Three gay former Temple gymnasts plead for university to not drop sport

Evan Burke, front row fourth from right and Dash Sears, front row second from right, with their Temple teammates

The university will cut men's gymnastics, but three gay former gymnasts talk about how the program nurtured a brotherhood that embraced everyone and helped them out of the closet. They have helped start an online petition to save it.

Editor's note: Temple University announced it will cut seven sports, including men's gymnastics. Evan Burke, a former captain of the team tells what the program meant to him, and includes comments from two other gymnasts. All three are gay.

There are two things that I have known my entire life. I knew I was gay and I knew I was a gymnast. I am the son of a professional football coach, and my brother and I were required to participate in a sport at all times. While my brother played football, baseball, soccer and track and field, I fell in love with gymnastics.

I came out as gay when I was 16 and there was no looking back. When it came time to apply to colleges, I was a little nervous leaving the accepting city of New York for another life. I knew I wanted to do gymnastics and I knew I wanted to be accepted. I knew another gay gymnast from my state went to Temple University in Philadelphia. I applied, got offered an academic scholarship and packed my bags.

The moment I walked through the front door of the gym I was greeted not with a hello and a handshake but with a hug. "Brothers don’t shake hands, we hug," I was told. From that moment on I was a brother. I was a boy of Temple U. Jokes were common, but they were all in good fun; it was the kind of joking that brothers make. We had people from every different background in that gym -- liberals, conservatives, the very religious and atheists. The one thing that amazed me is seeing members of the team who had graduated, come back for a visit into the gym and give everyone a hug like they had never left.

We were not top dogs my first year at Temple. We finished fourth in our conference that year, after winning conference the two previous years. That didn’t discourage us, though. We had the highest GPA out of all the athletic teams at Temple, and in the top three among men's gymnastics teams in the country. My senior year, we started the competition season off with a bang. We were light years ahead of the competition and finally won our conference. Unfortunately, I broke my foot that year and had to watch from the sidelines. But my teammates always made sure I felt a part of each victory.

I was voted co-captain my senior year. They didn’t see me as a floor and vault specialist, they didn’t see me a a gay guy -- they saw me as a leader. I didn’t walk through the door a leader. They made me one. Every single boy of Temple U made me who I was. That year wasn’t easy. We had plenty of ups an downs. We sweat, shed a lot of tears on the road and bled with every rip and cut on our hands. But when they announced that we had won conference and my co-captain Taylor and I embraced and cried together before grabbing that big cup and standing on top of the podium surrounded by our brothers as champions, it made all of it worth it.

After giving my senior speech and wrapping up my career as a Temple gymnast I was approached by many of my brothers with tears in their eyes and a great big hug. They told me how much they enjoyed having me there and it wouldn’t be the same without me. Their parents came up to me and thanked me for being such a positive influence on their son’s life. I look back and see the amazing education I got. I graduated with a 3.5 GPA in kinesiology and psychology. I look back on the fact that I earned an athletic scholarship along the ride and the respect of so many. But the only thing that matters to me when I look back is the faces of all of my brothers. I have the greatest family that I have made through Temple University Men's Gymnastics. I’m proud to wear the Temple "T" forever because it shows the love for my brothers.

Unfortunately, this heart-felt reflection is fueled by a sad event. Temple announced that its intends to cut seven athletic teams from their department, one of which is men’s gymnastics. They plan for this to go into effect in July 2014. I have been in a conversation with almost 100 current and formers brothers of Temple U. We are trying to figure out how to save our team and to ensure that the experience that I have had is available to any other boy out there, gay or straight. Please sign our petition and follow our fight to #saveTUMG.

Here is what the program meant to one of my teammates, Dash Sears:

I grew up in suburban south central Pennsylvania where I didn't want anyone to know I was gay. I kept my grades up and pushed all of my efforts in the gym while crushing myself under the weight of hiding who I truly was. Temple was not originally my first choice to go to college. I originally desperately wanted to attend the College of William and Mary. Sadly, I was put on the waiting list and decided to go with Temple and be a walk-on my first year to the gymnastics team. It was probably the best decision I have ever made.

My first year at Temple not only was my first year away from my parents but also my first year living in a metropolis. It was eye opening beyond belief, and it wasn't long until I met some of the most amazing guys who helped me out of the closet. If it wasn't for my gay teammates, I don't know if I would have ever come out. Every day there was support and friendship beyond anyone's sexuality, and every year as new recruits came in so did their eyes open up to LGBT acceptance, as it was a major tenet to being on the team. The focus had always been on one's abilities and their commitment to the team and everyone was judged based on their character. If someone had a problem with another's sexuality, that was a personal problem they had to overcome.

Probably my fondest memory was of coming out to my parents on my 20th birthday. It was a magical moment, as well as extremely awkward. I decided to come out to them after my first competition they had ever seen me compete as a Temple Owl in Annapolis, Maryland, at a Chili's. I gathered the team around and surrounded my parents in their booth. As I started to talk, I glanced around and spotted the growing reactions of everybody's faces as they realized what I was about to do. As I shed some tears and told not only my parents but also many other team parents what I had hidden from them for so long, my parents stood up and immediately hugged me in front of everyone. On the ride back in the team van, I don't think I have ever laughed or smiled so hard in my life.

This is the nature of this team and the nature of the sport. It's a way for an athlete to express and present themselves without fear of judgment based on their sexuality, and a way that we all as a community connect to each other through sport. Temple was and always will be a big part of that. I would be sad to see it go, knowing that others like me would not have the same place to go to for this sport. It would be a shame to deny others the same happiness I experienced. This is why saving Temple University Men's Gymnastics, an LGBT-friendly team, is vital to preserve our sport and community. We ask for and appreciate your support.

For a third perspective, here is what another gymnast, Clay Stewart, wrote. He graduated the year before I started at Temple:

Growing up in a rural South Carolina town, I must admit that I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder. The experience was everything from bullying, being kept after class for a teacher to read me Bible scripture, or being asked to say the Lord’s Prayer before marching band competitions. A typical experience for a Southern gay kid in 2003.

Needless to say, it was no shock to anyone that I opted to head north for my college experience by going to Temple. Though I hadn’t heard much about the university, I knew it had a gymnastics team and was passionate about continuing a sport I started when I was only 3. My expectations were simple: do well in school, live in a big city, and compete in gymnastics. But what I never expected was that by joining the team I would become part of a brotherhood. It’s an experience where only the guys around you know just how much dedication, discipline, and commitment it takes to complete at a certain level. It’s an environment where we each push each other to be the best and support each other no matter what. Our team thrived academically and we were all-around great scholar-athletes.

Our team was personally very close – a chance for me to see firsthand what it was like to be respected for my talent and equally supported for who I am as an individual. One of my fondest memories is when I announced there would be a university-sponsored LGBT event immediately following practice. Without wavering, my team turned out in full force for the event, including the politically conservative guys and the devout Mormon. As we walked in the doors, the entire room stared and it became obvious that no one ever expected a D1 team to show up. But TUMG proudly came out to support me as an openly gay athlete. It’s for that reason that when I stuck my dismount, clinching a conference championship my senior year, that I leaped into the arms of my Mormon teammate. This was the environment where we were friends and supporters above all else – a place where a Mormon and a gay guy could become the best of friends.

It is my hope that the Temple University Men’s Gymnastics Team continues to exist and thrive so that future students have an opportunity to learn and grow just as I had the chance. We’d greatly appreciate your support as we move forward with trying to save this amazing and LGBT-friendly institution.

Evan Burke, 25, was a gymnast at Temple from 2008-2013 and captain of the team in his senior year. He now coaches at Broadway Gymnastics School in Los Angeles. He can be reached at gymcoachevan@gmail.com.

You can sign the online petition to save Temple men's gymnastics. You can follow the Twitter campaign:
#saveTUMG

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