Out of the locker room closet
by Roger Brigham
The wrestlers warm up on the mat with a series of acrobatic stunts. As they jog, tumble, cartwheel, and somersault in structured routines, a team captain quietly barks directions and answers questions confidently and precisely – sometimes in Spanish, sometimes in English, occasionally in Chinese. His natural family is 3,000 miles away in his native Panama, but in the heart of San Francisco's Mission District, on the mat with his high school wrestling team, Jaime Loo is the picture of happiness.
That was not the picture Jaime presented a little more than three years ago, when he first arrived in San Francisco from Panama at the age of 14. He was by all accounts something of an insecure, out-of-shape nerd trying to learn his third language and wondering where, in the grand scheme of things, he belonged. He knew he was gay but knew of nobody to address the multiple fears and questions bubbling up inside him.
Tragically, for many LGBT teens in similar seeming isolation, their stories are never told and are very short. Leading hidden lives, untold numbers drift into suicide or addiction: rudderless lives soon dashed upon the rocks of despair and hopelessness. Death turns their brief lives into statistics.
But, as they say, it does get better for those who stand and fight.
"Before I came out, I feared that I would be hated for who I am – all friendships would be gone, family would no longer love me, and all the stereotypes would come true," Jaime said. "I basically played along with my friends, pretending that I was straight."
As he became acclimated to Mission High School, he began to think about coming out and slowly talked it through with a few teachers and coaches.
"Some teachers put posters on their doors that say this is a safe space," he said. "But I talked to others. Listening to mentors who have dealt with it before made my insecurities go away. Stories such as yours and others were very inspiring."
I got to know Jaime when I started volunteering as an assistant coach at Mission High as part of my work in San Francisco Alliance Wrestling, an initiative by Golden Gate Wrestling Club to provide coaching for high school students in San Francisco. The wrestlers know I am gay, but I never talked about orientation with any of them. Instead we talk wrestling, good citizenship, wrestling, service to others, wrestling, and working to take control of our lives.
Hudson Taylor, a heterosexual wrestling coach at Columbia University who founded Athlete Ally, said creating a safe environment for teen athletes to talk is important to their survival. Silence is as inhibiting as spoken slurs.
"The most common e-mail I get from young LGBT athletes is that they don't know whom they can talk to," said Taylor. "They may not feel comfortable talking to their coaches. I usually recommend that they talk to their school guidance counselor. The guidance counselor is there to listen and to help. This can oftentimes help young LGBT athletes find the answers to their questions without the fear that accompanies such a personal discussion. Also, the Internet makes so many wonderful resources available. If an athlete doesn't feel comfortable telling someone face to face, I suggest doing some Googling. There are thousands of e-mail addresses and phone numbers out there that are waiting to listen and respond."
And when an athlete does open up to a coach?
"As a coach, it is important to first let your athletes know that they can come talk to you about anything," he said. "Oftentimes this isn't explicitly said, so athletes may not feel comfortable going out of their way to do so. If they do come to you, it is important to listen and support. The affirmation of a coach can make a world of difference. If your athlete has questions that you don't feel qualified or comfortable answering, you should offer to put them in contact with someone else."
His first few weeks of wrestling, Jaime was weathering storms of whethers: whether to come out; whether to stay or return to Panama and a seemingly inevitable secretive existence; and whether to stick with the grueling grind of wrestling or just chuck it all.
"I joined wrestling because I wanted to lose weight for baseball," Jaime said. A coach suggested I do wrestling because it would definitely help me reach my goals."
Then, with his parents in town for a visit and waiting in the stands to take him back to Panama, Jaime was losing a match in a meet in which every Mission wrestler to that point had been beaten. Unaware of the pressures surrounding him, I watched from the bench as he tried and failed at move after move, giving up points, getting into bad predicaments repeatedly, only to find some inner resolve to battle back and try again.
And he tried until he succeeded, turning and pinning his opponent for the upset victory. As soon as the meet was done, he walked upstairs and told his folks he was staying: he was having success at building a life and he could not leave it now.
"It made me very furious that some coaches, including other teammates, assumed that I would not last long on the team because I was a fat kid," he said. "But I stayed because as time passed, I changed other coaches' minds. I was not there to play, I was there for a purpose. I stayed because by the time I wanted to go back to baseball, a coach already invested lots of effort and hours on me, and I felt like I needed to pay back by simply taking it seriously and stay for the season."
As his confidence grew, Jaime started coming out to teammates and coaches one by one. I was the last one he told.
Three years later, Jaime is still here and now I am his head coach. A wonderful support program at Mission High has made is possible for him to visit college campuses and attend sports and leadership camps. He's a solid A student in his final year as a team co-captain and is the most gregarious and vocal team leader. Having already earned two bronze medals in the past two city tournaments, he is gunning for his first state tournament berth. And he has been coming out to people outside his team.
"There are many reasons," he said when I asked him why he was telling me his story. "One is because I had a little bit of a taste of what coming out means to me. There's a sense of freedom with it, and not letting society tell me what I should expect to be. People believe that it's hard, but it would help other kids to know it's better than they think it will be.
"There were mentors helping me. One asked me why it was so hard for me to come out. I said I lived in San Francisco but there are lots of people there who are discriminated against. He said, 'Just be yourself. Ultimately it's your decision."
Jaime said a Mission teacher was "understanding. He let me feel better about the situation."
Jaime said he is happy with his decision to come out.
"I was pretty nervous when I started talking about it," he said. "I get very many different reactions. Some say, 'You? Really? I didn't know.' It usually starts with a question. I haven't faced any discrimination yet. No bad things have happened yet, nothing harsh.
"I don't have to pretend to be another person. I don't have to lie. I don't have to follow what others say and do. I can just express how I truly feel. It's a great feeling I have after I express my thoughts."
Confidence that students gain through sports can give them the courage to lead open lives.
"We pretty much accept that, for the general public, sports is an integral part of the school experience," said Pat Griffin, a longtime LGBT sports activist who is heading up the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network's Sports Project, one of the newest initiatives to counter homophobia in youth sports. "Sports help people feel good about who they are. When students don't feel that they can participate in sports and have the fear of what would happen if people find out about them, they are shortchanged. They should be able to have a sports experience where they can improve their self-esteem and become healthier. Part of playing on a team is having a group of friends who are like a second family. That's particularly important for students who might feel isolated."
"Sports-wise, I think I will continue to wrestle," Jaime said of his post-graduation plans. "There are way too many lessons and skills that I have yet to discover in the wrestling world – many of them that I can apply in real life situations. But if I do not end up playing the sport, then I would most likely coach it.
"Wrestling has played a big role in my life," he added. "It gave me self-confidence. It made me more responsible for myself and for my body. The confidence level on how possible everything is has changed me."