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Friday August 19th

'Surreal': After years of struggle, UNC's Hunter Sigmund is unashamedly himself

Sigmund, 19, came out as gay during his junior year of high school in St. Louis. This is his story.

<p>UNC first-year student Hunter Sigmund.</p>
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UNC first-year student Hunter Sigmund.

On the third floor of the UNC Student Stores and to the right of the escalator, there are six small, coffee-brown tables. They sit neatly in a line, up against a wall of massive floor-to-ceiling windows. It’s an intimate view of the heart of campus — the dining hall, the Pit, two libraries, constant foot traffic. This place, right here, is Hunter Sigmund’s spot.

Sigmund, a first-year, has made this corner his home. On any given weekday, he’s here, chipping away at some type of work, usually with a coffee in hand. On this afternoon in early October, as he sits and sips a dirty chai latte, he’s comfortable — not just with this location, but with himself. It wasn’t always like this.

Sigmund came out as gay a little over two years ago. His life in St. Louis — eighth through 10th grade especially — was full of doubt, fear and anxiety. Then, early in his junior year, with the help of his now-boyfriend and a strong support group, there was something different: relief.

Since then, Sigmund, 19, has made national news and excelled as a student and athlete. He is an honors student, a former standout swimmer, a club gymnast and a chemistry major. Most importantly, he is unashamedly himself — willing and eager to talk about his experience, his pain and his happiness in the hope that it may help others.

“Just having that huge weight off your shoulder, you can focus on so many other things,” he said. “Previously, it was the only thing I could keep on my mind. Now, I'm just like … living, you know?”

'Masking my entire individuality'

For three months each fall, the pool offered Sigmund an escape.

The John Burroughs School varsity team held practice Monday through Friday. Sigmund talked to almost no one. He’d read the workout for the day, then attack it with all he had.

“It was two hours a day, and I would put my head down and just go,” he said. “You would think practicing that hard would make you go faster, since you’re devoted. But I don't think it really helped my performance, since there was always something on my mind other than actually swimming.”

Sigmund attended Burroughs for grades seven through 12. The school offered an open, inclusive and supportive environment. It was where Sigmund would meet people who would change his life.

But he still struggled internally. It began in eighth grade when his friends began to date. To avoid sticking out, Sigmund began to imitate his male friends. He picked up on their catchphrases. He wore the same Vineyard Vines polos and khakis they did.

“That really, really, really was awful,” Sigmund said. “It was masking my entire individuality in an attempt to not be seen by other people … It was one of the most painful things that I went through.”

Once he entered high school, the water was his outlet for a few brief hours a day. Sigmund had always been a swimmer and diver. When Burroughs swim coach Leslie Kehr saw him in seventh-grade P.E., she knew he’d be a lock for varsity in ninth grade and an immediate contributor.

When he wasn’t swimming, Sigmund was isolating himself. He blocked out his closest friends, most of them girls, to avoid any suspicion at school. So, for around two years, he spent almost every weekend at home in his room. He’d study, or watch Netflix, or sometimes just do nothing.

Sigmund had always been dedicated to schoolwork, so his parents didn’t see his behavior as odd. For the first half of high school, he was mostly in the pool or alone. He hid himself, fearing the reactions he’d get from those closest to him.

“A lot of my friends, every single weekend, would go out and be together, do stuff,” he said. “But I was definitely not like that for two years of my life.”

'This is the chance'

On Sept. 4, 2016, Jake Bain sat alone on a rocky ledge, right near the end of the pool.

Bain was a star running back for Burroughs who came out as gay to some close friends after his sophomore year. He and Sigmund, both juniors, had been at Burroughs since seventh grade. They’d been in three classes together: geography, world civics 1 and world civics 2. They were friends in passing — enough to politely nod to each other in the hallway — but nothing more.

That summer of 2016, Bain started to come out to more people. Sigmund, after two years of little social life, started hanging out with his closest friends more often. If that was to continue, he thought, they needed to know the truth. Sigmund also had a girlfriend at the time — another effort, he said, to suppress his thoughts.

So, as Bain sat there alone at a classwide Labor Day party, and Sigmund saw him for the first time outside of a school setting, he felt compelled to talk to his classmate.

“It sounds kind of weird, but I feel like there was this underlying connection,” Sigmund said. “And then, at that moment, after years of everything and hearing about it, I was like, ‘Well, this is the chance to do it — now.’”

They talked that day for a long time and kept texting and calling over the next week. Their connection grew stronger. Sigmund came out to Bain. Then, they began to strategize on how he’d come out to others. Bain recommended starting small.

Soon after, Sigmund and his friend Emma Gillanders were at a Burroughs home football game. They left the bleachers for the concession stand. On their walk back, Gillanders assured Sigmund he had the support of her and his other friends, no matter what. They had noticed something was off.

Sigmund pulled her under the stands. He was on the verge of tears. He tried to the find the words. He couldn’t. Then, he could. For the first time, Sigmund verbalized what had been tearing at him for most of his teenage life.

“I’m gay,” he told Gillanders, “and I have a crush on Jake Bain.”

Then, he exhaled.

Gillanders hugged Sigmund, and told him it didn’t change a thing. They returned to the bleachers and watched Bain promptly catch a pass on the field below them. Gillanders nudged her friend and teased him: ‘That’s your bud, Jake!’ Sigmund laughed and blushed and told her to shut up.

He came out to more close friends, establishing a tightly knit support group. On the night he planned to tell his parents, Sigmund broke down. He locked himself in a bathroom and called Bain, desperate for advice.

So Bain and another friend, Ashley Caster, drove 20 minutes to his house. They calmed Sigmund down and prepped him. It was actually Caster who broke the news to his parents. Minutes later, Sigmund was sitting in their room in tears.

Sigmund leaned on his father, Jeff, that night and the next morning, when they went to First Watch, a St. Louis breakfast chain. One of Jeff’s closest friends had recently lost his son. Over skillets that morning, his voice thick with emotion, Jeff told Hunter he never wanted anything to come between them.

“You never know what could happen,” he told his only son. “So I have your back, no matter what.”

'Being who he is'

Emails fill Sigmund’s inbox every day from people all over the world. One from New Zealand. One from Russia. One from the Philippines.

Ever since Sigmund came out, his life has been, for the most part, a whirlwind of positivity. He set multiple career times as a senior swimmer. In March, when the Westboro Baptist Church decided to picket outside their school, Sigmund and Bain helped organize a massive pride day counterprotest that drew hundreds from the St. Louis community.

When the couple went to senior prom, their pictures went viral. Both have been featured multiple times in national news. Sigmund and Bain, who now plays wide receiver for Division I Indiana State, have been dating for around two years. They both repeat, many times, that they have no idea where they’d be right now in their life without the other.

A few months into his life at Chapel Hill, Sigmund has reverted to saying "y’all," something he swore he’d avoid. A random student once recognized him on the eighth floor of Davis Library and complimented him on his Instagram. Through it all — and this should come as no surprise — he’s stayed true to himself.

“The word I would say is surreal,” said his mother, Lisa. “To have your son on Ashton Kutcher’s Facebook page is kind of overwhelming. To me, he’s just being who he is. So I can’t really wrap my arms around the impact that these two kids are making in the world.”

“I don’t think he gets as much attention because he isn’t the one playing football,” Bain said. “But he’s helped just as many people out with navigating some of these issues. And I think that’s really special of him.”

As for Sigmund, he avoids taking too much credit for anything. That’s another trait of his that everyone — his mom, his swim coach, his friends, his boyfriend — pointed out: his humility.

“I don't consider my story to be this momentous thing,” he said. “It shouldn't be newsworthy to have to come out … It shouldn't be such a big deal. But in our society, it is, which is awful."

"So it's cool that by sharing something that seems so meaningless to me, it means something to a lot of people.”

Hunter Sigmund can be contacted by email at huntersigmund@gmail.com and followed on Instagram at @hunter.sigmund.

@chapelfowler

@DTHSports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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