Outsports continues its feature, Out in the World: Diving into our deep archive of Coming Out stories and updating the stories of out athletes, coaches and other sports personnel who continue to prove, everyday, that Courage Is Contagious.
Even in these uncertain times of Covid-19, the sports page dubbed “transactions” is still filled with new faces in new places. One of those new faces is Andre Arsenault, named as an assistant coach to the men’s volleyball team at Lethbridge College in Lethbridge, Alberta on Tuesday.
Arsenault is also a known commodity in Alberta as a player, club-level coach, and a role model. He was a top libero/defensive specialist at the college and university level and was known as a fierce player on the court who made a key decision made off the court six years ago.
“I wanted the level of sport I could provide a team to be at the forefront,” Arsenault told Outsports. “A season is very long and I didn’t want to be held back knowing that I would be hiding in this shell. If you want the best results out of me, you have to see me.”
Seeing Andre Arsenault the player meant also seeing him as a gay man. As a high school student in Edmonton he was known for scrappy play on the volleyball court, leading his school’s gay-straight alliance, and starting an anti-bullying effort. However, an affirming high school experience was in stark contrast to his first college stint. He began his college career at Northern Alberta Institute of Technology and the reception to him was a polar opposite.
“I would go to the locker room and guys would wait for me to leave to start changing,” Arsenault stated. “I would go into an open gym to practice and I would be known as ‘that gay volleyball player’. I didn’t want that to define me.”
Arsenault spent two years as a redshirt due to the aftereffects of a concussion. He also had to contend with homophobia among members of the team. He would move to Medicine Hat College in 2014, seeking a fresh start, yet the move raised some eyebrows. If things were rough at a campus in big-city Edmonton, how much worse would it be at a campus in a conservative town of 60,000 in perhaps Canada’s most conservative province?
Arsenault’s will for a new and authentic start was met by Steve Russell. Then head coach at MHC, Russell provided a way forward by welcoming the team’s new libero in full when the new player came out.
“At first he laughed; he was like, ‘Who cares? I didn’t recruit you because you’re straight or gay. I recruited you because you are great at the sport,’” Arsenault recalled.
The next practice, Arsenault came out to his new teammates. The head coach reportedly said, “‘if anyone has a problem with that, you can leave and get off this team.”
“It was nice to just have that support and just able to go and practice and just play” Arsenault noted. “Medicine Hat isn’t even an inclusive town, so that was a bold statement coming from a coach.”
Arsenault matched that belief with some bold results of his own. In two seasons at MHC, he was a two-time all-conference player, an Academic All-Canadian, and in the 2015-2016 season, led the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference in digs. He also saw how the dynamic within the team changed. Some were uneasy at first, but he quickly became a leader within the squad.
“There were a few guys who were uncomfortable with it at first, mostly because they were uneducated about the LGBTQ community in general.” Arsenault told our Cyd Zeigler in a 2016 article chronicling his coming out. “But it grew on them and soon those were the guys I was closest with by the end of the season.”
He transferred to Edmonton’s MacEwan University in 2016 and ended up setting the school records for digs in a season, became ACAC’s career leader in digs as well. He even served as the emcee at the university’s athletics banquet. Arsenault became a role model for an emerging generation of LGBTQ youth in Alberta.
“My impact was to let people know we exist,” he said. “Now we have athletes who are coming out in their club years and now being recruited to go play college. That is the shift right there. I still get messages at least once a month from someone saying, ‘thanks for doing this’ and ‘I’m going to play here now because of you’.”
Expect Arsenault to continue building that cultural shift. In addition to coaching, he’s a Grade 8 math/science teacher at Wilson Middle School in Lethbridge. He notes that there are LGBTQ students in his classes now, and he’s out to them. “If I’m going to get to know them they have to know me,” he said.
His new coaching job will also be reuniting him with a coach who first noticed his talent. Lethbridge College’s head coach, Greg Gibos, was Arsenault’s high school coach. When he announced the hire, Gibos noted how Arsenault has influenced volleyball and the larger community.
“His biggest impact hasn’t been on the court, but how much he’s done for the game of volleyball in Alberta,” Gibos stated. “When you are looking at how many athletes Andre has positively impacted, it’s a huge number. Ultimately he wants what is best for every athlete, and to share his love for the sport.”
Arsenault said that love to compete is what spurred him on, to come out and achieve. It is an ethic he hopes to keep passing forward.
“Be so good that they can’t stop you, and be so true as to who you are,” he said. “If you hold something back with your identity, you won’t be able to move forward to where you want to go.”
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