(This story was published in 2005).
By: Ryan Quinn
The Internet has done wonders for gay people. The ability to anonymously read articles and participate in message board discussions allows an athlete to explore his identity in ways that otherwise might have kept closed off, even from himself.
For gay college athletes, this cloak of anonymity has jump-started a coming-out momentum that’s long overdue. A community of openly gay college athletes has emerged on the Net, and the transition from online curiosity to full disclosure with teammates has been positive in almost every case.
In the past two years I’ve spoken with and received e-mails from almost 36 gay athletes who want to come out but who first want to bond with other gay athletes and share their experiences. The Internet is the most convenient setting for this exchange.
“I came out in the beginning of my sophomore year here at Cal and in retrospect it was one of the best decisions I’ve made,” said Graham Ackerman, (left), a captain on the Cal, Berkeley, Gymnastics team.
Ackerman won an NCAA title in floor exercise in 2005, 'was a two-time NCAA champion in 2004, competed in the 2003 World University Games in Korea, and has placed in the Top 3 at U.S. Nationals.
“I credit the upperclassmen at that time a great deal with smoothing out the entire process as it was very new to all of us,” he said. “As it turned out, I couldn’t have asked for a better reaction from my teammates. Because we spent so much time together in and out of the gym, it was not a huge surprise for most of them. The process has been a great learning experience for myself, my teammates and my coaches.”
As a senior, Ackerman has been winning the floor exercise consistently in meets while leading the Golden Bears to their No. 7 national ranking. The NCAA Championships for Gymnastics will be held April 7-9 in West Point, NY.
Jack Nelson, a sophomore Nordic skier at Williams College in Massachusetts, came out to his best friend on the ski team while they were rooming together at a team training camp. Nelson said they stayed up for hours talking and that his teammate was almost more excited about his coming out than he was. Nelson told the rest of his team by making an announcement over dinner. He described their reaction as amazing and said it had brought the team closer.
Ackerman, Nelson, and others make up a community that is transient and not measurably large, but their visibility benefits another group that cannot be measured anyway: the “invisible” college students (athletes and sports fans alike) who are not yet out.
Jordan Goldwarg, a cross-country skier, and I started a website specifically for college athletes to share their stories. There are hundreds of examples of gay college athletes who are actively seeking advice, support, or even just the reassurance that others have succeeded in normalizing their identity as an openly gay college athlete.
I’ve talked to athletes in a range of sports and from different parts of the country and not one has said their team wasn’t ready for them.
One of my friends, who I won’t name because he is not yet out, plays Division I college football and though he is comfortable with being gay himself, he is waiting for the right time to come out to his team. He and countless others who are not yet out use the Internet to connect so that gradually the uncertainty of coming out becomes manageable.
When I came out in 2001 as a sophomore on the University of Utah ski team I did not know any other gay college athletes. I hadn’t even heard of any who were currently competing. It wasn’t that they didn’t exist. I just didn’t know how to find them. There were no archives of coming out stories to read online and no e-mail correspondence with athletes around the country who were happily out to their teams.
But things have changed. Today, if you’re gay and you like sports and you know what Google is, there’s no reason to be left in the dark. And people are taking advantage of this. I wrote an article for Outsports during my senior year in college about coming out to my team and competing for two years as an openly gay athlete. Over the course of a week I received 280 e-mails, mostly from people who were in high school, college, or recently graduated. Not all were athletes themselves, but they were using the Internet for the same reassurance.
There are about 356,000 student-athletes competing in NCAA sports, according to the NCAA’s website. I wouldn’t be surprised if 35,000 (10%) of them are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered (or will identify themselves as one of these later in life). Even 5%, or 17,500, is still a lot of gay athletes. I think my 10% estimate is closer to reality because we are still not ahead of the curve in terms of people coming out.
There are far more gay athletes who are closeted than out. A search the Outsports/Coach Gumby Out Athlete Registry for out athletes who competed in college yields 69 athletes. If you search for college athletes who are closeted, you get 469. We’ve got a ways to go.
Nevertheless, the openly gay college athlete is noticeably more visible than just five years ago. But for a group of young men and woman struggling with questions of identity that most of their peers never consider, has any real progress been made?
“Things are incrementally getting better,” said Dave Lohse, Associate Athletic Communications Director at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. “I have ultimate faith that the young people that come through our colleges are not going to make the same mistakes as my generation and other previous generations with regard to sexual orientation and other things.” Lohse said that with the diverse views spread over television and the Internet, “kids don’t buy into the same stereotypes that their elders sell them.”
I agree, though this evolution of tolerance seems painfully slow. In my impatience I’ve often wondered what could speed it up. I believe our culture is ready for openly gay professional athletes. I believe college teams from swimming to football are ready for openly gay teammates. Not everyone’s ready, but who are we waiting for?
I don’t care how loud the intolerant anti-gay minority gets or how many amendments they propose, but waiting for them to be born again with reason is not only a waste of our time, it’s a waste of our lives. I’ve talked to athletes in a range of sports and from different parts of the country and not one has said their team wasn’t ready for them. Their lives, both athletic and social, have changed for the better since coming out.
The largest obstacle to improving the climate for gay and lesbian college athletes is their absence. Athletic departments say they’re open to discuss homophobia, bring in speakers, and hold training sessions for coaches. But these plans don’t get far when the group of athletes they are designed to support is mysteriously absent. Or not absent but hidden. There will be no breakthrough without more athletes who come out.
Lohse came out in 1992 and says he’s somewhat disappointed with where we are 13 years later in terms of how many gay people are out in sport. Despite the success stories of openly gay athletes (and there are far more stories of success than intolerance), Lohse believes it’s still just as hard for people who are not out. “We can’t judge whether or not someone should come out. It’s their decision,” he said.
The personal leap to openly confront one’s sexual orientation is still a great one, especially in college athletics. Nelson, the skier at Williams, knew last fall that he couldn’t have been in a safer place to come out.
“I knew there would be no bad reaction,” said Nelson, whose coach, Jordan Goldwarg, is openly gay and had a similar coming out experience on the Williams team two years ago. Nevertheless, Nelson described the time leading up to his coming out as “stressful” and he put off telling his teammates until a training camp over Christmas. Clearly, it’s one thing to know that acceptance from teammates is likely, and quite another to actually test it.
My friend who plays Division I college football says the environment on his team is all about trust and camaraderie. His biggest fear is that coming out would make him different enough that he’d lose the feeling of belonging to the team. While he’s confident that the friends and teammates he’s closest to will be OK with it, there are 90 people on his team and he fears that some of them, especially the ones he doesn’t know well, might have a problem with a gay teammate.
Football may be unique, given the sport’s pervasive stereotypes and ingrained hypermasculine expectations. I’ve always believed there was nothing inherently more homophobic about contact team sports than other sports. But most people think gay athletes have an easier time in individual sports. Why is that? My teammates depended on me as much as they would have had we been playing hockey or football instead of skiing. I wonder if we haven’t just convinced ourselves that college and professional football is still off limits to openly gay players. We won’t know until someone comes out.
Football aside, more athletes say their decision to come out was based on a sense that they should tell their straight teammates. It’s unfair to hide it from them for precisely the same reasons they felt they had to hide it: to maintain the trust and camaraderie.
“Young lesbian and gay athletes are increasingly more likely to feel entitled to be out and expect coaches, teammates, the public to deal with it, if not support it,” said Pat Griffin, author of “Strong Women, Deep Closets,” a former coach and a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
One point that the openly gay male athletes unanimously agreed on was that life was better after coming out. And not just for them. “My teammates were, and continue to be, some of my closest friends,” Ackerman said, “and I felt that hiding such a large part of my own identity from them was almost insulting in a way. I wanted to be able to be completely open and honest as I began to take on more responsibilities in terms of leading my team and did not want hiding my sexual orientation to hinder that.”
Nelson said his coming out brought up the level of intellectual conversations on the team. Teammates gained a new level of respect for him, even those who previously had made inadvertent comments that could be perceived as less than accepting before they knew he was gay.
'Double Silencer for Lesbians'
I should note a difference I’ve come across in the experiences of gay and lesbian athletes. Men’s and women’s sports are at about the same place in terms of how many athletes are coming out. What’s different is what happens next. Lesbians seem to be met with a more passive reaction from teammates, to the point where it is often not talked about after the athlete initially comes out.
Griffin attributes these differences to gender expectations and sexism. “All women in sport are potentially intimidated by the ‘lesbian label,’ defensive about their ‘femininity,’ [while] still fighting for equality in sport opportunities, media coverage, and recognition,” she said. “Until the lesbian label no longer carries the negative sting it does now, people who want to control women's sports can use the label to intimidate, silence, and discriminate against women in sport. This acts as a double silencer for lesbians.”
But that doesn’t mean that there are more or fewer lesbian athletes than gay male athletes. The context is just different.
“Women's teams with a lesbian or bisexual coach or teammate are increasingly accepting of her, especially if she is discrete [closeted in public] and the coach supports her,” Griffin said.
On the other hand, having a gay male athlete come out is simpler concept: you’re either out or you’re invisible. For those who have come out, most gay male athletes say their straight teammates have grown comfortable asking them about what it’s like to be gay and also making jokes, which they say affirms true acceptance rather than mere tolerance.
Griffin noted that, “Lesbian athletes and coaches can often build community with other lesbian athletes and coaches even if it is a closeted community, whereas it is more difficult for gay men in college athletics to do this since they are more closeted, invisible.”
Geography Is Destiny
Where an athlete attends school is another factor that weighs heavily on how he is accepted. “In conversations that I have had with other gay athletes across the country, their team’s acceptance seems closely related to the setting of the school, and cannot be universally measured,” said Ackerman, who goes to school in the socially liberal Bay Area. “In that respect, I do not think that athletics is much different than the rest of society.”
“It definitely has to do with where I am,” said Nelson, noting Williams, located in Massachusetts, is an open-minded campus. But his perception was that the level of acceptance on other teams, such as lacrosse, hockey, and football, would be different. “Endurance sports attract more individualistic people,” he said, and on team sports there is more pressure to be a certain kind of man. Again, I think this is contrived, but it’s real enough that it makes it more difficult for guys to come out in contact team sports. Ackerman said the environment at Berkeley was tolerant enough that people would feel comfortable being out in any sports program.
The city where my Division I football friend goes to school is plenty accepting of gays, he said. “It’s football [that has the problem].”
A final significant factor in an athlete’s coming out experience is the attitude of the coach. The coach’s role cannot be understated. I came out to my teammates before I told my coach, but I felt that even though he already knew, I needed to have that conversation one on one. The coach on any team plays an influential role in setting the attitude about everything from where to go to dinner to how to respond to a gay teammate.
After I came out to my coach, he told me to let him know if anyone made derogatory comments or made me feel uncomfortable. I told him that I wasn’t easy to offend so I wasn’t worried about that, but he said he wanted to know anyway because those comments had no place on the team. It meant a lot hear that and to know that that standard was absorbed on some level by my teammates.
Being able to continue the conversation about being gay with teammates and coaches breeds an environment of honesty and respect that goes a long way in bringing the team closer together. Incidentally, this ability to bring the team closer together is the most overlooked aspect for closeted athletes weighing their decision to come out.
Of all people in our culture today, I believe gay college athletes are in a uniquely advantageous position. In many ways, college athletes provide an important bridge between the core themes of straight and gay culture--the traditional epitome of heterosexuality on one hand and the gay culture’s homoeroticization of athletics on the other.
Strangely, as gay issues are discussed more openly both on popular gay TV programs and in State of the Union addresses, it seems fewer gay people are willing to stick their necks out and risk taking a personal stand. It’s easier, perhaps, to pick a side on a partisan platform than to explore one’s identity on a more personal level. As a result, individual success stories are being overshadowed by an abstract culture war that is more fixated on legal and political battles than person ones.
Taking a Personal Stand
Meanwhile, one by one, athletes are coming out. Interestingly, they’re doing it for themselves and for their teams, not for any larger movement.
“The best advice I can give any gay or lesbian athlete coming out is to continually find a personal balance that allows you to simultaneously reach your maximum potential athletically while also exploring your gay identity,” said Ackerman. “I think too often many people, including gay athletes, see the two as being incompatible with one another, which simply is not true.”
“The most political thing you can do is come out,” said Lohse, referring not the partisan meaning of political but to the sense that it can change hearts and minds. “When you put a face on the person, it’s just not as easy to hate.”
What will it take for a “big-sport” athlete to come out? Griffin says, “It will take a confident, extremely talented athlete who is completely comfortable with their sexuality and is ready to deal with the ensuing media storm.”
Any high profile athlete will have to be sure of himself, love his sport, and be good enough friends with his teammates that avoiding his sexual orientation is a bigger deal than confronting it. That’s how it was for my teammates and me. That’s how it’s been for my other friends who came out to their teams. What sport we compete in doesn’t matter.
It’s one thing not to come out because you’re not ready. It is so very important that you have your own head about you before coming out to others. But I think we’re far past the point where the conservative views of our culture are an honest excuse to remain closeted. Besides, life’s too short to wait for a whole society to get over its ambivalence. It’s important to know that you don’t have to wait for anyone. When you’re ready, come out. It’s worth it. And there’s a whole network of support in place to take advantage of.