Gay coach and lacrosse player are opening closet doors at Bowdoin College

Colin Joyner and Ben Chadwick are tearing down walls of homophobia at rural liberal arts school in Maine

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Bowdoin head men's tennis coach Colin Joyner
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Bowdoin out lacrosse captain Ben Chadwick

Bowdoin College head men’s tennis coach Colin Joyner knows all too well the pain and solitude of the sports closet. When he graduated from Bowdoin in 2003, he was a superstar. He played the school’s No. 1 singles all four years of his career. He was a three-time All-American. He was named the school’s Male Athlete of the Year his senior season.

When he graduated, many people on campus knew he was gay; He had been coming out gradually during his four years at Bowdoin. But when he graduated he moved to Palm Springs, hit the semi-pro circuit, served as a hitting partner for such stars as Justin Henin, Chanda Rubin and the indomitable Martina Navratilova…and he went right back in the closet.

“The semi-pro circuit was cut-throat,” Joyner said. “I had no friends and I wasn’t about to make enemies of guys I was seeing weekly at tournaments by being out. I wanted to be great at tennis and I wanted to win. That year was not productive to me developing as a person.”

The following year he returned to Bowdoin, in rural Brunswick, Maine, as the head tennis coach; At the school where he had come out at as a player he was now closeted as a coach. In his first year, 2006-07, he coached both the men’s and women’s teams. The men had a strong season while the women posted their best season in school history. He was winning, but it wasn’t enough. He struggled with whether to come out to his team. He didn’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable, he didn’t want to disrupt the team’s mojo, and he wondered whether it was even appropriate to tell them.

As the successful coach at a small Division 3 school, Joyner was spending a lot of time in close quarters with his team. Traveling to matches in small vans, he spent hours with them on the road. During an annual two-week team trip to California, with the entire team packed into a two-bedroom house, the setting is intimate. Joyner didn’t feel comfortable keeping the secret from these men he was so close to.

“And I ultimately got really dissatisfied,” Joyner said. “My team was good and that was great, but I basically had to lie by omission. My friends in Portland knew I’m gay, but I was closeted again. I had to have a second coming out professionally.”

During the team meeting in which Joyner came out, like virtually every other coming-out story we have heard in the last decade, his fears were immediately put to rest. It’s never been an issue with his team, and he’s never had a single negative incident with his team because he’s openly gay.

“The team’s never going to be its best unless it’s an enviroment where people can be honest about who they are and trust each other that way,” Joyner said. “I feel like players are more comfortable around the issue now. We can talk honestly. I think they trust me more, they know I’m being real with them. I think I’m a much better coach for it.”

We have heard of out coaches before. Eric Anderson coached at the community college level: He was the head cross-country coach Saddleback College in the 1990s. Sean Burns coached men’s tennis at Santa Clara University from 1993-2002, but he did not do so publicy. With this article, as far as we at Outsports are aware, Joyner becomes the first NCAA varsity men’s head coach to come out of the closet publicly in the media while still coaching.

Lacrosse player comes out at Bowdoin

Bowdoin lacrosse player Ben Chadwick started his coming-out process in high school in Needham, Mass. Like Joyner, he took a step back in the closet when he accepted an invitation to come to Bowdoin. But New England lacrosse is a small, tight-knit community; It didn’t take long for his freshman roommate to hear from friends at other schools, “You know Ben Chadwick’s gay?”

For those who didn’t find out through the rumor mill, Chadwick called a team meeting after an autumn practice his sophomore year.

“While I was pretty nervous about their reaction at first, it was immediately clear they were very supportive,” Chadwick said. “There’s been absolutely no issue. They’re very open about talking about it with me, joking about it with me. They’ve been great.”

They’ve been so great that his team elected him captain before this season, Chadwick’s last at Bowdoin.

“Not only do they not care that I’m gay, they still look up to me as a leader on the team. It’s great,” Chadwick said.

Chadwick assumes everyone in the New England Small College Athletic Conference knows he’s gay. Still, he’s only had one negative experience in over two years of being an openly gay college athlete. That came in a conference game when a player on the other team said, “Don’t let us bring up what we know about you, 24.”

Chadwick’s team won that game.

Anything But Straight in Athletics takes shape

When Joyner heard about Chadwick, he harkened back to his time as the only openly gay male athlete on campus. It was a lonely time for Joyner in many respects, and he didn’t want Chadwick to be the only one anymore.

In December 2009, just a month after the State of Maine eradicated same-sex marriage, Joyner created Anything But Straight in Athletics with Kate Stern, Director of the school’s Resource Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity. The group’s aim is to help closeted athletes come out by dismantling homophobia in Bowdoin athletics.

The group, consisting mostly of out and closeted athletes, meets monthly to talk about issues they face on their teams.

“As soon as we got that group going the conversation very quickly became about team culture and how big of an influence it is on whether people will come out,” Joyner said. “Why won’t more people come out? Either people have left the sport because they feel the culture won’t be accepting, or they’re going to stay closeted until they leave college and then they’ll come out. I know many people from Bowdoin who did just that.”

Hoping to open the closet door for athletes, the group’s main event is an outreach initiative aimed at starting a dialog with athletes and coaches of all the school’s athletic teams.

Athletes attend a dinner hosted by ABSA. At this year’s dinner, held in early April, athletes heard the true anonymous story of an athlete at Bowdoin who quit his team because he didn’t feel he could be gay there. They also heard an anonymous letter from a female athlete who is not out on her team and doesn’t feel coming out is worth the potential trouble from the team.

“Teams function as if they’re straight,” Joyner said. “There is homophobic behavior happening that prevents people from coming out. But once someone comes out, the team decides it can’t do those things anymore. The fundamental disconnect is the idea that because no one is out, they don’t have a gay perosn on the team, so they can make homophobic jokes.

“Most of the athletes think, ‘I can understand having to talk about this if we had a gay athlete on our team, but we don’t.’ That’s what we challenge them when we say, ‘You probably do. You probably have a closeted athlete on your team. And I know some of you do.’”

This year the athletes also heard a talk by Toronto Maple Leafs general Manager Brian Burke. Chadwick, who this year serves with Joyner as co-chair of ABSA, contacted Bowdoin student and Brian’s daughter, Molly Burke. Molly connected Chadwick with her father and Brian was happy to lend his voice.

“The most successful part of it is seeing so many straight athletes talk about it for the first time in their lives,” Chadwick said. “I don’t think any of them are truly homophobic, they’re just uneducated about the issue. After going to Mr. Burke’s speech or attending the Anything But Straight in Athletics dinner, and having just thought about it for an hour, I think it makes them rethink what they say and they’re more conscientious about homphobia in athletics.”

Molly said it was the first time her father spoke publicly about the death of his son, Brendan, without breaking down.

Molly said the atmosphere for gay people at Bowdoin is improving, largely because of the efforts of ABSA. She added that since her father spoke on campus two weeks ago she has had many-student athletes tell her how cool it was to hear him speak and that it made them rethink the issue.

“It’s become way more talked about, accepting and recognizing that there are gay people here,” Molly said. “Having someone like Ben Chadwick, who’s so prominent on campus, I’m really impressed with how Bowdoin and the student body have handled it. I just don’t think people realize how many people on campus are gay.”

After the first ABSA event in 2010, many athletes had a positive response but wondered if their coaches were hearing the message. This year ABSA also reached out to coaches at Bowdoin with a coach’s lunch. Joyner said that, with the strong encouragement of Bowdoin’s athletic director, almost every head coach at Bowdoin attended this year’s event.

At one point during the coach’s lunch, the true story of a gay athlete and the showers came up. This out Bowdoin athlete routinely showers before his team does so he doesn’t make any of them feel uncomfortable. This isn’t at the prodding of anyone on his team: It’s simply something he’s decided to do.

At first the general sentiment voiced was that it’s a good thing the gay athlete showers by himself: That is being a good team player. But soon another perspective dominated the room. Joyner said coaches realized that not only was it bad for the athlete to ostracism himself from team activities, but that also ultimately undermined the entire team. Joyner said it was a powerful change of tune:

“They started asking other questions. ‘Are they really participating in the team fully? What can we do as coaches? We’re not in the locker rooms, we’re not at the dinner table. We’ve got to think about other issues.’ But I thought it was great that discussion started, and it showed as coaches we need to think about these issues more.”

While much of Joyner’s focus is men’s teams, he said the women’s teams have problems as well. He said some women’s teams want to be known as straight teams, acting hyper-heterosexual. According to Joyner there are some women’s teams with several out players, and there are other teams with no out players. He said that dynamic points to a disparity in team cultures.

Building a legacy

As Chadwick approaches graduation, he is looking for opportunities to continue the work he’s done in athletics at Bowdoin. While he won’t play competitive lacrosse after the graduates, he wants to continue the work he started at Bowdoin toppling the barriers between gay and straight athletes.

“People would have said coming out on a lacrosse team would be a big problem,” Chadwick said. “As soon as someone comes out, and as soon as a team steps back and realizes a teammate is gay, they see they’re still friends with him and he’s still the same person. If there’s some way I could keep the ball rolling with that and encourage other schools around the country, that would be really rewarding.”

While Joyner remains focused on his work at Bowdoin, he also expressed a great hope that more schools will build programs like his ABSA. He said homophobia he encounters from others in his coaching fraternity has opened his eyes to the necessity of organizations like his.

“I’ve received very little help from coaches who know I’m gay going to bat for me when other coaches are throwing around homophobic language,” Joyner said. “When I experience coaches from other colleges, particularly at camps, it’s a really sexist enviroment, with some racism and homphobia.”

Joyner has started speaking up for himself when he hears homophobic language from his peers. He hopes those confrontations help lead to those coaches thinking twice before building an anti-gay atmosphere on those teams; As Joyner’s learned, many of them have gay athletes on their teams whether they think they do or not.

Both Ben Chadwick and Colin Joyner can be reached via email.

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