Growing up, I was a typical lesbian, not that I knew it at the time. I was the youngest of five children, the only girl. I played with my brothers and the other boys in the neighborhood. I excelled at every sport, especially baseball. I preferred jeans to dresses, dirt bikes to baby dolls, but I always dated the cutest and most popular boys.

I was a happy child and a responsible teen. I did not skip school. I did not do drugs. I never lied to my mother. I received a full athletic scholarship to college. And, unbeknownst to anyone, especially me, I was gay.

The reality of my sexuality was frightening. Would my mother still love me? Would my father cut me off? Would I embarrass my brothers? What would my high school friends think of me?

These questions enter into every gay person’s mind at some point. That point often comes as a young child or teenager when you realize, “Oh my God, I may be gay.” For many, it forces us to live a life in the closet, never coming out for fear of society’s reaction. For me, I never even considered “my gayness” until my freshman year in college.

The reality of my sexual discovery was that I may not measure up to others’ expectations of me. My expectations of myself were never even considered. I wanted to run away, to hide. I desperately feared the ramifications of my actions and, consequently, my sexuality. Did everyone know that I was gay? What was everyone saying about me when I walked into class? My imagination ran wild with assumptions. I often did not attend class because of my shame.

Despite my fears, I knew that something about what I was doing and who I was doing it with felt good. I dropped off the face of the earth for an entire semester and everything that I had worked so hard for began to crumble. I was failing school, I could no longer seem to play the sport that I was being paid to play. I lost all of my friends, or so I thought. I sank deeply into a world of shame and fear. I withdrew from everyone that loved me and avoided developing any new relationships. For the first time in my life, I was lost. No one was proud of me. I was not popular. I was scared. I had no confidence. And, for those who knew me, this was a first. I had always known I was capable of anything.

It took me three years to admit to myself that I was a lesbian. It was fall semester, my senior year. I woke up very early in my boyfriend’s fraternity house, quietly gathered my things, did the walk of shame back to my car, and vowed to myself never to do that again. I was gay, and I needed to get over it. From that moment forward, I no longer lived in fear. I was a lesbian, and I needed to figure out how I was going to make this work for me.

Today, I am a successful business owner. I have a beautiful home, an amazing partner, and a thriving career. Looking back on those early years in college, I cannot imagine that I ever experienced fear. But, the reality is, I did. And, sadly, every young gay person living in our country has that same fear.

It is unfortunate that we live in a country that prides itself on diversity and freedom, yet we discriminate against the gay community as a whole. Change is inevitable. It will happen one day. But until that day comes, we need to create our own acceptance and support our friends, family members, and co-workers who are brave enough to live their lives openly.

As a lesbian, I am no less able to obtain the goals I set forth as a young child. I feel an obligation to stand up for myself, and others like me, when challenged by the “straight world.” I feel as if I must use my strength as a strong and successful woman to set an example for those young people who may question their place in a world that may not accept them for who they are and for those who have yet to accept themselves. I must lead by example.

Growing up, I had my life mapped out. At the age of 18, that map changed, drastically. My new map is one that I wish for each and every young LGBT person. A life full of happiness, of success, and of strength. A life shared with another person who stands beside you and allows you to be great. A life where you can follow your dreams without fear.

Design the life you want and allow no one to stand in the way.