It feels so long ago that I used to think that being gay was something I would never share with anyone.
When I was young, I didn't see anyone like me. I'm from a really small town in Northeastern Pennsylvania; the population is 5,000 and I have five siblings, so we made up most of it. I didn't even know what being gay looked like. The only time I even heard people talk about a gay person, I heard them say that they hated them and they were disgusting. It was something that felt very personal to me, even before I knew how I felt about myself.
The first time I ever flirted with a boy, I was 21. I had never felt the things I felt talking to this boy before. It all felt so different and scary, but I also never felt so honest. In that moment, I thought to myself that maybe I wasn't going to keep this a secret my entire life. Maybe being gay wasn't bad.
I was 22 by the time I first came out — to the surprise of no one. I was scared to share the part of me that I thought I kept hidden so well. I also felt embarrassed; I was worried the people in my life would think that I was lying to them. When I finally told my friends and family that I was gay, even if to them nothing was different, to me it felt like a huge weight was off my shoulders. Everyone was very supportive; I was never made to feel different or that I wasn't equal to the people in my life. I know that isn't the story for a lot of LGBTQ+ people.
In the years that followed my coming out, I realized that everyone's version of finding themselves is so different. We aren't lying to our friends and family, we are still discovering our truth. I can still remember thinking to myself, "I will live with this my whole life and never tell anyone." Today, I can't imagine what it would feel like to still be living with such a huge secret.
Skating saved me. It helped me see that the world was bigger than the small place that I was from. Because of skating, I got to train and compete in places all over the world. I was so lucky to have the friends and people around me that I did.
The first time I felt that being gay was something that could hold me back was right before the Sochi Olympics in 2014, when Russia came out with an anti-gay propaganda law. I thought for the first time in my life that I might be somehow not safe, if I were to go to those games. I can also reflect now and realize what a privilege it was, that this was the first moment I felt unsafe because of something about myself that I couldn't control. I felt like maybe I should say something, but I was too scared. I was also fearful that me being out might somehow affect the way I was judged and perceived by officials. I eventually didn't qualify for the games, so all the worrying was for nothing, but it really made me think.
In my preparation for the 2018 games, I wanted to do things differently. I had already failed to qualify for an Olympics twice, so I really had nothing to lose. I came out in my sporting life in 2015, the year after the Olympics. There were no other out athletes in my sport. It felt like something I had to do. If this was the thing that kept me off the Olympic team for a third time, that was okay. It was more important to me than that. I did it for the younger version of myself that felt so uncomfortable in their own skin for so long. I didn't want another young kid to feel the way I did.
All these moments led to the incredible experiences I had in 2018. Being able to represent my country at the Olympics was such a huge honor and a dream come true. Being able to do that as an out athlete, being totally myself, was liberating. I was so grateful for all the setbacks and times I fell short, because they prepared me for some of the best moments I've ever had in my sporting life. They were the best moments because I got to have them as me. The people who came before helped to clear the path for someone like me to have those experiences.
I am so grateful for all the other athletes and people who have shared their stories too. I think when we share the things we think held us back, we realize that they are sometimes the things that pushed us beyond what we thought we were capable of. Since my coming out I've also met some of the most inspiring people I've ever known. I've realized that when you are a part of the LGBTQ+ community, you gain a family. No matter what you do, you have a whole new community of people who are behind you. I'm so humbled to have the moments I've gotten to have, and I want sports to be a safe place where all kinds of people can experience them. I will always work so that everyone is afforded the same opportunities I was.
It does get better. Not immediately and sometimes not quickly, but it does. You are stronger than you think. You are braver than you know. And you are very loved.
Adam Rippon was the first openly gay American athlete to win a medal at the Winter Olympics, in the figure skating team event. He's the author of Beautiful on the Outside: A Memoir and the host of Useless Celebrity History on Quibi.