On that crisp fall Saturday this past November, there was nowhere else I’d rather be than in "The Cage" with my Auggies. Countless hours had been spent in that stadium in Minneapolis and on that field -- sweating together, laughing together and growing together as a team. We were all in our maroon uniforms, gray pants, and any other "swag" we might have added. That day was Senior Day, the last home football game of the season, and the last time us seniors would be playing in that stadium where we had battled in for years. It was an exciting day, but also a sad one, knowing we’d never get to play here again in front of loved ones and our loyal fans.
Senior players are walked onto the field by persons who they feel have supported them and been there during the highs and lows of their athletic career. Auggie senior football players were escorted by parents, siblings, fiancés, grandparents and loved ones. The Augsburg University underclassmen cheered and clapped for each senior being introduced and the crowd applauded to acknowledge the efforts put in by these soon-to-be graduating players.
For me, it was no different. As they introduced "Senior linebacker Scott Cooper" and "his partner, Dan," I looked at him, smiled big, took a deep breath, and walked out onto the field with the person who had been there for me. We entered to applause from the crowd, hugs from coaches, and cheering and "Atta boy, Coop!" from the younger players. There were no boos from the crowd, no gasps from the cheerleaders, or weird looks from my teammates. We were accepted and loved just like every other group that walked on the field that day. This, is why I am extremely proud and happy to call myself an Auggie.
Acceptance of this nature is a relatively new thing to me. I grew up hearing from my church that being gay is bad, and that if you "struggle with those feelings" then you need to repent and repress them. Not exactly what a kid who is trying to pray away the gay likes to hear. I tried, and that "gay" stuck like glue.
I was just your normal kid who loved farm animals, sports and picking on my brother. No one had a suspicion that I really had crushes on boys. And I planned to keep it that way. Through my childhood and high school I tried to ignore those feelings, and just focus on the things kids should focus on. I played three sports in high school, sang in the choir, performed in some theater production, and then found myself going to a college for ministry. That’s when life changed for me. I was so unhappy with who I had to pretend to be and what was being told to me. I remember the day clearly when my professor in the adolescent psychology class told us that "being gay is a choice." Excuse me? That was the day I knew I had to leave.
Being at Augsburg College was a completely different experience. Not only was I out totally by then, but I was myself. I loved football, and just needed to be on a team. I missed the competition, the camps and the camaraderie. Yes, I was gay and out, but I didn’t want to lead with that fact. I just wanted to be a college athlete, while also being accepted off the field for who I really was. My teammates could not have been any more supportive of me than they were and still are. I don’t feel I was being a hero by being out and being honest about it with them; these guys are the true heroes.
In a sport were masculinity and aggressiveness is celebrated, most men don’t think twice about calling another guy "fag" or "queer." I even said it in my high school closeted days. When guys figured out I was gay, those kinds of sayings started to become extinct. Any time I’d hear "Well, that’s gay," I loudly reply back, "What the hell is wrong with being gay?" "Oh! Sorry, Coop!" Many guys hadn’t thought about what those words meant to someone like me. I saw maturity and growth in those guys. I was able to joke with them, talk about things with them they normally wouldn’t get to talk about, answer "weird" questions, and just really enjoy getting to be myself around a group of guys who were completely accepting and non-judgmental.
When Coach Mike Matson asked me if I’d be interested in speaking for chapel on National Coming Out day in October, I happily accepted. Coach Matson served as chaplain to student athletes, plus he was my linebacker position coach; and the campus ministry office asked him if he knew anyone that might be able to speak for chapel that day. Knowing me well enough to know I’m happy to share my story and am happy to stand for a cause I believe in, he asked me and I prepared a speech. I wanted to share my thoughts on faith and religion (since it was, after all, chapel), my story, talk about what National Coming Out Day meant to me, and, most importantly, how great of an experience I’ve had at Augsburg. Here is what I said:
Last week in football practice, we had a Christian rock station -- which I personally despise -- playing over the loud speakers. We played Bethel [College] last week, and I guess Coach Haege thought it’d put us in a salty mood. Well, it worked. After a few complaints about the music, Coach turned to me and asked if I was an atheist. Before I had a chance to really answer, we moved on to something actually pertaining to practice. But it made me think; it made me think about who I am and what I’m all about.
I had an interesting upbringing. My family was and still are Wisconsin Synod Lutherans. Now, Wisconsin Synod, if you’re not familiar, is different from the ELCA, which is what Augsburg College is affiliated with. ELCA is a pretty liberal sect of Lutheranism. The Wisconsin Synod is not. The WELS doesn’t believe that you’re allowed to pray with other people from different churches, women are not allowed to have any leadership over men, and marriage is only allowed between a man and a woman. I was raised in this strict, very conservative bubble. My siblings and I went to Lutheran grade school, Lutheran private prep school, and a few of us even went on to Martin Luther College in New Ulm, Minnesota, to pursue a career in the WELS ministry. I studied scripture and doctrine basically non-stop for 20 years. To say my life revolved around the church was an understatement. All of my friends, family, and teammates were WELS and affiliated with the church. It was my world. I didn’t know much else beyond the small church bubble I was in. But I never really felt like I fit completely.
There is something else the WELS teaches: it is not OK to be a homosexual and live your life as such. Gay people who don’t repent of their sin and try to repress any gay thoughts will go to hell. Man is not supposed to lie with another man, and to have a life together is beyond bad. Gay people will burn in the fires of hell along with murders and robbers. These are the teachings I listened to growing up.
For those of you who don’t know me or don’t already know yet, I’m a proud member of the GLBTQIA community. I’ve known for as long as I can remember that I was gay. Even though I had these feelings and knew, I was a smart enough kid to know not to tell anyone around me about my feelings. Anti-gay therapy and hours of counseling would have probably followed. So for my entire upbringing, I tried to suppress who I was and just do what I was told. Being preached at that any gay would go to hell scared the crap out of me. I didn’t know what to do. I prayed to God to change me, but the change never came. All the hate and the condemnation really made me hate myself; I was not content with myself as a person.
But once I got into college, I really started questioning faith, God, and the Bible. I didn’t just lie down and take the beating anymore. After getting to know other people in the gay community (secretly, because I couldn’t let anyone at Martin Luther know), I started to become more comfortable with who I was and what I could be: and that is I could be myself. I had to make a tough choice to leave the church and everything I knew, or else stay and suffer. I left Martin Luther, left the WELS church, and suffered through the condemnation and rejection of my family, the rejection of my friends, and the letter from the Pastor telling me I’m going to hell now. My parents hardly talked to me, and my dad signed the letters from the Pastor and church elders that condemned me to hell. Going through that was tough, and I’d be lying if I say it didn’t hurt. I do have a thick skin, and I stand strong, but constant words of condemnation are never easy to hear.
In September of 2011, I found the greatest place on earth: Augsburg College. Little did I know it at the time, but this place was a gift from God. I was just coming here to finish my degree and get off to life in the grown-up world, but Augsburg has given me more than that.
When I started here, I had been out for a couple of years. I started off school here, and throughout my classes I met other gay people, and was able to talk about myself candidly and openly. It was awesome. At Martin Luther I could have never done that! I finally felt like I was at a place where I could really be myself.
A few months later, I emailed Coach Haege and asked if he wanted another football player. I’ve always loved sports and played all through high school. I missed competing and wanted to use my eligibility. He invited me to come on board, and I was happily on a team again.
Now, you don’t hear of very many football players who are also gay. Honestly, I was terrified of how my teammates would take it. But I knew that hiding myself and my personality was a) not going to be possible and b) something I told myself I’d never do again. The first year on the team, I didn’t make it a big deal, and I really didn’t talk about it much. I wanted guys to get to know me for me, as a person and a football player, not just as the gay guy. However, my spot-on lip-sync to Whitney Houston may have given it away.
I couldn’t have asked for a greater group of guys to be around. And over the off season, I made it known (if they hadn’t figured it out already) that I am gay. Just like true Auggies, they didn’t even bat an eye. I have had more support from this group of guys and from my coaches than I could ever imagine. These guys are my brothers; actual true brothers that stand up for each other no matter what, even if he happens to like guys.
Today is National Coming Out day if you haven’t heard. That’s what brings me up here to tell my journey and my story. This is honestly the first time I’ve really celebrated this day in any way. This day exists to give people who may be struggling with the decision to let people really into their hearts and head an opportunity to come out and be exactly who they are. I know I struggled for many years with how to deal with the backlashes and the condemnation and the hate. But I stood up for myself, and I found support. My support is in the form of my friends, my partner, my team, my coaches, and this institution. My fellow Auggies, if you are one of those people who is afraid to come out, I have two things for you: 1) don’t let anyone pressure you, and you do it on your own time, and 2) know that if you decide to come out, or already are, you are in a safe place. This college is one of the most accepting and nurturing places on Earth. You are among family here, no matter their sexual orientation, race or creed.
I also believe that this day can be celebrated by everyone. It doesn’t have to be about your sexual orientation. Auggies, I urge you to use this day to look inside yourself and find what you struggle with. Find what is holding you back from being your true self. Find that insecurity that causes you to act like someone you’re not. Once you find that, meet it head on, and get rid of it. Come out as your true self, and know that no matter who you are and what demons you may face, you have a support system. When I do go to church, I’ve found the ELCA which accepts me for who I am, and I have a school and a team that lift me up and support me as a student, an athlete, and a citizen. I feel like I can finally have a normal relationship with God. I don’t have to fear condemnation and hell. I know I can be loved without changing.
So, who am I? I know I’m made up of many part of my identity: I’m a "recovering Lutheran," I’m a student, I’m an athlete, I’m a partner, I’m an intern, and I’m a gay man. Not one of these defines me as I am, but make up my whole being. And to truly love myself, I had to embrace and love each part of me. That’s what each and every one of us needs to do in order to be truly happy in our own skin.
Augsburg, I thank you for who you are, and I urge you to continue being awesome. Auggies are a diverse group of people, and that’s what makes us special. Whether you’re gay, straight, bi, white, black, Latino, Asian, African, disabled, or whatever makes you unique, you are in a place that is supportive and loving. I couldn’t ask for a greater place to call home. Thank you for all the support, and I know whatever crap life deals us, we can stand together. Auggies: Here We Stand.
After I finished, I turned around to give Coach Matson a hug as the assembly applauded heartily. As I looked back around, I then saw that every person was on their feet, showing their support, love, and acceptance. That was one of the best moments of my life.
When people tell me I’m brave, I don’t really know how to react. I’m just me. I just find what I’m passionate about and stand up for it. I found myself in a place that welcomed that and embraced that. And for that, I couldn’t be any more thankful.
There are three reasons I wanted my experience to be told. First, I wanted to give confidence and encouragement to anyone who is unsure about themselves; and in this case, especially other gay athletes. Secondly, more stories about gay athletes should be told; because the more we hear about gay athletes, the less of a big deal it is. One day, I hope it is a complete non-issue. Until then, we have to stay vocal.
And last, but in no way least, I want people to know that there are teams out there where this is a non-issue. My Auggies deserve so much credit for breaking every stereotype that male athletes tend to have regarding gays. They accepted adversity, embraced their brother, and stood together. After all, isn’t that what sports are supposed to teach us?
Scott Cooper is a December 2013 graduate of Augsburg College in Minneapolis with a B.A. in Communications. He played linebacker for the school for the 2012 and 2013 seasons. He can be reached on Twitter at @shc2112 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Scott Cooper talks to Jim Buzinski and Cyd Zeigler from Outsports:
- Out Columbia University soccer player Jourdan Sayers is creating a safe space on her team
- Sochi's 2-man toilets make for a cozy same-sex connection
- Watch the Olympic Opening Ceremony guilt-free at remote Pride Houses
- Institutionalized homophobia in men's figure skating
- New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma is afraid a gay teammate will look at him