By Jamal Brown
Editor's Note: We first heard about Jamal Brown from Jeff Sheng, as Sheng photographed him for his Fearless Campus Tour (photo below). Brown is a recent graduate of Dartmouth College, where he ran track. He's presently working at Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) in Boston, putting actions behind his commitment to make the world better for gay people. Jamal will be a part of the upcoming Out magazine's Out 100.
Four years ago, I had no sense of what life could be like as an openly gay athlete on the track team at Dartmouth College. I would have never imagined that my teammates and coaches would embrace me; that I would be selected to lead the 100+ member squad in team cheers and rallies before every competition; or that I would come to love myself. Thoughts of being out and proud were always followed by grim images of physical or verbal harassment and frequent bouts of depression, and I was constantly afraid of being driven away from the sport to which I had dedicated many years of my life. I spent my high school athletic career lying to myself and watching from the stands as openly gay students endured severe harassment and ostracism, which should have been reason enough for me to remain closeted during my collegiate career while competing for an institution with a long history of homophobia as well as racism. I deeply wanted to be out, but I questioned whether college athletics could be a space for me to be openly gay.
In the fall of 2004, I entered Dartmouth College silent about my sexuality, testing the waters of inclusion and support for gays in athletics, specifically on my track and field team. Gays were visible in campus politics and student life but barely on varsity or club teams. Some lesbian women competed openly, and out all-American lacrosse goalie and a friend of mine, Andrew Goldstein, was a senior my freshman year. Still, as an African American, I had no gay person of color to look up to. That along with the fact that I have feminine mannerisms and don’t always exude a masculine persona made it difficult to be accepted by teammates. In the past, the track team had several out gay athletes on its roster, and some of them quit or were reluctant to embrace the gay athlete identity because of homophobic backlash. I knew that if I came out there was no obligation to work towards inclusion of gay athletes nor serve as a role model for athletes coming to terms with their sexuality. But I knew that the only reason there was even an ounce of potential for me to come out was the bold and courageous acts of the Andrew Goldsteins and Billy Jean Kings who came out before me. I knew that the only way to be comfortable with myself would be to be myself.
One evening after practice, I built up the strength to finally come out to my team. Apprehensive about how I should go about the process, I decided to take advantage of the Internet and declared being interested in men on Facebook. The next day at practice during warm-ups, one of my teammates approached me and said he liked my Facebook updates. Curious if he was referring to my newly stated sexual preference or another random update, I asked him to clarify, and he responded, “J. Brown, you’re OK here. Be yourself. Know that you are in for a long journey, but your team is here for you, man.”
I was so stunned at how affirming and compassionate he was that I couldn’t articulate a reply. I just continued stretching. I didn’t anticipate a positive response, so I memorized a few arguments in case a confrontation ensued. My teammate was right, though. During four years of collegiate athletics, I competed as an openly gay man with unwavering support and love from my teammates and coaches. However, it was indeed a long journey.
For many athletes struggling with their sexual identity, the concern of competing openly gay on a team usually rests on being accepted and respected by teammates and coaches. But I grew to understand that my comfort and, in turn, my athletic performance could not rest in the hands of my teammates. I did not want to come out and let that be the end of it. I didn’t just want to be gay. I wanted to do gay. I wanted track practice to be a space where I could express my sexuality and desires in the same vein as my heterosexual teammates. One’s sexual preference shouldn’t be a factor in athletics. Sport should be about sport. But my straight counterparts had the privilege of being able to discuss their latest hook up or romantic interest without judgment or prejudice; and boy did they enjoy that privilege.
While I had an exceptionally supportive team and was able to be out, at times I was miserable and lonely. I constantly worried my team would rationalize a poor performance as a result of my sexual orientation and dub all gay athletes as weak and defeated. Moreover, I was terrified of the infamous locker room setting and my teammates fearing that I might be watching or waiting to assault them in the showers. I rehearsed possible scenarios in my mind of all things that could go wrong and had quick responses ready in case my eyes did wander.
The constant pressure of having to perform at a top level, bearing the brunt of rash homophobic comments tossed out by teammates and masqueraded as "jokes," and having no other openly gay athletes to relate to definitely took a toll. I sometimes dreaded going to practice and would deal with that by warming up, stretching, and cooling down alone. If I did confront my teammates, I would occasionally be accused of overreacting and reading too much into things. It's hard having to wake up every day, put on your armor and defend not only what you value and believe in, but also who you are. I could have easily ignored the benign yet insulting remarks and disregarded my sexuality at practice and focused 100% on sprinting, but in no way would that help create a more inclusive and embracing atmosphere for gay athletes down the road.
My teammates challenged me just as much as I challenged them, and through our journey together we grew to appreciate our diverse experiences. In the process, we created a more welcoming and gay-friendly environment. We realized that the value in our common athleticism was more important than our differences.
While I competed openly for four years, I drew incredible strength from the support of my teammates and coaches. I had the privilege of being in a community that saw more benefit than detriment to me competing openly, and I formed relationships with individuals that will last a lifetime. I had great privilege and opportunity to openly compete for an Ivy League school, but many of us are silenced and forced out of athletics because of who we are. We are coming out in great numbers across the country and around the world, and for those of us fortunate enough to have the opportunity to do so, we must work to breakdown the barriers that have silenced us.
When I graduated this past June, my coach gave me a book entitled The Last Lecture by the late Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch. Pausch inspired millions with his optimism and enthusiasm for life even as he battled terminal cancer. Pausch wrote:
“We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.”
I cannot change my sexual orientation and I cannot change my love for sports. But I – WE - can strive to foster a culture that incorporates LGBT people into the fabric of sports.
Inside the book my coach expressed how proud she is of me and how thankful that I walked into her office on a cold October day four years before. She told me that if I just keep being Jamal, I would be fine. And she is right. If I stay true to myself, work to combat homophobia and increase the visibility of LGBT people, and ‘play the hand,’ I will be just fine.