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Coach: If more women came out in golf, they’d realize they’re in good company

As a golf coach and gay woman, Cheryl Lala has found that being out and sharing her story helps change athletes’ behavior.

Cheryl Lala played golf for the Univ. of California.

A few years ago I was coaching men’s and women’s college golf while studying for a Masters degree in sports psychology. Along my research I found more and more articles about homophobia in college athletics, particularly amongst collegiate golfers.

It didn’t surprise me, but it did get me thinking. I started to notice all the ways I unconsciously contributed to a culture of silence in golf related to LGBT issues. At the same time on my men’s team I was dealing with anti-gay rhetoric and feeling sensitive as the only female coach of a men’s team in my region. I knew I had to act.

In my years coaching I found that my male players undoubtedly required more direct (and blunt) conversation. I had to be real and honest, so I decided to tackle the homophobic language I was hearing head-on with a team meeting. I had materials addressing heteronormative language, homophobic language and our responsibility as a team to be inclusive and inviting. I coupled these materials with my personal story of being a gay athlete and coach.

As I shared my journey, I felt a collective enlightenment come over the room. I felt my team realize how their language affected me as a person. It became an amazing conversation and one that brought us closer as a team.

From then on, I never had to deal with any homophobic behavior. They understood, and they welcomed me because I was able to be open and authentic.

I can’t say I was always open about my sexuality. I was closeted in my first coaching gig. I was young and riding a student-athlete experience full of silence.

I thought that my lack of openness stemmed from my upbringing as a first generation Indo-Fijian American. We didn’t talk about being gay. We didn’t talk about any kind of sexuality.

When it came time for my parents to pressure me about getting married in my late twenties, I told them I was gay. They took a step back, kind of surprised, but not shocked and said, “Hmm. That makes sense.” There was never any lack of acceptance.

Since my parents didn’t seem to care I was gay, who did? Where did I learn to be ashamed of my sexuality? Why didn’t I come out until my late twenties? After much thinking I knew the answer. It was one word, one sport: golf.

As a player I was always the “other” in golf, a world filled of privilege and old tradition. A petite, brown girl with very little money, I wore hand-me-downs amongst highly minted new pleats. I learned golf by sneaking onto my neighborhood golf course.

My dad was my only instructor as we couldn’t afford private lessons. When I received a golf scholarship to college, I finally felt like I could “blend,” and I chose a school I thought it would be easy to blend into. I knew I had to go somewhere open, progressive and liberal.

I knew there was much about myself I needed to explore, and I knew internally I would need a supportive environment to do that exploration. I thought about the college campus particularly in detail, but I failed to take into account the athletic atmosphere where I would spend much of my time.

Lala (left) turned her college playing days into coaching.

Today in the golf world I know of many closeted LGBT athletes. In my past college golf world, I knew of one openly gay coach and several mostly closeted athletes. In my experience as a student-athlete it was never the openly gay coach or athlete who created uncomfortable situations for their teams or fellow athletes. It was the closeted ones, the ones who weren’t “public” about their “private” lives. The ones who felt that being open about their dating life meant never bringing up their romantic lives. The silenced ones who created damage for those around them being inauthentic to their true identities.

Upon reflection I wondered if my experience within college golf was isolated or more widespread, so I decided to reach out to friends and ask them about their experience as a college golfer on the LGBT spectrum. It’s funny – Although my sample size is small I still know vastly more golfers who are on the LGBT spectrum than are publically out on either men’s or women’s tours.

Here’s some of what my fellow former collegiate golfers have to say.

“There was a rumor around our sport’s circuit that our coach was intimately involved with one of our players (our coach was female and so was my teammate). She automatically assumed that I created this rumor – I’m assuming solely based on the fact that I was openly lesbian. She called me into her office to challenge me, stating that I was the one to start this thinking amongst other teams.

“I’m assuming other teams might have felt this to be true because of her grand showing of favoritism to this particular player, including the amount of time they spent together, including weekends. But there was no reason for her to accuse me of starting such a rumor. I never cared either way, as long as she gave me an equal and fair chance to compete.”

Another athlete wrote:

“I missed out on an opportunity to explore my sexuality due to the relationship my coach had with me and the secrecy I had to endure. I wish no one to experience that but have an opportunity to explore their sexuality in a safe and welcoming environment.”

I asked my friends if there were other players on their team on the LGBT spectrum. All of my friends said yes, even going further to say that most of these athletes were closeted.

I also asked if anyone’s coach identified as openly gay. Everyone said no, with one person going on to say:

“(I) Absolutely have always thought (that my coach was living in the closet), even though she is married with children. I feel as though she was envious, and lashing out at me for being comfortable enough to openly identify as Lesbian, as if she was unable to be her true self.

For the very few athletes who did come out while in college, what was the response like in their athletic community?

“I was a freshman (when I came out in college). In most aspects of my life (i.e.: professors, friends, etc.) it was completely accepted. Cannot say the same for how I felt in my athletic surroundings.”

Another:

“Unfortunately my golf career came to a halt during college (basically it came to a halt early on during my sophomore year, which coincidentally happened just after I came out to my coach). I mostly question our coach’s decisions... Before every tournament she’d conduct a small qualification where she’d better determine the top players she’d take on trips. There were numerous occasions where I’d shoot a qualifying score and she didn’t take me on the trip, finding some excuse as to why I wasn’t chosen. I felt extremely diminished and minute. It started becoming hard to focus, and my game simply started fading. Golf is very mental, and if you don’t have sound mind you will not be able to concentrate and play solid/improve. I had always aspired to play on tour… In fact, I dreamed of being one of the first openly gay players on tour. I wanted to break the stereotypes that female golfers might look a certain way. “

Finally, I asked my friends if they knew of any Tour players who are gay. Every single one of them said “yes.”

I asked what could be done to create a more welcoming environment for collegiate and professional golfers.

“I think it’s not just golf, it’s just a more welcoming environment in general for people.”

“It starts at the top. The coaches and administration need to step up their game. I believe it’s improved over the years and hopefully will continue to improve. Celebrity endorsements such as Nike have done a wonderful job of endorsing athletes regardless of their sexual orientation (but that’s more prevalent in sports such as basketball). There needs to be more companies like Nike in this sense. Perhaps a golf brand, but first there has to be an openly gay player on tour for them to sponsor.”

“Golf is a very male-dominated sport. LPGA purses are not nearly what the men’s purses are today. Golf is still an old, white man’s sport. It’s a sport that started in the roots of privilege amidst the era of slavery. It’s a patriarchal system that has brought intolerance and unacceptance of diversity as a whole. I think that the current shift towards a more inclusive culture will help inherently – recent legalization of same sex marriage, drug legalization, civil rights etc. Still, coaches need to be aware and welcoming of diversity and be able to have an open dialogue about it.”

I was a student-athlete at Cal. My sample size spanned student-athletes from schools within California. Being that we’re in such a progressive state, I can’t imagine the discrimination other athletes in more rural environments are forced to endure. All of these player stories are different, yet all have a common theme associated with coaching culture and secrecy. While there’s no doubt in my mind LGBT athletes are prevalent in golf, how long will we continue to mask this culture and live in secret?

When athletes are conducting their research on college campuses why isn’t more information readily available that objectively surveys college athletic departments and their attitudes towards LGBT inclusion?

My team culture was filled with heteronormative language, homophobic behavior, players suffering from domestic violence and eating disorders. Who is responsible for creating this culture of secrecy? Why isn’t more being done to train coaches to handle/report such issues?

Athletic departments must ensure that all sports and all athletes are safe. Because we live in a progressive state or attend a liberal college does not mean these views are reflected in their respective athletic department or teams especially when those teams are based on a foundation of elite privilege and exclusivity.

It’s time to unveil the mask and demand change in all sports.

You can find Cheryl Lala on Facebook, and on Twitter @lalaprati. You can also email her at lalaprati@gmail.com.