(This story was published in 2003).
By: Paul Farber
(Paul Farber is Co-Chair of PATH (Penn’s Athletes and Allies Tackling Homophobia and Heterosexism) at the University of Pennsylvania.
I lost it Tuesday night. It wasn’t until an hour after the event I had been planning for the past several months, “Coming Out to Play: The Experience of the LGBT Athlete” for my school’s Pride week that it happened. As soon as a friend who had attended the panel called to congratulate me, I finally realized the magnitude of the event in terms of my own development and I started to shed tears. During the many months of researching and contacting speakers, scheduling and booking a facility, writing press releases, and even finding last-minute replacements for two panelists who unfortunately had to cancel, I never fully saw to what extent this event would mean to me. I cried on the phone with this friend for almost 30 minutes, but I lost it with her because of the other things I “lost” by planning and putting on this event.
“Coming Out to Play” was held in the very building, the Dunning Coaches Center, where only 14 months before I had come to quit the track team at Penn. It was then and there I divulged to my sprinting coach that I was gay, how being closeted on team had driven me into deep depression and solitude, and that I saw no choice but to leave. He, contradicting my assumptions of how he’d take it, was completely understanding and conscious of the strain I must have felt. Knowing that my team, while on many levels was very caring and cohesive, also suffered from rampant feelings of homophobia and an outward hatred of gays. So, 14 months after I walked away from the track, and specifically the Dunning Coaches Center, when I came back Tuesday night, I “lost” my fear. I was walking into the building with ownership of my identity, proprietor of my gayness and my love of athletics, and free of the shackles of being closeted. I was in control here and loving every minute of it.
When I left the team last winter, it took me some time to examine my feelings of isolation. While running, I had felt quite alone, as among the many programs and incentives offered to athletes at this Division I school of mine, there was never a mention of resources for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning athletes. If I needed to borrow a laptop or get a summer job, no sweat, but if I was gay? Too bad. It seemed the world was at my disposal, but the exclusion of LGBT resources was a huge void that I felt on an everyday basis as an athlete. Eventually seeing this experience from an outside perspective, it was clear that if a dialogue was started amongst the LGBT and athletic communities, maybe athletes would feel comfortable getting help and finding people to reach out to.
So this spring I helped form a new task force, through the LGBT Center at the University of Pennsylvania called PATH — Penn’s Athletes and Allies Tackling Homophobia and Heterosexism. As our mission statement reads:
PATH is a new task force forming to address the mutual concerns of Penn’s LGBT and Athletic communities. By starting a dialogue between the groups, we hope to create a safe environment for athletes, coaches, administrators, and fans who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or questioning their sexual orientation or gender identity. We also want to establish resources for those in the athletic community who wish to come out, and for heterosexual athletes to receive accurate information about LGBT issues. By bridging the gap between the communities, our goal is to foster positive communications and ensure Penn's Athletics program is welcoming of people of all sexual and gender identities and that the LGBT community is welcoming of athletes.
Through PATH, we hope to ensure that athletes never have to feel isolation, and teams won’t have to have any athlete or coach not be able to live up to their fullest potential because they have the weight of sexuality on their shoulders. Referencing a comment from one of our panelists, Elise Betz, former collegiate athlete and quarterback for the Philadelphia Liberty Belles champion football team: When a team’s season may come down to one player or one moment, shouldn’t you want to make sure that the athlete isn’t dealing with anything that would hinder the team’s chances at glory? I know I can speak from experience that holding back and living in fear because of being a closeted athlete kept me from being the best runner I could be. How many teams have collectively been prevented from achieving success due to the fact they neglected the needs of their LGBT athletes?
Tuesday’s discussion not only helped validate a lot of my own personal feelings and the agenda of PATH, but also struck a chord because of the resolutions the panelists came up with to combat homophobia are measures I can remember as an athlete would have made the world of difference. When panelist Allied-Athlete Erin Rhoades mentioned the importance of having LGBTQ resources announced to all athletes and coaches before the season, I couldn’t help but remember my own first day of practice, where I quickly became aware of the difficulties I would face as a gay athlete.
The matter at hand for me here is about reaching out to the athletics community, in a way of both affirming the LGBT athletes’ and coaches’ existence, and to demand action be taken place to combat discrimination and silence.
So when I lost it after the event, it was for the runner in me, or any other athlete, who showed up at his or her first day of practice scared of being labeled gay; it was for how far I’ve come as a gay man who can be proud and outspoken; and both pleased and fired up that the dialogue has started and the ball seems to be finally rolling. My only question is, who is going to pick it up next?