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Sean Coyne: Creating safe spaces for gay athletes

Collegiate track and field athlete went from being a closeted and scared freshman to a tireless advocate for LGBT athletes on his Bucknell campus.

Story from May 17, 2010

By Sean Coyne

I was sitting in a bar near the Bucknell campus this year with a guest speaker who had just spoken as part of an athletic department program for athletes. At the bar, we ran into a bunch of guys on the lacrosse team and I was a bit wary.

The lacrosse guys always made me slightly uncomfortable, because I assumed that being on such a hypermasculine sport would make them very homophobic and possibly dangerous to me, an out member of the track and field team. I soon learned that stereotypes can work both ways.

SeanCoyne
Sean Coyne. Photo courtesy of Jeff Sheng from his book "Fearless," which documents out high school and college athletes.

Over a few beers, the speaker and I got to talking with these guys about the issues faced by LGBT athletes. I could not have been more wrong about their feelings on the subject. The lacrosse captains were two of the nicest guys and were very receptive to what I had to say about issues I've faced on my team, and that some of their teammates have probably also faced.

I talked to them about the Safe Space program for athletic teams (a program I started to create a safe environment for LGBT athletes), and they agreed to happily participate. I couldn't believe it -- here these jocks I had assumed to be homophobic were to become the second men's team at Bucknell to become a Safe Space.

My journey

As I reflect on a 12-year track and field career that just ended, I look back with a bittersweet smile.

My career ended with a historic Patriot League Championship win, the first time any team in the league has taken the title from Army or Navy since either joined the conference. While it was an excellent finish to a long and successful career, I know that my most enduring contribution to my team was not scoring points. While I hold some Top 10 times and a school record, I have only scored one point in a college conference championship meet.

My real contribution to my team, and to other teams at Bucknell has been my determination to create an atmosphere of acceptance and tolerance for all students and athletes.

My story began in high school where -- just as my mother, father and sister before me -- I started my running career as a distance runner on the cross country team. I did fairly well for a freshman, making the varsity team and running as the "fourth man," meaning I consistently was our fourth runner to score.

At the end of that season, my coach took me aside and told me that I was going to learn to hurdle. I followed his wishes and became a pretty good hurdler. By the end of my high school running career, I had earned a varsity letter for every season that I ran.

The truth, however, is that in many ways my success in high school, both on the field and in the classroom, was largely a result of me running away from my sexuality. Early in high school I realized why I had always felt different my whole life, but instead of admitting to myself I was gay, I threw myself entirely into my activities and excelled at nearly everything I did. This came at a price, as I didn't have many close friends in high school. The ones I had were almost all female and I never dated anyone. I realize now that I was very lonely and went through bouts of depression as I struggled with my sexuality.

Because of my grades and a particularly successful outdoor track season my junior year of high school, I was pretty heavily recruited to run in college. I looked at several schools but as soon as I visited Bucknell University's campus in central Pennsylvania, I fell in love and knew that it was where I was going to go.

In August 2006, I entered Bucknell and began my collegiate running career. I made friends with my fellow sprinters and hurdlers and they became my new family. For the first time I had a large group of close male friends, and it was wonderful. However, at 19, it was harder to deny myself sexually and I had started coming to terms with the fact that I was gay.

I had still not told anyone and I had very little experience with men. I'd only had one experience with a guy from high school, who kept my confidence. We kept in touch when I went away to college because he was the only person I felt that I could talk to about my sexuality.

For the most part, my year went by pretty typically for a Bucknell student. I was learning how to handle college-level academics while balancing a full-time varsity sport. Unlike most Bucknell students, however, I was also always under constant fear that someone at school would question my sexuality or discover I was gay.

A fearful freshman

As a freshman, the locker room was never a fun place for me. I feared a teammate would accuse me of trying to check him out. And if it was discovered I was gay, I was afraid I wouldn't be allowed to use the locker room or possibly not even allowed to remain on the team. These fears were compounded by the fact that a lot of the upperclassman on the team used some many blunt, homophobic slurs. Hearing my teammates call each other "fag" and "homo" was a daily occurrence.

Despite those fears, I still loved my close group of friends, but I didn't feel comfortable enough to come out to them. That is until one day about halfway through the spring semester when everything changed.

My best friend and fellow hurdler, Tony, had come over to my room before practice. He asked to use my computer to check for something. What I forgot was that I had left an instant message conversation between myself and the guy from high school, which laid out pretty clearly my sexual orientation. When Tony acknowledged he had seen it, I was so embarrassed and horrified I literally hid my face. Thankfully, he could tell I did not want to discuss it and did not pursue a conversation.

The next 24 hours were perhaps the worst of my life. I was stressed that Tony was going to tell everyone what he found out about me and I was too scared to bring myself to talk to Tony about it. I knew that once I had that conversation, I was fully admitting to myself that I was gay.

By the next day I couldn't handle the uncertainty of whether Tony would keep my secret, so I confronted him in private. He talked before I could get any words out and made me feel like the weight of the world had been lifted from me, saying, "Coyne, you don't have to worry about me telling anyone about you being gay. It's your business to tell, not mine."

What made these words so comforting was not that he would keep my secret, but he clearly accepted me as his best friend still even though I was gay. Because of his support, soon after I decided to tell my other three close friends from the team, my event coach, and my parents. Although I had only positive reactions from everyone, my coach's support meant the world to me. I knew that if I ever had trouble with a teammate, she would always have my back. I finished out that season with a sense of comfort that I had never enjoyed before -- finally feeling free for the first time.

I came back as a sophomore with great enthusiasm and I was looking to succeed more than I had as a freshman. I was now much more comfortable in my skin, having spent the summer being out. However, the locker room and general team climate did not get any easier at first because homophobic slurs were still far too common. Even though I was out to many teammates, not everyone knew and no one seemed really concerned about my feelings except my closest friends. Even as a sophomore, I still felt too scared to speak up against the insults because I didn't feel strong enough to speak up to the upperclassman.

Fed up with slurs

That all changed my junior year. My two good friends and fellow sprinters were seniors and captains that year. Unfortunately, these two guys were also among the worst users of homophobic language. At the beginning of the year while at a party at their house, after one of them had said something to offend me, I finally stood up and said "enough!"

I sat them down and explained that I was gay and that they had to stop using homophobic language. As captains, their using it not only made it all right for the rest of the team to use it, but actually encouraged the underclassman on the team to be homophobic to fit in with the team culture they were creating. They were very receptive to my words and took them to heart. Pretty soon they were correcting guys for using homophobic slurs and within a month, it had all stopped. From that day to this, I have not heard a single homophobic slur in my locker room.

I was inspired by the positive impact I'd had on my team and I wanted to do more to help others who may have been in positions similar to mine. I started attending Bucknell's FLAG&BT club meetings, the student group associated with our Office of LGBT Awareness. At these meetings I learned about our schools "Safe Space" program that was done with the fraternities and sororities. The program is a brief presentation given by two students to their peers and discusses issues commonly faced by LGBT undergraduates. I thought it was a wonderful program, and I got involved immediately.

The concept of a "Safe Space" is a place where anyone can relax and be fully self-expressed, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe on account of biological sex, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, age, or physical or mental ability; a place where the rules guard each person's self-respect and dignity and strongly encourage everyone to respect others.

Early on, I found it difficult to connect to the groups I was presenting to because I was not in the Greek system. So, with the help of the director of the LGBT Office, I modified the program so that it was geared towards athletic teams. I then invited coaches to see the presentation in order to have their teams possibly go through the program. Many coaches were very enthused and were willing to get involved.

In my senior year, I had high hopes for the program. My team, a roster of more than 130 men and women combined, started off the year by seeing the program the first week of classes. My team voted unanimously to be a Safe Team and I felt thrilled. Finally, I had made a real and significant contribution. I had taken a team that was truly scary for gay freshman, as I had been, and turned it into a place of welcome.

Since then, more than 50% of the athletes of my school have seen the program and are on Safe Teams. With more than 1,000 people involved with athletics at Bucknell, I know that there are literally hundreds of allies and supporters at all levels of athletics. I've known about 10 or so other out athletes, both men and women, at my school, although none came out to me until after I started doing my LGBT advocacy work.

This has been a wonderful journey for me and although I may not be remembered for being the best athlete on my team, I know that my legacy of creating a safe environment for LGBT athletes will endure. For that I am truly blessed.

Sean Coyne, 22, is graduating from Bucknell with a degree in Animal Behavior B.S. He is going to the University of Chicago next year for a Masters in Comparative Human Development. Eventually, he wants to get his PhD and become a professor. He is a four-year member of the school’s track and field team, with his specialties being sprints and hurdles. He can be reached via e-mail (spc011@bucknell.edu).