In North Carolina an hour east of Raleigh, an unlikely collection of young men are having a fantastic season together. The Barton College men’s volleyball team is fighting for a conference title and a berth in the NCAA tournament, a giant leap for a team that was winless in 2012.
They are doing it while representing the very best about the power of diversity in sport. The men are of various races: black, white, Pacific Islander. They are from around the world: Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and across the United States.
And they’re of various sexual orientations: gay, straight and bisexual.
When Juan Varona came to the team, he didn’t know what to expect. The Puerto Rican player had come out publicly as gay a couple years ago while playing for rival Erskine College and had been vocal about homophobia he felt from the school (despite what he called “nothing but kind treatment” from his teammates and many on campus). His coming out, along with that of teammate Drew Davis, had stirred a controversy at Erskine College, driving the Board of Trustees to attempt to ban homosexuality from the school. It was a major reason Varona left the school.
Varona said his new teammates at Barton all know about “the Erskine stuff” when he arrived on the team last year. That not-so-ancient history quickly drifted into the rearview mirror for all of them.
"At first some of them didn't know how to take it, if they said something about gay people. They tried to avoid it all around me. But when we got comfortable, they started talking about it."
That open conversation on the team opened the eyes of teammate Michael Tyler. The freshman from Virginia Beach had grown up all around the world, with a father in the military. Whether he was making friends in Alabama, Japan or Singapore, Tyler saw first-hand how different cultures reacted to race — the good, the bad and the sometimes ugly.
While Tyler began dating other men in high school, he’s kept that part of himself largely away from the volleyball world. As a black man he has already experienced being a bit of an outsider in the very white world of competitive volleyball. While he only started playing volleyball as a junior in high school, Tyler quickly noticed that in competitive tournaments in high school he was often the lone black player or one of just two or three.
Tyler has come out to very few people until now. He said even some of his teammates do not know that he is gay. Watching the reaction of his teammates to Varona, and receiving loving support from his family and few friends who do know he’s gay, Tyler has learned that coming out often isn’t the struggle he expected it to be.
“It was all a lot better than I thought."
Tyler points to the international, racial and sexual-orientation diversity of his team as contributing to the respect each of them has for one another’s differences.
"Our diversity is definitely a strength,” Tyler said. “We all bring something different to the table. Our Serbian player, Alex, brings this calmness. Federico brings his passion from Italy. Juan's very passionate at times. Justice brings a lot of sass. His sass makes everything enjoyable.”
Justice Lord relishes in his sass, bringing an element of levity to the team. Part white, part black, part Hawaiian, he is a model of diversity in and of himself.
Lord, who doesn’t like labels, is attracted to both women and men, something he hid from his team when he first arrived at Barton nearly 5,000 miles away from his home in Hawaii.
That didn’t last long. The freshman was in the training room one day earlier this season showing a trainer a picture of an upcoming date. When a teammate overheard the conversation, he asked Lord if it was a guy or a girl. It was the former. Lord didn’t lie.
Within days various members of the team were asking him if he was “into guys.” Again, he shared his truth. Each time he was met with some iteration of “that’s cool.” He hasn’t looked back since.
"I didn't tell everybody about my sexual orientation at first because I didn't think they'd take it well,” Lord said. “But once it was out everyone thought it was cool. It made me feel better. The team is really accepting."
Part of that acceptance is just being “one of the guys,” subject to all the ribbing that seems to be part and parcel with being on a men’s athletic team.
"They joke around about it,” Lord said. “They'll ask sexual questions about what I prefer. I tell them what I like and they laugh about it."
He was quick to assert that the joking and laughing is all in good fun and welcomed.
"They don't joke about it to hurt my feelings. They do it in a friendly way."
Barton is currently ranked second in Conference Carolinas behind King University. Barton hosts King on April 1, a match that could be for the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament.
The Bulldogs lost last season in the Conference Carolinas tournament final. This year they’re hoping to take home the tournament championship and the accompanying bid to the NCAA tournament.
You can find Juan Varona on Facebook, or on Twitter @juansiito1.