Today we were supposed to run the story of an incredible gay athlete at a fundamentalist Christian college in the South. When he contacted me a week ago he couldn't wait to share his story because, as he said to me in an email last weekend, LGBT people "need more voices, and I believe that my story can help others find their voice and also save lives."
Every time I talked with him over the last week there was a pep in his voice, a joy in his instant messages. He carries himself on social media with incredible dignity and courage. He even calls me "sir." He had found so much acceptance among his fellow students at the school that the initial fear of their reaction - of anyone's reaction - to his coming out faded. He was ready to share his joy with the world.
"I'm excited for the outcome," he messaged me on Facebook Monday morning.
On Monday afternoon, 36 hours before the story was to run, I got a very different phone call from the athlete. He was crying. He was apologetic. He was shaken. The reality that his devoutly Christian school might pull his scholarship or kick him out of school had gotten to him and his family. He had been looking forward to today for the last two weeks, but suddenly he had to request we not run his story or mention his name for fear of retaliation from his school.
"I don't know what the school will do," he said, his voice quivering. All of the joy was gone. "I have no control over how the school will react.
"I've been in dark places before, and this just jolted me back to that dark place."
That dark place features the darkest thoughts you could imagine. He has been there before. Growing up Southern Baptist he was force-fed an unhealthy diet of messages that reinforced his internal conversations about being a second-class citizen, inhuman, incapable of being loved. Some of those themes were already there as a black man in a society that incarcerates people of color at an obscene rate. As a gay black Christian teen he had struggled to overcome years of destructive messages from his church, the media and even his family. He had triumphed over them only to now be thrust back into the closet by his school.
Five gay coaches speak from the closet
Five gay closeted college basketball coaches talk about the deep-seated homophobia and forced lifestyle contracts that are driving them to suicidal thoughts and out of their profession. Right now, no one is doing anything about it.
The most heartbreaking element of his story? This athlete chose his university because it is a Christian school. During his senior year in high school - where he excelled in sports at a statewide level - he had come to fully accept who he was and find support from his teammates. His image of Christianity had begun to shift away from intolerance to that of love.
"I was looking for a family-oriented school and team that I could call my own. At my school, I would be able to earn my degree and draw nearer to God at the same time."
That dream has now turned into a nightmare. It wasn't until a week before he moved to school that he realized the school had anti-gay policies. According to his school, "nearer to God" means rejecting gay people and creating an atmosphere in which he's afraid to disclose his identity. This school has a strict policy against homosexuality and has fired gay faculty members and coaches. He hears anti-gay messages from invited speakers and other people associated with the community all the time.
"I just want to run away from it."
A kind of indentured servant, he now must wear the name of his anti-gay school on his jersey to earn the scholarship his family so desperately needs to get him a college education.
This story comes on the heels of my lengthy feature last week in which I talked to five gay college basketball coaches - in Divisions I & II - all of whom feel they have to stay in the closet for their own futures in the NCAA. One of those coaches had to sign an anti-gay "lifestyle contract" to stay at his school, just as faculty and coaches have to do at this athlete's university and many others like it.
These are just the latest desperate cries for help from a system that is crushing LGBT athletes and coaches in religious institutions. In 2010 Belmont University fired successful women's soccer coach Lisa Howe when she told administrators that she was having a child with her partner. That move had a chilling effect on coaches that can be felt today.
The administrations and trustees of these Christian schools are nothing more than schoolyard bullies. They wield their power over far weaker athletes and coaches, pummeling them into submission with messages and policies that dehumanize them and fall into their own narrow views of religion. They claim to live for Jesus Christ yet hide behind the cross and words in the Bible never uttered by their Savior. Never. When the people in their schoolyard won't comply, they punch them in the face and banish them to society's curb.
These policies and actions by Christian schools are nothing new. They are a trend - a trend that we must now focus on changing. Eliminating. It is time to give these schools a choice: Discontinue your practice of forcing employees and students to sign any anti-LGBT lifestyle contract or have your membership in the NCAA or NAIA revoked.
While the NCAA, along with many corporations and non-profit organizations, rallied against an open door to discrimination in Indiana, they have all chosen - every single one of them - to be blind to what is happening at many Christian colleges across the country. ESPN, CBS and various other TV networks happily broadcast games of schools like Baylor and BYU that explicitly forbid homosexuality.
The NCAA knows this is happening at colleges and universities, and its members do nothing about it. Nothing. There is plenty of talk and support at events like the NCAA's Inclusion Forum this weekend in San Diego. The NCAA Office of Inclusion at the national office creates documents like Champions of Respect to help schools better understand LGBT athletes. These are positive steps.
Yet those events and manuals aren't helping the athletes and coaches who need help the most, at schools that reject these efforts. I've been to the Inclusion Forum, where several closeted LGBT people in athletic departments spoke to me about the lack of support and outward hostility they receive in the very athletic departments that sent them to the Inclusion Forum.
The NCAA members' failure to properly address the public mental health crisis being perpetrated by these "Christian" schools (I hesitate lumping them in with true Christians) is a dereliction of duty and makes the NCAA and its members complicit in the discrimination.
What needs to happen? It's pretty simple: Athletic directors and conference commissioners need to draft a policy that will forbid any member of the NCAA from discriminating against LGBT community members in any way. LGBT athletes and coaches cannot be asked to sign anti-gay lifestyle contracts and cannot lose any scholarships or jobs based on their sexual orientation, gender identity, or any expression of either of those identities. Those athletic directors need to bring this to the NCAA Convention next January in San Antonio for a vote by the membership.