“America the brave still fears what we don't know”
[Recently] I had one of the happiest moments in my life. I watched a young man, deeply in love with a women, stand before his friends and family with tears in his eyes as she approached him at the altar as he waited to marry her.
I had coached this young man and his younger brother since they were both very young; both of them reaching the highest levels of our sport. I would watch each of them win multiple U.S. National Diving Championships, compete in the U.S. Olympic Trials and be with them during countless hours of training, traveling and competing against America’s and the world’s best. I adore them both. At the reception, I gave a short toast to convey to him and his new wife what they mean to me and to reaffirm what I feel is important in this life.
As I walked away that evening with tissues still in my right pocket from the tears I had wiped away, the overwhelming thought in my head was not so much the joy I felt that evening, but rather the hope that one day I would have the opportunity to make that same toast at his younger brother’s wedding when he finds his partner for life and wants to get married too. You see — he’s gay.
At no time in the history of our culture has the discussion of gay marriage been more prevalent. The boiling point for me was Sunday night, a day after the wedding, as I watched the Grammy Awards. The upcoming Olympic Games in Sochi, the Grammy’s the other night and this wedding, crystalized my own experience dating back to 1978 and have compelled me to write this, not only for my own memory and healing, but I want my own son to know his father’s heart on this issue, and in the hope that my words will help others in their journey towards love and acceptance.
After the Grammy’s, social media was filled with anonymous messages from those that disagree with gay marriage. Messages of hatred came right after an absolutely amazing song called “Same Love” while numerous couples of different sexual orientations, races and nationalities took their own vows right there on the stage in the State of California. I read those words on social media and many articles afterwards and I felt them in my own heart.
I knew where they came from and how those people must hurt inside, but more importantly; how one can change and open their heart to a new outlook. I know it can be done because that was me. I was full of that ignorance at one time. I did not understand, condone, accept or like a different lifestyle than my own. But it wasn’t the lifestyle that so infuriated me, it was me. I was broken inside.
In 1978, I was a fifteen-year-old athlete who was lost, fearful, confused and trying to fit into a new school, athletic team and surroundings in Southern California. I had just moved from, of all places, Ohio. There was an older diver on our team who was the center of attention, who dominated our sport and oftentimes, my father’s attention.
My father was his coach and so he became like a family member, just like many athletes over the years, often staying at our house. All the while something ugly was brewing inside of me. I grew to resent this young man who was only a few years older than me. It was nothing he had done, but as a young fifteen-year-old boy trying to make sense of it all, my heart filled with hate, jealousy, fear and maybe even the sense that I was inadequate. You see, my teammate, this man who would come to dominate our sport, was gay.
He had not done a thing to me. Nonetheless, those feelings of anger and a lack of understanding of him and of his sexuality confused me. I never once considered his feelings and only focused on how his lifestyle offended me. Me, me, me. What festered inside for the years to follow was the same hatred and fear that I felt in those Twitter feeds that I read the other night.
I could not, or maybe would not, even try to understand what may have been going on inside this young man. In fact, I can remember one event, the National Sports Festival, in which I was involved in a late night “party” that resulted in a group of us placing white athletic tape with “BTF” written in bold black letters onto everyone’s dorm room door. “BTF” stood for “beat the fag”
Time passed and something shifted. I would watch him during the next 10 years as he struggled with many of the same things that I dealt with. He struggled with broken relationships, heartache, failure and pain. He had some of the same demons that I was facing. He dealt with the brunt of his own father who was unwilling and ill-equipped to deal with a gay son.
My father, on the other hand, was my hero and my rock. In many respects, he was, at the time, lost, just like me. We were, in many respects, his family. Over the course of the next decade, my heart would change and while I cannot pinpoint one specific event, conversation or moment that changed me, I can look back today and say I began to understand and see that he was just like me. More importantly, he was a fierce competitor who would provide me with the greatest athletic memories of my lifetime when we both trained, traveled and competed in the greatest era of United States Diving.
I would attend and watch him in three Olympic Games, Montreal in '76, LA in '84, finally culminating in Seoul in 1988. He overcame incredible obstacles. To this day, Seoul, Korea is etched in my mind as I watched and cheered him and my father in a performance for the ages. The courage it took for both of them, was nothing short of miraculous. The greatest coach and the greatest diver being tested on the greatest stage. Looking back as I watching. I was also learning and it was one of my life’s greatest moments. It had nothing to do with his sexuality and everything to do with the power and strength of the human spirit. It taught me so much including the importance of looking at what is in someone’s heart. Sexual orientation is irrelevant.
Over the course of those years, I began to see a friend, a man, not a gay man. I started to see into his heart instead of looking at the hate in mine. I also began to understand that sexual orientation is not a choice. I was born straight. I had no say in that. Some of us are born gay and we have no say in that either. If you want to play the God card, my opinion is God makes us all just like we are.
My ignorance was replaced by an understanding and my heart began to see what was in his. Years later, tears were shed, amends were made, and healing began. I was wrong. I was ignorant. I was foolish and jealous and I wasted so much time in that state of mind. Someone who I considered my enemy; became my brother.
I have walked this path; from a man who was on one side of this issue due to his own jealousy, fear and ignorance to a man who supports gay marriage in every state. It is not about gay rights; it’s about human rights. I do not believe that this is an issue about God, the Bible, politics or the perceived and ridiculous theory that it is a threat to traditional family values. It is about right and wrong. Let me say that again; it is about right and wrong.
The hate must stop. These are all of our brothers and sisters, our aunts and our uncles, our nieces and nephews our friends and our loved ones. I ask that if you oppose gay marriage you look a little deeper and maybe consider that it is something inside of you that is the real issue.
I ask that if you support gay marriage like I do, you are vocal about it. I cannot change the fact that the upcoming Olympics are in Sochi, Russia where there is zero tolerance for a gay lifestyle; but the International Olympic Committee sure should have spoken up. They did not. These Olympics should never have been awarded to a hate filled venue like Sochi. We all have to do our part and speak up.
We all deserve the same rights; human rights. The rights that we deny to others, the rights that so many blatantly want to deny the LGBT community, may just one day be the rights of someone close to you; someone that you love.
It may be your brother or sister, your aunt or uncle, your niece or nephew or your friends or loved one. When we deny the same rights to every American citizen and every citizen of this world, we are not just taking something from them, we are also denying rights to everyone, to you, to their parents, to their brothers and sisters, their aunts, uncles, their friends and the person they choose to love and marry. And without even knowing, you may just be denying them to an old coach somewhere down the road.
A coach who just wants to make a toast on a big day, to see a young man he adores find true joy with a partner, to say "congratulations, enjoy the journey, I love you and thank you for letting me walk with you for a while."
Tim O’Brien is a Former Fort Lauderdale Diving Coach and U.S. Olympic Diving Coach in 2000.