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College coach reflects on being out for over a dozen years

Kirk Walker highlights the support he has received, and given, since coming out in sports.

Kirk Walker UCLA
Kirk Walker has been a softball coach at Oregon State and UCLA.

When I came out to my team at Oregon State over a dozen years ago, it helped fortify our team-wide commitment to trust each other. It also heightened our sense of responsibility to live our season with ownership and integrity.

That team and those team leaders are indelibly inked into my life experience, and I will forever be appreciative of how they handled and fortified the best-case scenario I could have possibly hoped for.

Ultimately, I am forever grateful I had the opportunity to stand up in front of my team and in the media, on my terms, and be authentic and honest.

Reflecting back over a dozen years later, my experience as an out gay coach has been critical to my continued growth and effectiveness as a leader and teacher. There are several ways this has been manifested. My personal outlook, confidence and leadership have most certainly been escalated during the past 12 years in large part to my coming out publicly.

I won’t ever be able to know what growth I would have had if I remained closeted or had been outed by someone else. But I do know I would never have wanted to find out.

Making the choice to come out to my team, and consequently the public through the media and publicity that followed, created opportunities galore for dialogue and leadership.

In addition, the ability for me to be comfortable with who I am has shown my athletes that our unique individual characteristics and traits contribute greatly to the shared common goals of the team.

“For any group of individuals that coalesce around a common focus, the sum of our efforts and skills leads to the greatest success and resiliency during the obstacles and road blocks on our path.”

This is a philosophy I had long professed and now have the chance to contribute to in my own authentic way. I am far from perfect, and by sharing my true self, it also shows that the people on my team do not need to fear if they sometimes feel different from their teammates.

Trust is built through shared risk and respect in a culture of personal safety. The power of the bonds this creates is what every great team or coach wants to instill before they go to battle on the court, on the field, or in an arena.

There are some other powerful things I have experienced in the past 12 years since coming out in, as the media was quick to label me “the first publicly out Division 1 coach male or female,” even though I wasn’t the first.

I discovered that athletics by and large is a far more accepting community than has ever been portrayed in the media. Clearly there have been documented, horrible scenarios that have played out around athletics in regards to discrimination for the LGBT community. Sadly, there are still those scenarios happening across our country and the world.

Thankfully, I have witnessed more positive experiences within the athletic community. Uplifting stories of athletes, coaches, officials, and other members of the sports community receiving powerful affirmation and acceptance after coming out.

Teams are built on community and shared values, and we see repeatedly that those “teammate values” override an individual’s sexuality or adversity. The willingness, even eagerness, to create more inclusive environments on their teams or at their universities has proven to be grounded in the unique culture of sports.

Unfortunately, the positive examples never get quite the same attention in the media or public dialogue as the homophobic, discriminatory or negative scenarios faced by some athletes, coaches, spectators or administrators.

I do value the media covering those negatives because it creates opportunity for change. Yet sadly, it has skewed the perception that athletics is explicitly more unwelcoming than the greater society, which is certainly not the case in my experience.

I am proud of my opportunity to help influence any dialogue about inclusion in sports, be it about a negative situation or sharing the many wonderful stories that exist. One of the greatest things I appreciate in the past decade of being an out coach in collegiate athletics is being able to facilitate change in the culture, and the perception of that culture of sports.

Another incredibly powerful positive that has occurred since coming out publicly in sports is how often I hear from my peers in athletics about how they have been inspired or empowered to be more open or come out in sports due to my story. The ripple effect is never more evident than with the sharing of a coming out story. Far beyond your immediate sphere of influence, our stories can and will have far reaching effects that none of us may ever see or hear about.

This to me makes it all worth the anxiety and fears leading up to that coming out process. As a member of an “invisible minority” it is imperative that we be as positively visible in being the best at our profession, while standing tall as a role model for someone that has yet to discover their authentic voice.

Being visible doesn’t require wearing a rainbow or riding on a float. While those are wonderful things to be visible, it’s speaking up and standing up when comments are heard or discrimination is seen.

Our visibility, if used to advance the positive example in our minority community, can be the most powerful tool for change. It starts in our own sphere of influence with the people who know us, who love us, who respect us, who work or train along side us, who are across the field from us, or sit in the stands and admire us. Our ripple effect will occur at a slower more methodical pace, but your immediate influence to those close to you is the most powerful thing we can affect.

Social media can be an opportunity, a burden and a curse as well. During the past 12 years the influence of social media has exponentially accelerated the ripple effect and the sphere of influence we all have. Taking great pride in building your personal brand has never been more real, while seeking to find your true authenticity. To experience first-hand how social media has created opportunity for individuals to reach out and connect with people from across the world has been incredible.

Visibility by and large is our greatest vehicle to elicit social change. I’m proud to contribute to the visibility of so many by spreading their stories and building a shared community of LGBT individuals in sports.

Equality Coaching Alliance is a network founded by wrestling coach Roger Brigham in 2011 for LGBT people and allies who are coaches, administrators, officials, and career sports professionals at the high school, collegiate, club and professional ranks. We have seen this community explode from six individuals at its founding to well over 600 members, all built by word of mouth alone.

The LGBT student-athlete network called GO! SPACE has expanded to over 500 members of current and former student-athletes from the high school and collegiate ranks. It was started by former Univ. of Arizona swimmer Lauren Neidigh, along with a handful of teammates and peers, just a few short years ago.

Blake Skjellerup Jason Collins Billy Bean Kirk Walker
Kirk Walker (left) works regularly with other out people in sports, including Billy Bean, Blake Skjellerup and Jason Collins.

I eagerly seek out and introduce individuals to both of these groups as an administrator as readily as I can. These social-media groups have created the opportunity to build a sense of community for many invisible minority groups in sport.

A foundation that I believe has a great opportunity to affect change is the Sports Equality Foundation. This foundation, which is in its infancy, is built to empower LGBT athletes, coaches and sports professionals to demonstrate that equality across sports transforms culture to be more welcoming and accepting for all.

One final observation from the past decade of being visibly out as a gay coach at a high-profile institution: Being an invisible minority creates a need to always come out. This need can be viewed negatively as a burden, yet I believe it is an opportunity to continue to have a dialogue about inclusion in sports.

Some LGBT activists profess that the ultimate goal is the day when we no longer need to come out. To me, this is very short-sighted, egocentric and completely wrong. We are a minority and we should be valued equally and treated equally. But the fact is we are a minority and therefore a much smaller segment of the human race. Not less important, but clearly less in number.

The fact that we are an invisible minority means that we, as LGBT individuals, likely will not appear as a member of that minority to anyone either in the minority group or in the majority group. So we should never feel burdened with the need to clarify that minority status to someone else.

If someone assumes we are straight, it does not mean it is an insult, homophobic or insensitive. It is understandable because we are not in the majority. If we are discriminated against or held back from equal opportunity, then we need to scream from the roof tops and seek change.

But the need to continually COME OUT as a member of the LGBT community should not be viewed as a negative, especially in athletics. Coming out is and should be a proud moment to celebrate again and again, being authentically true.

My story has been around for a decade, yet I have to come out almost every time I’m meeting someone new. I used to question this. Now I cherish it as an opportunity. Being in sports, being a coach and being in a leadership role has for decades been an uncommon position for someone who is out. So the more times I can celebrate that, the better.

For a time I was one of very few LGBT people coaching while publicly out. Today I am one of many who are visible, publicly out and working in athletics. I am truly thankful and proud to be in the company of such inspiring colleagues.

You can follow Kirk Walker on Twitter @KirkWalker23, or on Instagram @KirkWalker23.