• Alexander Cruz

I am who I am

Growing up, I struggled a lot with my sexuality. I would try and convince myself that maybe it was just a phase. I felt an internal conflict between who I am and who I wanted to be and I tried really hard to push that out in middle school. I would put a lot of pressure on myself to believe that it wasn’t true and that I wasn’t gay. I told myself it's a common thing, saying whatever I could to normalize and rationalize what I was experiencing. During my freshman year of high school, I came to the realization that this is who I am, so why am I trying to change it? This is when I began trying to find the courage and the time to come out.

I came out to a couple of friends right after I finished my senior year wrestling season in March of 2018. One of the first people I decided to tell was my closest friend who I grew up wrestling with. When I opened up to him, I said, “I know we've been wrestling since we were young, but if it makes you feel uncomfortable wrestling with me or being my partner, let me know, I'll understand that.” He reassured me and said, “you're still the same six-year-old I met when we were kids.” This was the confidence boost that I needed to feel more comfortable in my sport again.


This response was so reassuring that I continued telling my close friends. At first, I only spent time with these people because I felt comfortable and I realized that I could be my true self with them. I really liked the person I was around them — a person that I hadn't been able to express before.

As soon as I told them, I wanted to tell more people.


I eventually sat my parents down and we had a big family meeting. They kind of knew something was wrong, asking, “Do you have anything to say to us, Alex?” I replied, “Yes, I want to tell you guys something. I'm gay.”


They were super, super supportive. My brothers were right there beside me when I told them. My parents said, “We don't see you any different, you’re the same person... nothing changes and we love you.” This was really really nice to hear. After I told my parents, I decided to go to social media. I went to Instagram and Snapchat and posted:


“We live in a society where we hate who we are, always listening to the negative and pushing out the positive. Today I learned to love who I am, and what it feels to truly love myself. I’m gay and I’ve finally accepted it. People should love you for who you are, if you see me any different then there’s no need for me to be in your life.”

The next day, I was a little scared to go to school because I was worried about what people were going to say about me. But I had so much support from my community. It was really awesome to finally be me and be happy.

Then I called my soon-to-be coaches at UVA. I told them “I just wanted you to know that I just came out as gay. If this is anything that you guys don't want or you don't want to accept, let me know please, and I will continue to look at other places.” I wanted them to know right then and there. If they were going to have any issues with my sexuality, I wanted them to let me know, so I could find another school to attend.


That was scary.


I didn’t know what they were going to say or if they would criticize me — but they too were incredibly supportive and said, “you're a great athlete and we want you here.” I was so excited and grateful for the opportunity to attend UVA and, because of how my coach responded, I already felt accepted in the community before even starting.


Even with this reassurance from my community, I was still afraid to wrestle. I didn’t want to have to deal with any criticism or negativity.


Growing up a wrestler I often was told “wrestling is gay... you're just a bunch of men rolling around, touching each other.” "I had never given this a second thought before, but I was afraid that if I came out, people were going to assume I wrestled because of my sexuality." Whether it is wrestling or another sport, that fear is very real. Toxic masculinity is real, and it is very hard to navigate. As a guy, you're not allowed to have emotions. You’re not allowed to cry. You're not allowed to do XYZ because that's what girls do. You need to be a man and you need to be strong. That’s a lot of pressure.


When I told my parents this they asked “why? Why would you want to stop because of who you are? When you step on the mat, that doesn't define your social life or who you are outside of it. You do just as much training, work just as hard as everybody else, and put so much time and effort into this. Why stop because of who you are?”

That really spoke to me. However, I still took a step away from wrestling for a little. Coming out definitely impacted the passion that I had for the sport so I wanted to figure out if wrestling is truly something I wanted.

A couple of months later, I competed in my first tournament as an openly gay athlete. I realized that coming out didn’t change who I was on the wrestling mat. I was able to compete as I always did. It was incredibly freeing. I just had to go out there and wrestle my best. Afterward, I couldn’t believe I had ever wanted to stop wrestling altogether.


Following that realization, I don't think my personal life has really impacted my wrestling career. It's part of what we do as athletes: we come here to train and compete, we have a job and we get it done. Someone’s sexuality doesn’t make you any less qualified, it doesn’t make you any different. Who I talk to, who I want to be with, who I love doesn't have anything to do with wrestling. I think that's one big thing I want people to understand. Just because someone may be a member of the LGBTQ+ community doesn't mean their sexuality has to have anything to with their sport.


No matter what it is, no matter how physical it is. As athletes, we have trained our whole lives to get to where we are. Someone’s sexuality does not determine how we perform as athletes.


Sometimes I forget that. I never want to do anything to make my team uncomfortable so navigating the locker room can be rough at times, especially because I don't want people to feel like I'm doing something or I'm looking at them. I'm constantly thinking, “don't do this. Look away. Just mind your own business. Get in and get out.” The last thing I want is to make someone on my team uncomfortable. But I have to remember that being openly gay just means there's a path for me to speak out more for other gay athletes, not just wrestlers.


This is something I’ve become so passionate about in my time at UVA. It is so rare to be an openly gay wrestler, and it can be isolating. But the uniqueness of my situation has pros and cons: It allows me to use my platform to advocate and speak up for those who can’t for whatever reason. Some people don't want to hear me talk about it so it can be a difficult balancing act. But at the end of the day, I want to support athletes.


I want everyone to know that it's okay to be LGBTQ+ identifying and do something that you love, because if you love it, why stop?

I'm going in there, doing my job, and I don't think that my sexuality should matter. And even though I know it shouldn’t matter, sometimes I feel like I have to check some pieces of who I am at the door when I enter the wrestling world. I know I shouldn't bring my personal life into the wrestling room, but I feel like I have to tone myself down a little bit to match the energy. But I don’t want to do that anymore. I've been doing that for 18 years of my life. I want to accept myself and I want to be able to be who I truly am.


However, I don't want anyone to feel uncomfortable. Sometimes I feel like I can't go to people to talk to them about my issues because I don't think they'd understand or I don't want to make them feel uncomfortable. Oftentimes, it will be the first time a lot of them have ever met someone who is in the LGBTQ+ community, so I have to take on the role of educating them.


That's a big reason why I'm pushing for advocacy and resources in the community. I have learned to understand that unfortunately, wherever I go, there's always going to be someone that doesn't really agree with who I am or what I stand for. That's perfectly fine, everyone's entitled to their beliefs and I will never criticize that because I would never want anyone to criticize mine.


I am really pushing to educate the UVA community and athletic department by implementing education modules and initiatives surrounding sexuality. It has been a long process, but I'm willing to put the time and effort in because I want to see change. And even though there may be only a small population of gay athletes here, somebody could be struggling and I want them to know what resources are available as an LGBTQ+ identifying athlete. By advocating for this and opening up space for others to truly be who they are, maybe I can make a difference. Even if it's only for one person.


This is one of the reasons I love being here. Being a UVA student-athlete has given me an awesome platform and opportunity to try and be better and I'm super grateful for it. I take everything as a learning experience and I am proud of that.


Sometimes I lose sight of that and I can be really hard on myself because it's my fourth year and I wonder why I chose to start so late. But it's better late than ever, and I want to try to do as much as I can so I can say I tried. Right now, it's been really great and we're getting the ball rolling, especially with our new organization, Athletes for Equality.

Athletes for Equality is an organization I created with another student-athlete here at UVA to help support other queer student-athletes and to raise awareness within the athletic community. Our goal is really to seek allyship and to gain membership. We are aiming to host information sessions with all student-athletes about how to be a stronger ally and to be more knowledgeable about the issues that our community faces. Last semester we were able to host an educational seminar, “Pizza and Pronouns” with student-athletes and it has made me really excited for the future. Additionally, we arranged the first Pride games at UVA with the women’s soccer team and the field hockey team.

If I could go back in time, I would tell myself that it's going to be okay. You're not alone. You're going to have support. There's light at the end of the tunnel.

I would tell myself it's okay to be who you are. If people don't want to be your friend that's fine. People come and go, and the people who actually love you will stick with you because they don't care who you love. Those are the real people that matter — the ones that will help guide you, lead you, and support you. Don't look at the people who don't accept you because it’s a waste of your time and energy.


I would remind myself to keep my head up. It's not as scary as it seems. You're not the only one going through it. Take your time with it. Learn to love yourself. Don’t be so hard on yourself.

I just hope that people out there understand, especially with my story, that everyone is different. No one has the same story. No one has the same path. Yes, there will be pieces that are relatable but everyone is different. I just want people to know that at the end of the day there are people out there who have gone through what you're going through. That's why I wanted to share my story.


I want people to be happy and do something they love. If you’re happy with it, do it and don’t let anyone tell you that you can't because of who you are. I used to be my biggest critic, telling myself I couldn’t do things because of X, Y, or Z. At times, being a gay athlete has not been easy, but it has helped shape me into who I am today. Even if people don't come out, I hope this helps people understand that there's a different perspective in every story.