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Setting the Gay Athlete Image Straight at Buffalo

(This story was published in 2006).

By: Silas Rader (Managing Editor, The Spectrum, SUNY Buffalo)

Editor's Note: This article ran originally in the SUNY Buffalo student paper, The Spectrum, March 8, 2006

Log onto the Web site for State University of New York at Buffalo Athletics and on any day you'll find scores, highlights and game stories, all the usual fare for college sports. Last December, though, the casual fan surfing through a Q&A feature with the tennis team's Mike Rockman would have read a rare athletic confession: "I came out of the closet," Rockman said when asked about his favorite moment as a UB athlete. "I'm gay."

The fact that such a declaration from an active athlete could be so surprising is something Rockman sees as a problem.

"The image of what an athlete is needs to be changed," says Rockman, the team's co-captain.

Change the image of the manly, muscular athlete? Impossible? It might already be happening. With the coming out of WNBA star Sheryl Swoopes in October, and the 2003 success of "Take Me Out" -- a Broadway play about a gay baseball player -- some would argue there's a culture shift in progress.

At UB, the subject of gay teammates is still a bit of a taboo, and some of the most important statements being made are those left unsaid publicly. For the most part, however, the sports community here is an understanding and accepting one, and many Bulls athletes could care less whether their teammates are straight, gay or bi.

For Rockman, the perception of gay athletes among fans and fellow athletes has been a difficult hurdle to overcome.

"When you're in the closet, it's very different because there's this image of what an athlete is supposed to be like, and being gay isn't part of it," Rockman said.

Generally, the accepted masculine image is only one of many challenges he faces as a homosexual athlete on campus, Rockman said.

Brian Knapp, a junior player on the men's soccer team, said homophobia among athletes could make adjusting to being an outed athlete difficult for Rockman.

"Some people might be homophobic, and I think that could make Rockman feel nervous," Knapp said.

When Rockman first came to UB, what made him far more nervous was a move from Canada his freshman year. Born and raised in Toronto, Rockman experienced a culture shock when he came here in 2003.

"The main difference I see is that Canada is more willing to move forward," he said. "America seems more conservative."

Having endured uncomfortable remarks about gays in his freshman year, both on campus and on his team, Rockman kept his sexual preference to himself. The following year, he came out, and he made the decision to disclose his sexual preference on a public forum, Rockman said, because his high level of comfort with his team.

Cyd Zeigler, a co-founder and president of Outsports.com, an online sports publication dedicated to gay issues, said athletic programs at universities nationwide are often overly conservative.

"Homosexuality is just not talked about in most athletic programs," Zeigler said. "People like Michael are left wondering what might happen. I'm sure he's never heard, 'It's okay to be gay, don't worry about it.' "

Knapp and Dan McKenna, captain of the men's cross country team, report similar concerns. Though heterosexual, they've experienced insulting remarks made about their teams and their sports.

"The real jock types rip into soccer players, saying things like 'foot fairy,' " Knapp said. "We get ripped into pretty bad."

When asked about the issue, McKenna gestured to what he was wearing — his running gear.

"I'm wearing short shorts. What do you think people say about me?" he asked.

When it comes to stereotypes, women are no exception.

"People have misconceptions because we're girls playing sports," said Brooke Meunier, the senior captain of the women's basketball team. "And I'm not going to look cute just to go to class."

Heather Turner, a sophomore on the team, said sports like basketball lead to negative connotations formed by ignorance.

"People have made stereotypes because we play such a physical sport and it's so demanding," Turner said.

And in Rockman's opinion, it might take nothing less than a re-evaluation of the modern athlete to help remedy the problems associated with gays in sports.

Despite all this, many UB athletes say homosexuality isn't an issue one way or the other.

"I haven't noticed it much. Homosexuality is just another part of life," Turner said. "Nowadays, it's like asking somebody if they're black."

"I don't think there's been any problems here. Everyone seems completely cool with it," Knapp said.

Zeigler describes a similar, growing "coolness" with homosexuality at the national level.

"Society is changing. The laws are changing," he said. "When Ellen DeGeneres came out of the closet in the '90s, it set things in motion, and sports is no different."

Knapp was optimistic about movement of homosexuality and today's athlete.

"Morgan Freeman said racism's never going to stop until it's not an issue anymore. Homosexuality is the same way. Just go with it," Knapp said.

And although there have been struggles, even Rockman admitted being a gay athlete on campus hasn't been so bad.

"Coming out here was the best decision I could have made. I had a lot of support from my team, and my coach especially," he said.

Perhaps the athletic image could use a little tweaking, but UB doesn't seem to be one of the guilty parties abusing it. And any growing indifference to the issue is done in the face of a greater determination: to keep winning.

"No one cares, as long as everyone performs well and does what gets asked of them," McKenna said.

When asked about the general mentality of athletes here at UB, Meunier summed it up: "If that's your way of life, by all means, live it."