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Mike Bryant Researching the Gay Athlete

(This story was published in 2001).

Mike Bryant's research into gay male athletes has allowed him to combine the personal with the professional.

``I wanted to help to break down the stereotype that gay men can't possibly be athletes,'' said Bryant of his masters research project ``Gay Male Athletes and the Role of Organized Team and Contact Sports.'' ``I wanted to prove to society that they do exist. They can be good athletes and be good in sports.''

Bryant's own experiences helped fuel his research.

``Although I knew I was attracted to guys when I was young, around the age of 11, I really didn't know what that meant and I really didn't know that it was wrong,'' he wrote in a supplement to his research paper. ``And even though I loved playing sports, simply because it was fun and I thrive on competition, I know that my participation in sports growing up definitely helped me to combat my sexuality issues.''

Bryant, 30, now a doctoral student in sports management at Florida State University, wrote his research paper this spring while a graduate student at Seattle Pacific University. He surveyed 115 self-identified gay male athletes who played at either the high school or collegiate level in team contact sports-basketball, football, baseball, soccer, lacrosse, field hockey, ice hockey, rugby and wrestling. These sports were chosen, Bryant said, because of society's assumed masculinity of anyone playing them.

Bryant, who has played basketball and volleyball and now coaches both, has been out since he was 20. He instinctively knew gay men could also be good athletes. But even he was surprised by some of the findings.

The one that most sticks out is that 75% of those surveyed said that in high school they were either the best player on their team or better than average. Of those who played on their college team, 68% said they were best or better. ``Best'' was defined as the team's leading scorer, MVP or team captain, while ``better'' meant being a starter and major contributor.

``This surprised me the most because I was kind of a skeptic myself,'' said Bryant, a Washington state native. He then recalled his 1998 gold medal-winning volleyball team from Gay Games V in Amsterdam that had two players who had been U.S. national team members. Bryant himself was in the ``better'' category but his experiences showed how hard it is for many to reconcile an elite athlete being gay.

``My high school reunion a couple of years ago confirmed to me that my high school friends and teammates thought that I might be gay while we were in school together,'' he wrote. ``I was never social outside of school and I never dated girls. But, as many of my former friends attested, they could never really figure me out, only because I was a starting forward on one of the best high school basketball teams in the state.''

For these athletes who are better than average, Bryant writes in his research paper, ``the confidence in their abilities and contributions to their teams may … lend support to their belief that because they are better, nobody will learn of their homosexual identity. At the same time, sport is fulfilling its social and athletic purposes in the lives of those better athletes.''

This desire to hide their sexuality was not as prevalent among the athletes in the survey as one might think it would be. Only 20% said they ``participated in sports to hide the fact that I was gay or to prove to others I was straight.'' A slightly higher percentage agreed with the statement ``I used sports as a way to get physically close to other guys without them knowing I was gay.'' More than half said they participated so as to not feel isolated and to become part of a team.

``It didn't shock me that most guys participated because they love sports, they love the purity involved in what athletics is. It's just something that is there,'' Bryant said.

Bryant, who lives in Tallahassee with his boyfriend Chris, a former college rower, credits some key people for guiding him in the research project. He was inspired by a fellow coach, Eric Anderson, an openly gay track coach in Southern California and trailblazer in the area of studying gay athletes. ``He was open with his runners and they were so supportive,'' Bryant said. His adviser at Seattle Pacific was JoAnn Atwell-Scrivner, who he describes as ``amazing.''

Bryant decided on Florida State for his doctorate because Brenda Pitts, a faculty member who has done research and work with gay and lesbian issues in sports, including consulting with the Federation of Gay Games. His long-term goals include coaching at the collegiate level while continuing to do research on gay male athletes. He has worked with two pro women's basketball teams, and in the athletic department at two major universities (Washington and Florida State). ``I want to emphasize that gay men want to work in sports, not just as athletes, and not just as spectators.''

Bryant was pleasantly surprised by the positive reaction at Seattle Pacific--a small religious-based schoo-l-to his oral presentation of his research. ``I got great feedback. The audience said it really showed I cared about what I was doing. It triggered me to want to do more. It fueled the fire.''