You don’t have to choose: Accepting all of your identities as an LGBT athlete

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about intersecting identities. I think there are a lot of different parts to each person. I realized how important it is for people to be able to understand and love every part of themselves. It can play a big role in being successful in sports and beyond. I wanted to share some experiences I’ve had with accepting my sexuality, faith, and gender expression together.

While I’ve seen an overwhelming amount of support for the LGBT community since marriage was legalized, there have also been hateful messages. From what I’ve seen, a lot of negative attention and hate speech have come from religious people who use parts of the bible to try and shame same-sex marriage and homosexual relationships.

Hateful people don’t bother me so much anymore. What’s been hard for me is seeing some people bash everyone who identifies with religion over the anti-gay beliefs of some individuals. What about those of us who are LGBT and identify with these religions? It’s important not to stereotype religious people. Not only are we doing the same injustice that some of them are doing to us, but we may also hurt religious members of the LGBT community by doing so.

I didn’t know how to say that I was a gay swimmer, but I also believe in God. So much media coverage on religious groups revolves around negative thoughts of LGBT people. I kept wondering what happened to the love, acceptance, and respect we were supposed to have for each other. It was a struggle between being happy with different parts of my life. Feeling like I was equal as a lesbian athlete wasn’t the only thing that made me feel stronger in swimming. It was embracing my faith as well.

When I waited behind the blocks for a swim, I would tap my heart three times. In my head, I would say to god, “Help me, guide me, save me.” I tried to do it discretely, but it was something that I felt I had to do. It made me feel like I was meant to be where I was. There was someone more powerful who believed in what I was doing.

For awhile, I stopped doing that. I felt like I had made my choice because I am openly gay. I assumed others who believe in god saw me as a sinner who didn’t deserve the best that life had to offer. Because of the things that people publicized about religious views and homosexuality, I felt like god saw me that way too. Then I realized, I didn’t have to choose. Having faith doesn’t make you straight. Being gay doesn’t make you unfaithful.

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Josh Sanders, a fellow board member of GO! Athletes, is an inspiration for accepting yourself as LGBT and accepting your religious beliefs. I’ve never told him this before, but seeing the work that he does gives me hope that we will start to accept all parts of the people in our lives, not just the ones we have in common.

Being gay and struggling with my faith wasn’t the only thing that made me feel awkward about myself. For most of my life, I’ve struggled with feeling like I was less than a female. I’m a lesbian. A woman who likes women. So am I supposed to dress, talk, and act like a “normal” woman?

When I was younger, I tried to do all of the things that normal girls in my town did. I dressed up in a sparkly blue dress so I could sing at Disney World with show choir. I played the part of Irene in “Hello Dolly” and wore dresses and heels to the school dances. I went to modeling camp. As unbelievable as that is, I have the unfortunate pictures of me as a chunky 12-year-old to prove it.

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I genuinely enjoyed doing these things, but I wondered why I had to look a certain way to be a part of it. Long before I knew I was gay, I knew that I was different. The way that I wanted to express myself didn’t match up with other girls.

As a teenager, people criticized me because I didn’t look or act like a typical girl. They laughed when I passed by them because they said I walked like a man. They said I had a man voice. Classmates wrote publicly on Facebook about how I looked like a guy. They fought in class over who had to be partners with “that dude” for class assignments. For my entire freshman year of high school, I was the kid who ate lunch in the bathroom.

In college, things got easier. There are all kinds of people. They’re willing to be themselves. Just seeing people being genuinely comfortable with themselves changed everything for me. Now I don’t worry about things that feel acceptable. Acceptable can look like a million different things. I don’t have to fit in the “normal feminine” bubble.

That freedom of expression gave me a world of confidence when I was walking around the pool deck. I could walk how I wanted, talk how I wanted, and dress how I wanted when I was with my friends. I didn’t have to think about the way I was perceived. I could just think about swimming, the only thing I really wanted to think about. It didn’t just make my life easier. It made it better.

After all of that, this is what I’m sure of:

I am Lauren. I’m not just gay, just spiritual, or just a female. I am a woman who likes other women. I identify 100% as a female, but sometimes I don’t look or act in a way that fits the normal definition. My god doesn’t think less of me for that, because my god gave me this “man swag” that I like to walk around with. I will wear my Nike shoes when I go out. I like to hang out with dudes, and sometimes I dress like them. Most of the time you can catch me one-strapping my backpack, wearing men’s sneakers, and loving life in my baggy men’s t-shirt. All of that feels more than fine to me.