GLSEN Changing the Game

Student Athlete Blog: Eric Samelo

My name is Eric, and I am a gay, biracial Filipino-American senior in high school. My family moved to Alabama when I was 15 months old, and living in the Heart of Dixie as a queer person of color has been neither a joyful nor an affirming experience. While I live in one of Alabama’s larger cities that is slightly more liberal than other regions of the state, there are still plenty of dangerously conservative ideals that make it hostile for many minority groups.

As a child, I bounced around from sport to sport, taking up different things like karate and baseball, but I never really found something that I genuinely enjoyed until I joined the swim team at age 10. I had always loved splashing around in my grandparents’ pool and floating in the ocean’s waves, but I never thought to join the swim team until the lifeguard who taught my swim lessons talked me into it. Once I realized my love for the water, it became an incredibly important part of my life. Swim practice became a place where I could shut out the clamor of my life and let it all melt into that bold black line on the bottom of the pool. For the few hours I was in the water, I had no problems; all that mattered was my technique, my speed, my strength, and my determination.

While conversations are rather difficult to maintain when you’re submerged in heavily chlorinated water, I still made many friends on the team that made my practices even more enjoyable. No matter how much we love the sport, the one unifying characteristic of all swimmers is our shared passion for complaining about sets. Doing tombstone drills for half an hour at 6 in the morning promotes communal suffering, and collective agony serves as a magnificent team building experience.

However, there were always people who were not enthused about my presence (or existence) in this space. Locker rooms were a very uncomfortable place. Hateful and ignorant words were casually thrown around with no regard for their impact, and there was frequent and direct antagonization of me and my identity. People both said and did awful things to me, and experiencing that hostility in a place I hoped would be an escape was profoundly upsetting.

I did not let people’s narrow-mindedness deter me from doing what I loved. It was difficult to muster up the courage and strength to stand up to people, especially since I was the only gay kid on the entire team. I started trying to call out people for spewing closed-minded and hateful rhetoric, and I stopped passively allowing people to get away with their harmful actions. I had to be aggressive and earn my teammates’ respect. It was a long and difficult road, but once the other kids started respecting me more, they stopped using anti-gay slurs as casually and didn’t direct any hateful comments towards me. I noticed a change in the atmosphere of the team, and while there is still a long way to go, it has become more accepting since I’ve been there. I’m glad that the team will be slightly more improved for future swimmers.

I have a few pieces of advice for my fellow queer athletes. First, remember that not everyone has to like you. If they respect you, even if it’s a begrudging respect, that is still a valuable step towards feeling safer in your own sport. You have just as much of a right to enjoy your sport as any other athlete. Furthermore, if people are being narrow-minded and unreceptive to change, you must make them understand that their actions have consequences and that they cannot go throughout life being hateful. Once they understand that, hopefully you can get them to think about the impact of their actions on others and start changing their behaviors. It is not easy, but progress never is.

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Three humans stand together smiling at the camera. The person on the right has his hands on each persons shoulders.

Eric is a gay high school senior and a second year member of GLSEN’s National Student Council. His dream job is to use chemical engineering to fight climate change. He is also a talented and passionate musician who likes walking in the forest and making people laugh. He currently lives in Alabama with his family, which includes two cats that he loves very much.