by Colton Canup
Considering I’m from a small town in Bible Belt, USA my coming out was fairly non-traumatic. For the most part, my friends and family were accepting. However, acceptance doesn’t mean comfort. I was exclusively acknowledged as the gay kid and it didn’t go much further than that. No one dared asked me how my day was going or even attempted to bother me in the school hallways. Although I am grateful for not having my head dunked in toilets, I was made to feel like I carried a disease that could be passed around as easily as someone showing an interest in my personal life. It was obvious that no one knew what to say. In fact – the first person to ever take an interest and ask how my sexual orientation made me feel was a teammate I met in cheerleading six hours away in Dallas.
It is overwhelming having a culture shock in a culture you thought you already identified with. The support from the LGBT community within the cheerleading community was an enjoyable change from the deafening silence that rang through the halls back home. The friends and family I made at Cheer Athletics gave me an opportunity to discover who I was as a young gay man that I would not have received in my hometown. I was encouraged to be myself and congratulated when I found another piece of my puzzle.
Now, as a cheerleading coach back on my home turf, I get to provide that atmosphere and safe space for children and young adults going through the same thing. I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing first girlfriends and first boyfriends, first fights and first breakups, and I’ve gotten to talk my athletes through difficult times with their parents. As a coach, I strive to be as present and reassuring as my mentors were with me. And my advice for all athletes would be:
Truly, truly be yourself. This is a sport you will make lifelong friends who will love you for everything you are regardless if you are straight and surrounded by gay jokes, gay and afraid of your parents knowing, lesbian and scared of being singled out in a sport filled with other girls, or transgender and not sure what uniform you would be allowed to wear. And if that one toxic teammate no longer wants to be your friend, that back left backspot will be the best mate you will ever have.
Through the relationships I built at Cheer Athletics and within the cheerleading community, I have been blessed to coach all over the country and even overseas. Not only was I able to travel overseas, I was able to live, work, and compete there. Having the opportunity to see a different side of cheerleading in another country was an experience envied by many, but not a dream far out of reach for anyone.
The best thing, and my favorite part, about cheerleading is how diverse it can be. From six different levels and what seems to be hundreds of divisions at this point, athletes with any capabilities are able to perform on stage and experience a sport that strives to be inclusive. Ultimately, that is why I fell even more in love with cheerleading while I was overseas. These athletes work so hard to be “comparable” to their favorite teams here in the US and that grind and dedication should never be taken for granted.
And those athletes, coaches, and parents are going through similar life challenges as well. Coming out as gay, bisexual, lesbian, or transgender in any country isn’t always an experience filled with parades or pink unicorns. There are kids being thrown out of their houses, being beaten up at schools, and left out of social interactions with the people they thought were their friends. Once again, I observed cheerleading lend its helping hand and provide a shoulder to cry on when athletes needed an escape.
Cheerleading is the most unique sport I have ever had the pleasure to be involved in and its uniqueness will continue to grow and produce more chances for athletes of all ages and abilities to succeed. Cheerleading is more than a sport – and a program is more than a practice facility. It was where I felt safe enough to explore my own sexuality, how I became such a confident man in the LGBT community, and why I continue to provide a judgment-free zone in the programs I work with.