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The Importance of Being Out

Harvard Panel Looks at Sports and Sexuality

(This story was published in 2002).

There have been panels and TV specials in recent years dealing with homosexuality in sports. They generally feature academics, or journalists, or ex-jocks, or straight jocks. What's missing are active athletes, those on the front lines.

Which is why Harvard is to be applauded for its Feb. 18 forum, held before a packed house on campus. It had openly gay softball coach Jenny Allard, ex-NFLers Dave Kopay (gay) and Reggie Rivers (straight but supportive) and two openly gay Harvard water polo players--Michael Crosby and Kate Callaghan.

The forum, of which Outsports was a sponsor, was the brainchild of Cliff Davidson, a Harvard student and founder of Beyond Our Normal Differences (BOND). He ran into some initial opposition from the athletic department but managed to pull together a terrific program that was informative, affirming and enlightening.

Crosby, a junior, was hailed by Callaghan for giving her the courage to come out.

``It definitely gave me a lot of confidence to know Mike had done it before,'' the sophomore said. And Tom Elke, captain of the men's team when Crosby came out, also had praise.

``We became better human beings for what Mike did,'' Elke said, according to the Harvard Crimson.

Crosby and Callaghan did not tell tales of anguish and woe, and the lack of drama should be considered a positive. It really can be possible to come out as an athlete, given courage and the right environment.

Kopay, who came out in 1975 after retiring from the NFL and remains a forceful advocate, stressed the need for people to come out, both for themselves and to serve as role models.

``It's so important for us to be visible for everyone to know we're the same,'' Kopay told the audience.'

Rivers, a former Denver Bronco running back turned Denver Post columnist and talk radio host, has been very vocal in print equating discrimination against gays with that against blacks in the 1950s, a point he emphasized at Harvard.

Allard, who lives on campus with her partner, came out to her softball team in 1997 and received tremendous support, though she acknowledges there is still work to do.

``As a coach, I'd like to see increased dialogue among teams, and resources for gay athletes need to come more to the forefront,'' she said, according to the Crimson. ``It's a big learning experience to have a gay athlete on the team.''

``This was a very important program and project for Harvard to undertake,'' Mike Muska, an openly gay athletic director at Oberlin College in Ohio, wrote on the Outsports Discussion Board. ``It follows on the heels of similar events at Stanford and Duke, though the Stanford event was much more focused on the athletic department staff.

``I just came back from an event at St. Joseph's in Philadelphia, sponsored by the athletic department, with about 100 in attendance as part of their Rainbow Week. This was the first time I have been asked to speak at a Catholic college, and I salute them.

``Back to Harvard, it sends an important message to have the out student-athletes involved. It puts a face to the issue. I'm good friends with several former Harvard runners who are now out, and would have appreciated this kind of support in their days. May other schools step up to the plate on addressing this.''

Don White, an audience member from Boston, was highly appreciative of the panel, telling Outsports:

``The five panelists were articulate about their love of sport and their fears about experiencing bigotry, particularly with regard to their teammates. It was interesting that there was a common pattern of informing family and teammates last, because their closeness and respect would be the most painful to lose. As it turned out, their acceptance and support were that much more rewarding.

``The former captain of Mike Crosby's team was in the audience, and talked about the admiration and pride that they felt when he came out to them, and that Mike felt in return. It was very touching.

``The audience was equally articulate and thoughtful. I recall that about two thirds of the questions and comments came from a "non-gay" point of view, and I assume that was a general indicator of the audience's composition. Every one of the comments was positive, all the questions empathetic.''