(This story was published in 2005.)
By: Keith Lutman
I recently completed my sixth year, and 12th season, as a high school coach. I know of no other openly gay coaches currently coaching, but I know they are out there. No doubt there are closeted coaches considering being out to their school community next year. Perhaps this article will help both groups.
With athletics as one of the few remaining places where it’s acceptable (if not a stated policy) to be homophobic and discriminatory against gays and lesbians, it’s important that as many of us as possible are open and honest about who we are. There’s nothing to refute the misconceptions people have like simply being yourself.
I started coaching cross-country and track as part of my job at Loomis Chaffee, a Connecticut boarding and day school. Wealth and conservative values are generally closely associated, and Connecticut has the highest per capita income of any state. But Connecticut people are pretty progressive, a point reinforced by the state legislature legalizing civil unions. My school already had several openly gay faculty when I arrived. It had already made the adjustments a community makes to having openly gay folk in its midst for the first time. I wouldn’t be breaking much new ground. For all that, there were still no openly gay students.
I was assigned to a live in a boys dorm. This would be new territory. It was largely populated with the classic jocks of high school--football players, swimmers, wrestlers, lacrosse players. That’s a scenario that could go very badly, but my sudden transition to dorm parent for 30+ teenage boys went fairly well, and the guys endured my missteps along the way. The kind of guys who in the movies are totally scary ended up being the ones I was closest to.
Our quarterback, who went on to play for Williams, spent a lot of time teaching me to throw a football. (I’m still not that good, but thanks Joe.) I got a little nervous about dorm dynamics when midway through the year the wrestling team captain returned from his “city term” to live on my floor. I had established good rapport with everybody, and this guy was a wildcard who might upset the whole thing. He was a meathead wrestler after all, right?
Wrong. As it turned out, he was a really smart, nice guy, who shared my appreciation of “Buffy” and “Malcolm in the Middle.” It became our weekly routine to watch those shows together. I needn’t have worried.
Hard to Hide in a Dorm
The background is important because at a boarding school you spend more of your life with the students than you do in a day school, and the athletes you coach may also live in your dorm. For them, it’s a bit like college, four years early. Although I did have my own space, it’s impossible to hide your personal life the way you might be able to in a day school, much as parents share their lives with their children.
I wasn’t interested in hiding. Once you’re out, it’s too stifling to go back in the closet. But I didn’t want my first day to be some version of Big Gay Al, waving rainbow banners and holding my own Pride Parade. I wanted them to get to know me first, not see me only as “the gay guy.”
So I waited for a bit. I did reveal this bit of information to my prefects (the equivalent of R.A.’s) in the first week. I explained my “I’ll come out in a little bit, but I wanted you guys to know now” strategy, and asked them to keep it quiet for the moment. They understood, and it became clear that my honesty about such a potentially vulnerable issue won their trust. A lot more of it, anyway, than they would normally give to the new guy.
I discussed my strategy with my coaches, who already knew about this part of me. If the topic didn’t naturally come up by midseason I’d go ahead and out myself. I wanted the guys to get to know me without that baggage first, but I didn’t want them to find out after the season was over, and perhaps think I’d been hiding it from them. Which I kind of was, but only temporarily.
It never did come up. The halfway point of the season came. We had a team meeting one day that covered several topics, one of which was this new bit of information about their coach. Aside from a few dropped jaws and some saucer-wide eyes, they didn’t react much. By the next day it was all over school (the good part is, you only have to come out once--the gossip mill will take care of the rest).
Small Gesture Means a Lot
I came to practice, nervous for the first time, much more than I’d expected to be. It was almost like being a kid again, after having that first talk with your parents and friends. I wondered if I’d get the same friendly reception I was used to. We normally did partner stretches at the beginning of practice and I was being hypersensitive about it, not wanting to appear that I was “after” someone to stretch with.
People paired up, and I was the cheese standing alone for longer than usual. I had figured I’d need to give them some space for a while. Then one of the freshmen walked over and asked me to stretch with him. This simple gesture made me feel that I was back in the group again. I reminded him of that moment during his senior year, told him how much it meant to me. He said he didn’t remember it. Somebody else might be hurt that he didn’t remember a moment that was so important to me, but I took it as a good thing; this proved that he hadn’t meant it as a Big Special Gesture. He was treating me as a normal person, just like before.
The rest of the season was great. There were no remarks, no bad attitudes, no one quit the team, no one’s parents called the school. Life went on as before. The following fall more boys turned up for cross-country than the year before. Fifty percent more, to be exact. Having a gay coach had not hurt the sport or the team. It probably didn’t hurt that I could do all the workouts with them. (One of the biggest surprises was being able to outrun most 16 year olds on many days.)
We had another great season, which I’ll fast forward through for now. Suffice it to say that when it came time to choose a sport the following year, our team again grew by almost 50%. We went from 20 guys my first year to 30 in the second, to 50 in what would have been my third. We were becoming a powerhouse. At the same time, I was also beginning to realize that rural Connecticut was no place for a single man, gay or straight, unless he wanted to stay single forever. I also knew I was getting more attached to the people there, and that it would only get more difficult to leave the longer I stayed. I left the school and returned to Washington, D.C., but unable to find a teaching positing that was a good fit, I returned to working in the IT industry (which, by the way, had completely tanked in the meantime.)
I did manage to land a job at a previous employer, but wanted to continue coaching, so I called around. There was a school that was looking to add another coach. It was a boarding school, which fit my background. Right place, right time. My interview with the AD seemed to be going well. As the interview neared its end I said, “Oh, there’s one more thing you should know.” I told him I had been openly gay at Loomis, and that I was too old to be hiding out in the closet. If he didn’t think his school was ready for this, he probably shouldn’t hire me. (This is Virginia, where discrimination was, and still is, perfectly legal.) I would be the only openly gay person on campus, perhaps the first in the school ever, he informed me, but he thought the school was ready.
Having "The Talk"
I employed the same strategy about outing myself as before. But this was a much more conservative place, one that had never had openly gay people in its midst. Within three days I found myself having to talk with one of the guys about why it wasn’t cool to refer to our competitors as “those fags from (school name omitted)”. I think he got my point. Sort of. When the time came to have “the talk” with the team, my head coach balked. I sought support from the previously agreeable A.D., but came up empty there. Although I wasn’t happy about it, I decided that as a “new, part-time guy” who’d only been around for a month, this wasn’t the time to push it. I let it go. We went on to win the state championship for the first time in more than a decade.
Again, having a gay coach didn’t hurt the team, except for the part where they didn’t know they had one. Winter track season started as soon as cross-country left off. This time I was determined to be out, but again, I had a group of guys who were mostly new to me, so I wanted to give them some time getting to know me. I wanted to tell everyone at the same time, but it being winter meant that when I decided to have “the talk”, there was at least one person missing from practice due to illness. With only a few weeks remaining I finally had my chance. Cue the surprised looks, the big silence. Then one of them said, “Coach, I just want to say, you the man.” And that was it. Tension gone. One of the guys who’d uttered some version of the classic “that’s so gay” remark a few days before apologized to me afterward. He was really embarrassed about it.
No one quit the team. No one’s parents called the school (at least, not that I knew about). The next day, everything seemed to be fine. We had a few weeks left, and part of me wondered how “OK” they were, and how much some of them might be simply getting through the rest of the season.
I got my answer at our athletic banquet. I arrived early and chose a seat at one of many tables marked “Track”. I waited to see who would sit at my table. If anyone would. I was reassured to see that my table filled up fast. One of my star freshman runners spotted us as he entered the dining hall a few minutes later. His face fell on seeing that our table was full. I motioned him to get a chair and join us anyway. His usual big smile reappeared. He could have sat anywhere, but he squeezed in next to me. That small gesture meant a lot to me, although I doubt that he remembers it.
As at Loomis, my announcement to the team made it all over school that same evening. When it came time to sign up for cross-country the following year, everyone signed up again, along with some new guys. Our team the following year was bigger than before, and it continues to grow.
The sports program hasn’t been hurt by having an openly gay coach. If anything, it may have been helped. I don’t know if it’s coincidence or not, but I was particularly pleased that in a sport usually dominated by white runners, this year’s team had an African American as one of its captains, as well as a sizeable contingent of Asians and other African Americans.
I don’t think anyone is running around saying that “we need more minority runners.” But we do create a space every day where all athletes are welcome, valued, respected, and encouraged. My being there every day, as a known member of a minority, underscores the point that all minorities are welcome. “If you build it, they will come.” We’ve built a welcoming space, and the guys show up.
The rest is pretty much the same experience that any coach has. You get to take your experienced runners to new levels of excellence. You get to help anxious newcomers make the journey to confident veteran. You become an important part of their lives and contribute to their growth not just as athletes, but as people. You help give them experiences of success they may never have dreamed possible. You suffer with them when the team loses: I’ve had a weekend or two largely ruined by a bitter loss on a Friday afternoon. Sometimes you share the pain of individuals going through larger life issues. Sometimes you get frustrated with them, and I’m sure they get frustrated by me. Almost every year you get to watch one of the slowest, disinterested kids on the team transform into one of the most enthusiastic and fastest. Even though you don’t know it, there may be times when your presence or your words are the thing that makes all the difference in their day. It’s one of the most rewarding, amazing, beautiful, and difficult experiences you can have. That’s why I keep going back. It’s why I would think any coach would.
Keith Lutman is an IT consultant in Washington, D.C., and coaches cross-country and track at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va.