create memories and lessons that will last a lifetime. Transgender students deserve this same opportunity to participate. And if these bills pass, not only will transgender athletes miss out, but student athletes and high school sports teams across the state will be the losers.
Justice Horn is the nation’s first openly gay multicultural NCAA wrestler and is now a social justice activist and student president at the University of Missouri, Kansas City.