(This story was published in 2001).
By: Dave Lohse
I have experienced a wonderful 27 years in the world of college athletics as a sports information director and I doubt I will ever want to leave the profession. But I am also an openly gay man in all aspects of my life. And I am getting lonely.
The collegiate athletic year began in earnest this month, as teams started their seasons in football, soccer, field hockey and volleyball. This will technically be the first collegiate athletic year to begin in the 21st century. I don't think there is a better time for athletes, coaches and administrators to make the choice to live their lives--and that means their professional lives as well--in a proud and out fashion.
I won't deny there are problems for gays and lesbians, especially in the sports worlds. Our world has made little progress in the area of allowing gays to be themselves. The overwhelming majority of gay, lesbian, bi or transgendered people in sports are still expected to completely censor their lives for fear their honesty might upset folks who can charitably be called uninformed but in most cases are simply outright bigots.
The lack of fairness on this issue is galling. We are constantly bombarded by images of athletes with partners of the opposite sex kissing after golf tournaments or tennis matches. Media guides for professional teams and college programs inevitably talk about the families of individuals in their biographies, and most of the bios are replete with photos of their families grinning and posing for the cameras. And how many times are we going to be subjected to television networks switching to the shots of opposite sex significant others nervous in the stands while their beloved coaches or athletes sweat out excruciating moments on the floor or field? Does anyone think the networks would do the same for same sex partners? Where is the fairness in that?
I don't expect the world to change in any radical way. I am an optimist but I am also pragmatic. Gays and lesbians still constitute about the only group of people in our society where it is politically correct among a large segment of the population to practice hate and discrimination openly and in many cases without recrimination. But I see hope.
I came out at the University of North Carolina in 1992 for purely selfish reasons. I have a very outgoing personality. I have a permanent smile on my face. I am incapable at effectively telling a lie. And obfuscating was killing me. It was going to drive me to a premature grave. So I came out. I knew because of my nature, I would be totally ineffective at hiding my new life. So I told people. My thinking went: Better to hear it from me than from someone else.
While my act began as a selfish venture I soon became aware on a cognitive level that what I had done was immensely political. Visibility makes all the difference in the world. It is infinitely harder for a person to hate or discriminate against someone they know and love and respect. I found that out.
I don't pretend to think my situation is analogous to everyone else's. Chapel Hill and Carrboro, where I actually live, are not like the rest of the South. Our villages voted in landslide fashion even for George McGovern in 1972. And Jesse Helms once said there was no need to build a state-funded zoo in the Tar Heel State when building a fence around Chapel Hill would accomplish the same thing. Carrboro has an openly gay mayor elected three times, the last instance without opposition.
Chapel Hill may not be like where any of you live. But I still worked in a college athletic department. At age 37, I waited way too long to make the choice to come out. I am no hero. And the choice to come out is the only choice I have ever made about my sexual orientation. I have educated many in that regard.
After I made the decision I have never been happier in my life and the support and the affirmation I received was staggering to me. I know I did the right thing. I could not have asked for more support than I have received from the coaches and administrators I work with.
John Swofford, then the athletic director at UNC, told me he hoped I had not suffered too much pain over the years feeling the need to hide whom I really was. And he assured me that if I was ever treated badly by someone within the athletic program because of my sexual orientation that he would personally handle such an offense in a swift manner.
But what warmed my heart the most was the reaction of the student-athletes. To a man and a woman the acceptance I felt was utterly amazing. The comfort level was there so quickly that we were able to kiddingly joke about the subject almost from the get-go. And that made them more comfortable with a subject that they all need to know more about, as some of their teammates are inevitably gay, lesbian or bisexual.
I want to encourage those who feel that their comfort level is almost there to take the plunge to go for it with gusto. I don't pretend to think there isn't danger or risk. But I think you will find that the rewards can be so self-affirming that you will be shocked by the intensity with which you feel them.
First, you will be doing the right thing. Second, you will lift from yourself a psychological burden no one should be expected to bear. Third, you will advance a movement, which should be dear to your heart--the gay rights movement, whose goal it is to allow all of us to live our lives with the dignity we so richly deserve. Fourth, you will be amazed at how your visibility can make so much difference.
The gay rights movement in college sports needs role models. I hope you apply. In most cases I think you will be surprised at how wonderful people can be. You will truly know what friendship means. And for those who choose to give you a hard time (some people do make choices you see), consider the source. I think you will find those folks as hapless as I do.
Whatever your decision, enjoy your life whether you choose to join the ranks of the out or if you choose discretion or if you choose the closet. I am not here to judge. But I wanted to inform you that there are opportunities out there. Most of all, keep faith in yourself as the unique human being you are because, whether we like it or not, our shared sexual orientation does color our view of the cosmos in a most elegant and exciting way.
(Since 1977, Dave Lohse has worked as the associate athletic communications director at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Prior to that he worked as a student assistant in the athletic communications office at Purdue University while an undergraduate.)