Megan Duthart would see members of the LGBTQ community everywhere at Washington State University, except in the athletic department. So she decided to change that.
This fall, Duthart launched the Cougar Pride Student-Athlete Alliance, which is open to all LGBTQ athletes, staff members and allies.
“I was taking my classes and thinking, ‘the gays are everywhere. Isn’t this great?,’” Duthart said. “But I was walking around athletics and was like, ‘where is everyone?’”
Duthart has found some of them. She thought the club’s initial Zoom meetings would attract less than a handful of people, including herself and the faculty advisor. Instead, roughly a dozen athletes and allies showed up.
While there is still a lot of room to grow, the community is already building.
“Where are the queers, where are the gays, where are the non-binary student athletes?,” Duthart said. “I was like, this is kind of ridiculous. ... I think it’s easier to congregate when you have that kind of visual community there.”
Duthart’s journey to the Pacific Northwest crossed the Atlantic Ocean. Born in London, she was a multi-sport athlete growing up: basketball, swimming, tennis, volleyball. Unlike many collegiate athletes in the U.S., Duthart did not consider specializing in a specific sport.
Then she got involved in an elite British rowing program, Start, which was opening a new school in London. Standing at 5-foot-11, Duthart separated herself from the other 600 prospects tested in the area. She was the youngest rower in the program.
Even though Duthart never stepped foot inside of a boat before, she was a natural, and more importantly, enjoyed herself. College recruiters started messaging her on Facebook.
The random messages initially baffled her, and Duthart wrote them off, thinking they were spam. She viewed it as the Facebook equivalent of a Nigerian prince scam.
But one message did catch her eye. A recruiter from Washington State University identified himself as British, and was Facebook friends with one of her coaches at Start. Duthart was informed the messages were, indeed, real.
“I was like, ‘damn, I think I screwed up,” Duthart said. “These people want me to go to their university.”
Two years ago, Duthart stepped on the plane for a 15-hour flight and began her college career at WSU. Suffice to say, she experienced a culture shock.
London is one of the cosmopolitan cities in the world. Meanwhile, WSU is located in Pullman, Washington: a city of roughly 34,000 that’s nearly 285 miles from Seattle.
Duthart describes the area this way: it is “surrounded by wheat.”
But she’s found a home at WSU, and says it’s an inclusive campus. Duthart identifies as both bisexual and queer, and came out during her teenage years. She had her first crush on a girl when she was 15 or 16 years old.
“‘Oh fuck, I really like women, too,’” Duthart says she thought at the time.
Duthart came out to her friends quickly, and largely without incident. Her parents were accepting, too, though she’s bisexual to them, since they remember queer being used as a derogatory term when they were growing up.
As for those who weren’t accepting, Duthart dropped them, and never looked back.
“I had some friends who were annoyed about it, so I was like, ‘OK, then we won’t be friends, then,’” Duthart said.
As a woman in rowing, Duthart is used to being a minority. It is a very expensive sport — Duthart says her family had to remortgage their house to afford the boat she raced in growing up — and predominately male.
In her seven years of rowing, she says she’s come across four Black women.
These experiences helped shape Duthart’s desire to start the Cougar Pride club. So far, she says she’s found the female gays — “they’re ready to stand up” — but is still searching for male-identifying gays in athletics to join them.
The initial meetings have been held on Zoom, due to coronavirus restrictions. It’s been a year since the WSU rowing team has participated in a competition, and seven months since Duthart has been in a boat.
She is ready to get back out there.
“I love that my hands are never soft,” Duthart said. “I always have gross calloused hands, and I love it, because it makes me feel like I’ve done all of this hard work. I feel like some of that has been taken away by the virus. It sucks.”
In the meantime, the Cougar Pride club is a way for Duthart to channel some of her energy. And it's already attracted another female LGBTQ rower to the school.
Last spring, an incoming freshman from Estonia visited campus, and told Duthart her nascent group was the deciding factor in her decision to attend WSU.
Duthart isn’t just finding the gays. She’s attracting them.
“I would love the group to get to the point where we have half of the football team come to the meeting, because they don’t want to hear the f-slur anymore,” Duthart said. “I want the group to really be about a spark for a change. I would like it to be something that normalizes queerness.”