By Sean Mulroy
I recently got back from New York City. During my time there I was lucky enough to mull over a cocktail with the winner of "RuPaul’s Drag Race," Miss Sharon Needles. After a Maker's Mark and Red Bull we got on the topic of the Sharon Needles Swimsuit that I had custom-made in her honor, seeing as I am a huge fan.
The Sharon suit has a large picture of her face on both the front and back along with the text "Sharon Needles: Welcome to Party City." I was planning on debuting it at this year's Pacific-12 swimming championships, but the suit caused quite the controversy. Swim parents were appalled that I was "promoting drug use" and "perpetuating an inappropriate message in a public setting." My interpretation of the controversy was that most people didn’t know exactly who Sharon was and that they thought I was hinting at explicit drug use, which wasn’t the case. I was promoting the fabulousity of drag queens, if anything.
Sharon was so upset about the criticism for her suit, she almost called my coach as well as the Pacific-12 conference for halting the Sharon Needles show. Although I make a new custom suit before all my important swim meets, this suit in particular really made people a bit uneasy. But in the end, all was well. I changed from the Sharon suit into a pink glittery Mean Girls-inspired suit and got on with my event. Also, I got to meet an idol of mine and hopefully she was flattered that a collegiate athlete would go to all this trouble to walk around a pool deck with her face on his crotch. This shows how my role at USC is a little different than my straight teammates. Instead of wearing plain black Speedos, I chose to add a little flair and a lot of glitter to my warm-up and cool-down attire.
Being an openly gay athlete at USC has been nothing short of fabulous. I’ve been out since I stepped on the pool deck three years ago and have thoroughly enjoyed my time as a student athlete. Heading into my senior year, and last year of NCAA eligibility, I’m content with my place on the team and am able to recognize and celebrate the differences with my straight teammates.
My role is different, but not for the worse. For example, I live in a house with seven straight guys, all of whom are my teammates or were at some point. I’m always the one having to explain what arugula is and why it will be the only thing I eat for the following week or the importance of matching your belt with your shoes. Even though I’m playing the stereotypical gay friend and teammate, I love and accept that role.
Although I am gay, my teammates as well as other athletes at SC don’t care. Because winning national championships is what drives USC Athletics, most athletes look at each other based on how skilled of an athlete they are. Most coaches and athletes don’t care that I kiss frat boys on Saturday nights, but are much more concerned about how much I hang-clean (95kg), how fast I run a 300-yard shuttle and how many points I scored in my 200 individual medley.
Although the majority of athletes here are extremely supportive regardless of anyone’s sexual orientation, I find myself walking a line between being fem and butch. Because I can, at times, portray the image of a stereotypical gay male -– wearing pink sparkly swimsuits, loving drag queens, and religiously watch The Real Housewives of Wherever -- my masculinity can often be challenged or questioned.
There is a preconceived notion in athletics that gay men aren’t as strong, fast or masculine as our straight counterparts or that we don’t want to work up a sweat and lift heavy weight because we would mess up our hair. It’s not that I go out and compete to fight that perception. I go out and train to be the best swimmer I can be, and I happened to be pretty damn good at what I do. I work hard, I swim fast, I lift heavy shit above my head and I love it. Having to fight this stigma is one of the reasons I think there are so many closeted athletes.
Many athletes in the closet are afraid that by coming out, their abilities, skills and athleticism are devalued because of their sexual orientation. Here at USC I know of a handful of gay athletes. There are LGBT athletes on the football, basketball, swimming, track and field, soccer and volleyball teams, to name a few. These athletes range across a spectrum of being completely out and open to those more in the closet.
Being out in varying degrees is normal for all athletes, especially when trying to find what is most comfortable for them. I know some athletes who are out to their teams but not their families, and vice-versa. It’s all about what works for you at the time. Being completely out at USC has enhanced my college experience in all aspects. I am able to be my self around my coaches, teammates and friends and don’t have to worry about walking around with this huge secret following me around.
Like many gay men here in Los Angeles, I love brunch. Brunch is what I look forward to at the end of the week; I’ve actually gotten my straight teammates hooked on West Hollywood Sunday brunches as well. I always say that life isn’t an endless bottomless mimosa brunch and neither is my college career. Soon I will be a retired swimmer but I will be able to look back on my college experience content knowing that I lived it up to the fullest as a student and as an athlete.
Being out has allowed me to focus solely on my sport without having to worry about judgments from teammates and coaches. I work extremely hard and am very dedicated to my sport, but I have been more than just an athlete over the past years. I have excelled in my education and been able to gain so much knowledge as well as meet so many intelligent and resourceful people at USC. I have a great social life with other athletes, the Greek community and NARPs (Non-Athletic Regular Persons). I have also been able to continue to grow as a gay man in the Los Angeles community. The LGBT community in Los Angeles is nothing short of fabulous -- from the WeHo Queens to the Silver Queers, I’ve had a blast.
I understand that I might come across as an entitled homo who is lucky enough to live in Los Angeles, one of the most accepting cities in the U.S. In a sense I am. But that didn’t happen by accident and by no means do I not recognize the struggles of other gay athlete elsewhere.
I think one of the things that made my recruiting process very easy was that I was out in high school and was able to recognize that I wanted to have a gay life as well as an athletic life. At the time, I was dating a freshman college athlete who had been through the recruiting process and struggles that come along with being gay on a college team, so I had him as a resource. Also, I grew up in Chicago most of my life with quick stints in London and Tokyo, so I have always been living in a liberal and accepting urban environment. When being recruited, I looked at a bunch of schools. Auburn was just too Southern for me, Northwestern was too close to home, Wisconsin was too damn cold, and USC ended up having everything I wanted.
I decided that it was important to be open about my sexuality with regards to the recruiting process as well as my freshman year on the team. I remember on my USC recruiting trip my host, who is now one of my best friends and roommates, asked me straight up, "So do you like girls, or what?" I awkwardly shrugged off the question with a "not really," and that was that.
It was important to be open to know how different teams would react to having a gay teammate. I remember telling a coach at one school I was gay and asking if this would be a problem on the team. We talked on the phone for about an hour about how his team is open and accepting and how awesome it would be to have an openly gay swimmer on the team. I still feel really bad that I didn’t go swim for that coach, but USC was where I was meant to be. But we still keep in contact and he is a great guy. I consider him my pseudo-coach and go to him when my coaches are mad at me for being a diva bitch after a bad race.
Even here at USC, my coaches have been super accepting. Before the 2012 Summer Olympics, I was training with the Trojan Swim Club for Olympic Trials and Great Britain had just launched their "Team GB" campaign. My head coach pointed out that they had stolen my team name, that being "Team Gay Boy." The nickname stuck and now I’m a GB.
I understand that most LGBT athletes are not where I am at on their respective teams. Which I think spurs from how comfortable you are and where you’re at with your sexuality. For me, I know that there is somewhat of a slow coming out process. I don’t think many people this day and age walk out the door one sunny morning and proclaim "I’m GAY!" In high school I started coming out to just my close friends and then later on it evolved into the whole school and then coming out to my parents.
Personally, I found coming out to the people I cared about most to be the most difficult. Which in turn comes back to one's team and coaches in college athletics. College athletes spend 20 hours a week training with the same people and coaches, and if you are living, eating and going to school with your teammates, they end up becoming your family, and their opinions matters to you. This makes coming out to your team carry a greater weight. Being gay doesn’t define you as a person or as an athlete. You athletic abilities and qualities that contribute to being a good teammate and friend define you much more.
I realize I am preaching, which I was trying to avoid, but this is important stuff, so listen up. Matt, one of my roommates, just came into my room while I am writing this, asking what I was writing about. I gave him a long passionate and drawn-out explanation of my message, and his reply was: "The GB’s know better than I do." Thank you Matt for that great timing and inspiration! And that brings up an even better point:
Athletes who are struggling with their sexuality need someone that they can relate to. Shoot me an e-mail. Talk to your coaches. Talk to your gay uncle Bob. Find your favorite sorority girl and talk about things over some FroYo. Anyone will do. But your college years aren’t the years to be hiding a part of who you are; that was what middle school was for. Come join Team GB … it’s sunny under the rainbow.
Sean Mulroy, 21, is finishing his junior year at USC. He is majoring in economics and is on the swim team, specializing in the freestyle and individual medley. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter.
Here is Sean Mulroy in his Sharon Needles swimsuit that was banned from the Pacific-12 championships: