Liam Huffman says his favorite restaurant in Washington, D.C., is Nando’s Peri-Peri.
He always orders the plain grilled chicken breast, hot, with sides of french fries and corn.
In late August 2013, the George Washington University swimming team chose Nando’s for a team dinner. Huffman, a freshman last season, stepped away from his chicken, fries and corn to refill his drink downstairs.
He returned, and his teammates suddenly stopped talking.
Huffman looked around, sat down and said, “What are we talking about?”
“Dragon Ball Z,” someone said invoking the 1990s Japanese anime series to break the nervous tension.
Adam Rabe, an upperclassman on the team, decided to be straight with Huffman. He said, “Dude, we are just asking Matt how comfortable you were with gay jokes and stuff like that.”
Huffman had told some teammates that he is gay, including his roommate Matt McPherson. But Rabe’s statement informed Huffman that his sexuality was now common knowledge.
Twelve months earlier, it would have horrified Huffman for anyone to know he is gay. He only started telling his family and friends in January 2013.
But now it was a relief that his George Washington teammates knew.
“They were giving me a chance to set the boundaries and, basically, the precedent on how they handled it and addressed it,” Huffman said. “I thought it was a fair conversation for them to be having, because as far as I know, I’m the only out gay swimmer that GW has seen either in a really long time or ever.”
The 2013-14 season marked the 16th season for Dan Rhinehart as George Washington head swimming coach, and Rhinehart said Huffman is the first gay athlete he is aware of coaching.
“It isn’t anything that I even give any consideration to,” Rhinehart said of Huffman’s sexual orientation.
Huffman said picking an accepting college campus was a priority when deciding where to continue his swimming career. He expected being gay would be easier in the nation’s capital than in his suburban Kansas City hometown of Riverside, Mo. It took some time to find out for sure.
“That was a really crucial thing for me,” Huffman said. “I wanted to be somewhere I’d feel comfortable and feel safe. I knew that in D.C. that I definitely would, but GW for sure would be a very safe community to be gay.”
Huffman is pursuing a degree in economics with minors in political science and sustainability. He lived his freshman year in Thurston Hall with McPherson and two non-swimmers. Huffman told McPherson he’s gay before any of his other teammates.
“He was very comfortable with it,” Huffman said. “He wasn’t offended or bothered.”
Huffman never told his male teammates from his Kansas City club swimming team about his sexual orientation, so McPherson served as a barometer for Huffman being an out athlete.
“It was a good indicator to me that it’d be OK to officially come out to the team,” Huffman said. “I didn’t do a formal coming out when I did. I told a couple people and just kind of let it go how it did.
“I figured that if the guys on the team didn’t already know, they would find out soon enough. I’m very open about it. And Matt’s reaction definitely said that I could be open about it.”
Since sixth grade, Huffman said he was perceived to be gay by classmates. He tried to change the way he talked in junior high to mimic the football players. He tried to slow his speech and use fewer big words.
“I wanted to fit the standard of what a middle school boy, in my mind, was supposed to be,” Huffman said.
He said he did not start to grapple with his sexual orientation until he entered his senior year of high school. But in recent years, he says, he recognizes that he fits some gay stereotypes.
“I often fall victim to the T-Rex arms. They’re always up,” Huffman says. “I have a bit of a sway to my walk. My voice — the way I linger on certain words, the place that I put the accent — is all very typical gay stereotype.”
He once tried to suppress those behaviors. But he had three relationships that allowed him to grow and accept himself during his senior year of high school.
The first was exclusively online, and it helped Huffman confirm he is gay.
The second was with a student named Nick from a rival high school. Nick took him on his first date to California Pizza Kitchen on Jan. 3, 2013, and Huffman went home from that date and came out to his parents, Archie and Margaret — who were instantly accepting and anxious to meet the guy. Nick was Huffman’s first boyfriend, and they dated for about two months.
Huffman’s third relationship came that summer, and he was the first boyfriend to meet all of Huffman’s friends — that relationship stopped when Huffman left for school.
Those relationships prepared Huffman to live openly and let his George Washington teammates know he is gay when he arrived at school in August.
“I wasn’t sure how they would take it,” Huffman said.
But as he learned that night at Nando’s, he had nothing to worry about.
“He fit in perfectly right off the bat,” said Ryan O’Malley, a member of the George Washington swim team and Huffman’s roommate next year. “Everybody gets along with him, and everyone really enjoys having him at practice and having him around when we all hangout.”
Huffman swam well this season. He finished the season by scoring points in four events at the 2014 Atlantic 10 Conference meet led by a third-place finish in the 500-yard freestyle.
By the end of the season, Huffman felt no hesitation discussing in the locker room the guys he was seeing. He even attempted to explain the gay app Grindr.
Explaining Grindr turned into a bonding moment as Huffman described Grindr’s “tribes.” Suddenly, each guy on the team wanted to know where he fit.
“There are a lot, a lot of otters,” Huffman said. “We have a fairly hairy team.”
Until they shave for meets, he says: “In season, then we start turning into a more twink, jock team.”
His George Washington teammates and coaches showed Huffman the acceptance he desired moving from the Midwest to the East Coast.
“Everyone on the team has gay friends besides me,” Huffman says. “They’re all used to it, I guess, and so it’s really easy to be gay as an athlete at GW.”