Photo credit Tyler Berry
Carroll University tennis captain Seth Pamperin is the latest in a growing list of college athletes to come out of the closet publicly. He has played the last two seasons openly gay, but this is the first time he has come out in a national publication. Under his leadership the team posted an impressive 16-6 season in 2011. Just this weekend Pamperin won the NCAA Div. III Midwest Conference No. 2 singles consolation title. Pamperin talked with us about his four years in conservative Wisconsin, keeping a rainbow ribbon attached to his tennis bag, fighting homophobia in college residences and the power of stereotypes. And, like virtually every athlete we have talked to in the last 10 years, he has experienced no negative repercussions whatsoever coming out in sports.
Outsports: When did you realize you were gay?
Pamperin: I had always known since I was young that I was different. In middle school I had thought about it and in high school I knew. About my sophomore/junior year I had a firm understanding I was. That’s when I came out to my parents and a couple of close friends.
Can you recall the first time you told a teammate or coach you're gay?
I first came out to a teammate, my captain specifically. He thought it was great! He told me he had never had a gay friend and had a couple of generic questions. I was so happy I had been able to confide in my captain my freshman year. His positive reaction helped me have a positive outlook on being gay on the team.
Have you had any negative reactions from being openly gay in sports?
I haven’t had any external negative reactions. Internal reactions have been tough. My junior year I had to fight for LGBTQ equality on my campus which trickled over to my season which did not help because I was still focused on what I had done to help my university change for the better.
What have been some of the most positive reactions you've had?
My coach and boss at one of the camps I worked gave me a great reaction. He immediately started talking about Billie Jean King, which I kind of thought was funny. He said she overcame so much in her career and that I can do the same. My coach in college also has helped me develop not only as a tennis player but as a man. He has seen me at my worst on the court and he has seen me at my best. When I came out to him I was having a hard time connecting to my team and he helped me turn that around. I probably was the first person that had come out to him and I could tell he was a little nervous, but since then our relationship has steadily improved.
My team is supportive in my accomplishments and knows I’m gay. I’m thankful I can confide in my teammates some of the things in my personal life. I am continually growing and maturing. I know my teammates will stick up for me if they hear someone say “that’s so gay” or any other negative comment. I think that I am a strong captain on my team and it definitely changes some views about gay men. Knowing that I am a strong, talented and positive leader in my team’s eyes helps break some stereotypes they otherwise would have kept on believing.
You're competing this year openly gay. Do you fear any kind of retaliation from other teams? Have any of your competitors commented, positively or negatively, about your sexuality?
I competed last year out and proud. I had a rainbow ribbon attached to my tennis bag that I carried on court. I have never feared any retaliation from other teams. Frankly I use the fact that I am gay to help drive me to my success. Knowing that people have stereotypes about gay men and not being in sports and being sissy’s makes me want to work harder and boost my confidence. I can’t say a competitor has commented on my sexuality because they might not know. It’s not like my coach introduces the line-up along with our sexual orientations. I am not your typical gay man, I’m not (too) flamboyant while on the court, though I definitely have some quirks.
Have athletes from other teams or schools reached out to you because you're gay?
I wish I could connect with other gay athletes in my conference. I’m sure there are some but my gaydar just hasn’t registered a reading in a very long time while playing tennis.
How "rural" is the area around your school?
My school is located in one of the most conservative counties in Wisconsin. We are in a suburb of Milwaukee with a population of about 60,000. We are surrounded by a neighborhood. This campus is fairly small and you could walk the entire campus in about 15 minutes. Milwaukee is just a 15-minute drive.
Have you met other gay men at your school or nearby?
I have met a few gay men at my school, but we are very few and far between. There are about three besides myself that are out, and we have an out lesbian professor as well as a librarian who have proven to be excellent resources for myself and others. As far as athletics I am the only known out gay man on this campus. Since we live in close proximity to Milwaukee my friends and I have made it a point to get out there. This past summer I was involved with the Milwaukee Metro Tennis Club, which is a primarily gay tennis league. I wasn't looking for competition but more of a community. This club consists of guys a couple years older than me but helped me feel like I had a community. I made friends with a few of them and we still get together once in a while to hit.
Tell me about what you're doing on campus to fight for gay visibility and equality.
I have taken a back seat fighting for equality and visibility on my campus. Last fall I had to work with Student Affairs at my school in order to make sure LGBTQA Safe Space training is mandatory. Numerous negative events have happened to myself and other LGBTQA people have occurred on this campus and we are in the process of building a safer community. I strongly believe that I have helped bring a sense of awareness on this issue to the administrations attention. They have shown me that they are now more than ever dedicated to bringing equality to this campus.
You said numerous negative events have happened at your school. Can you describe them?
Some of the negative events that have happened towards the LGBTQ community on this campus were insensitivity in resident life. Resident life had sporadically done Safe Space training for its new Resident Assistants but last fall did not. The previous year I had overheard a conversation involving my RA and a fellow resident and they were discussing homosexuality. My RA asked the resident what he thought about homosexuality and he replied with "Well I think we should just kill them all." I thought to myself "ok, fine people are entitled to their own opinion, but really?" At a time my RA could have responded with some knowledge of the LGBTQ community he decided not to.
At the time I was on the Student Conduct Board which is a part of Resident Life and I asked my advisor what I could do in order to report this discussion. I had a couple of talks with my Area Director of the building as well as the Director of Resident Life. The conversations always led to "what are we supposed to do about this?" They didn't know how to handle the situation and I didn't either because I was mere sophomore and had never had to deal something like this. It was a first for both of us. However, that RA was never given any extra training on LGBTQ sensitivity and that was that. After returning in the fall of 2009 and hearing that Resident Life did not provide Safe Space training I was disheartened and decided to take things into my own hands.
I met with the Director of Resident Life numerous times and he pointed me in the direction of one of the Area Directors who was coordinating RA training. Along with the Area Director of the building I was living in, I also enlisted the help of my great friend who had also been out at Carroll and seen the negativity towards the LGBTQ community at Carroll. Together we created the Safe Space training that we would present at the annual Wisconsin Association of Independent College's and Universities (WAICU) Conference. Carroll was the host that year.
At the end of the conference we were awarded the "Best Program" that year. It was a great boost of confidence and the Director of Resident Life decided that Safe Space training would be permanently implemented into the Resident Assistant orientation. It is safe to say that I have left some sort of legacy at Carroll because every time an RA puts up their Safe Space sign on their door, it is because of the work my friend and I did. Carroll has improved quite a bit since I've been here, but there is still room for improvement.
Since last year I have taken a back seat to Q&A due to my other activities, being an Assistant Women's Tennis College Coach, Athletic Event Fellow, finding internships, playing in my final season and of course focusing on my education.
Do you think gay men make better athletes? Worse athletes? Does it matter?
I think gay men can use the stereotypes of being “effeminate, having a gay lisp” to their favor. I’m not your typical gay man. I play sports, I wear sweatpants regularly (but not too often), I am aggressive (on the court). I don’t let my sexuality define who I am, I let what I have accomplished and what I strive for define who I am. I think young gay teens often are ostracized for liking “feminine” sports such as tennis, swimming, volleyball, dance, etc…. They need to see that it’s perfectly fine to enjoy that sport.
I try and break those stereotypes by working to be the best in my sport and I have done so. My sophomore year I was named “Midwest Conference Player of the Week.” It was an honor and validated all my hard work. I thought to myself when I read the article “This isn’t for me, it’s for my team, all my coaches, my supportive parents, and all the gay athletes that go unrecognized.”
I don’t think gay men make worse athletes. I think that you can be great in any sport and be gay, straight, bi, or whatever. It just so happens that I play tennis and that I’m gay. I think I connect more with tennis than I do with my sexuality. Tennis is a huge part of my life. My roommate, best friends, team and anyone that has seen me with my tennis bag on campus can attest to that. People say that men think about sex every five seconds, well I like to think that I think about tennis every five seconds.
Why do you think no pro male tennis players have come out?
Bill Tilden supposedly was a gay player, but it was back in the 1920s. Since then no professional male has come out of the closet. There has been speculation about some players but nothing ever concrete. I think one hasn’t come out because in pro tennis players are, like other athletes, under a magnifying glass. When Amelie Mauresmo was pulled out of the closet some people thought she was going to lose her endorsements, but on the contrary they celebrated her as an athlete. I really look up to her and she is still one of my favorite players. I could see myself in her during her matches.
I wish a male pro tennis player would come out, but then it would be blown out of proportion. Since tennis is such an individual sport it might be hard for a player to deal with it alone on the court in front of thousands of people. It would be on everyone’s mind at that match. It could consume and destroy that player if it got to him. I think it would take a very mentally strong guy in order to do it. Ever since coming out, it gets easier every time I come out to someone.
What is your major? When will you graduate? What do you want to do next?
I will be graduating in December of 2011 with a degree in Recreational Management. This summer I will be the Competition intern with the United States Tennis Association Southern Section in Columbia, South Carolina. I hope to continue coaching collegiate athletes and one day be the head pro at a tennis facility. I will continue to be an advocate for LGBTQ athletes and I think what Hudson Taylor and his Athlete Ally program is exactly what the sporting world needs.
You can reach Seth via email or follow him on Twitter.