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'I was a bald, gay Wildcat.' Former UA swimmer explains 'coming out' essay

Published: Sep. 10, 2015 at 11:01 PM MST|Updated: Nov. 6, 2015 at 12:01 AM MST
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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - When you dive in a pool you are constantly testing yourself. Your focus. Your strength. Your commitment.

But Jon Denton-Schneider faced a different kind of test away from the pool.

The current PhD student, and former swimmer at the University of Arizona went to a conference on LGBT issues earlier this year, and was told by the founder of a media company, "If you can come out without hurting yourself professionally or putting yourself in danger, then you have a responsibility to."

Schneider had told his friends, family and teammates that he was gay back in 2010 and 2011, when he was a member of the Wildcats high-powered swim team. He was accepted and life went on. But, after he heard that message at the conference, he decided to go public.

He wrote a first-person essay that appeared in Outsports.

He spoke about fear: "While I was in high school, the idea of coming out as a gay athlete absolutely terrified me. I didn't know of any openly gay swimmers who had successful swimming careers...I assumed coming out would mean I could never swim for a top Division I program."

The decision to come out: "There was no separating my life at school from my life at the pool. I swam, studied, ate and lived with my teammates. We were the Wildcat family, and it was impossible to keep anything from each other. I realized I would eventually have to come out."

And the acceptance, after he'd quietly told a few members of the team who then spread the word: "No one said anything about it for a few months and I got tired of tiptoeing around the subject. At a party I went up to one of the few guys I thought might have an issue with me being gay. I made an edgy joke about it to see how he would respond. To my surprise, he doubled over laughing and hugged me. 'JD, I love you buddy' he said. 'Dude, don't be gay!' I said shoving him away. He doubled over laughing again. That was the moment I realized everything would be fine. I was a bald, gay Wildcat. And the only word in the previous sentence that really mattered was the last one."

The letter was heartfelt and humorous.

Denton-Schneider joked about how going bald actually helped him find courage to come out.

The letter went out to the world in July, and almost immediately he realized he'd accomplished his goal of helping people.

He started hearing feedback on social media almost immediately.

Denton-Schneider said, "Some people wanted to remain anonymous and just say. 'Thank you, I appreciated it.' There's some swimmers who reached out to me. Some of them have already come out. Some of them are still closeted. But, it seemed like it did have an impact. I'm really happy with that. I was hoping maybe one person would reach out, and many more than that did - and that's great."

Denton-Schneider realizes he was fortunate in that he had a supportive family - and supportive teammates.

He said support is the most important thing someone needs when he or she makes the decision to come out.

Being a full-time PhD student as well as a masters swimmer will keep Denton-Schneider busy, but he said he wants to be visible and available to anyone who might reach out to him.

Click here for Jon Denton-Schneider's full essay.

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