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The backstop for young closeted athletes struggling to come out

As we countdown to National Coming Out Day, The Trevor Project is providing resources to student athletes who are secretly LGBTQ.

A young girl holds herself for sescurity, 24 June 1998. THE AGE Picture by ANGE
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Photo by Fairfax Media via Getty Images/Fairfax Media via Getty Images via Getty Images

One of the key national outfits that is gearing up for National Coming Out Day this Sunday is The Trevor Project. There will be young people who stand up for the first time, to friends, family, teammates and coaches, and revealing their truth. And there will be countless others who stress out over this, struggling, fearful, looking for guidance.

That is the role of this non-profit organization, which was founded in 1998. Over 32 years, it has grown into the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ young people under 25.

It’s also a research and an advocacy organization, working to change policies to benefit LGBTQ youth. And its senior fellow for advocacy and government affairs is Casey Pick, who is a former athlete and out lesbian. Pick spoke with me Wednesday via Google Meet, and I’ve lightly edited our conversation below to condense it and for clarity.

Outsports Managing Editor Dawn Ennis: I want to talk with you specifically about how coming out is a challenge for athletes who are expected to perform at such a great level, who already have such huge expectations on their shoulders, who are too often trapped by stereotypes that they have to be macho or butch and super strong, and that femininity or any lack of machismo is looked down upon, even in 2020. What are your thoughts about that, and how the Trevor Project works to combat that attitude.

The Trevor Project’s Casey Pick: I was one of those. I played basketball, volleyball, softball and track. Whatever season it was, I was doing something. I played volleyball for a year in college until my knees finally gave out. And basketball remains my love. I watched the WNBA championships last night.

Las Vegas Aces v Seattle Storm - Game Three
Sue Bird #10 of the Seattle Storm celebrate with her teammates after the game against the Las Vegas Aces during Game Three of the WNBA Finals on October 6, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Fla.
Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

ENNIS; Wasn’t that great? Oh, awesome! I love Sue Bird.

PICK: Same, and right there with you! Megan Rapinoe as well. Both of them.

But to your question, it’s this culture of playing through pain, subjugating feelings and emotions and mental health, to do whatever it takes to win. But we know that our top athletes, who have been speaking out about the importance of mental health, they’re the ones who’ve managed to combine the two, and really honor their need for mental health in order to excel in athletics, in their physical health.

At the Trevor Project, our research has determined that LGBTQ students who do play sports, tend to play at a lower rate than their straight and cisgender peers. Research from the CDC shows that 60 percent of high school students participate in sports in the last year, compared to about 41.5 percent of those who identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual. Trevor’s research shows that rates of participation is probably even lower for trans and non-binary youth.

Something that is also interesting is that we have found that those youth who do participate in sports tend to be less out than their LGBTQ peers who do not participate in sports.

Being out and authentic and one’s honest self is important, and wherever it is safe to do so, that is a valuable thing. Of course, coming out is an individual’s choice, and they do so on their own timeline, and whatever is right for them. But there is value in being able to be accepted as who you are.

Let’s look at some of the mental health data that we have: sports participation in general for youth is associated with better grades and lower rates of depression. And in The Trevor Project’s research, we have found that for lesbian, gay, bisexual youth, that lower rate of depression carries over for youth who get to play sports. So, youth who are playing sports show lower rates of depression than their peers who aren’t.

But what’s of great concern is that we don’t see that same reduction in depression in trans and non-binary youth who are participating in sports. They want the benefits of sport: well-being, health, self-confidence, self-discipline. All of these things should be available to all. And if there is something in our sports culture today that is preventing trans and non-binary youth from having access to all of those benefits, that is something that we all need to work as a team to improve.

ENNIS: It almost seems, though, even though my children have lots of trans and gay and non-binary friends, there’s still an underlying male jock culture that looks down upon gay or bisexual athletes. They personalize it, as in, “I don’t want to be seen in a locker room or in the shower with them,” or “I don’t want them looking at me.” They treat it like a contagion that they’re looking to avoid, as if you could catch being gay.

PICK: I am grateful that today’s generation of youth have come a long way from your generation in the 70s and 80s and my generation, growing up in the 90s. And today’s young athletes? Well, it varies depending on where you are. You do see a significant improvement in the amount of acceptance among athletes. They know and understand and love and respect LGBTQ people. There may still, however, be a holdover in athletic directors, departments, coaches, parents, as in everything LGBTQ. We know there’s a generational factor that plays into this. And part of that is an element of education.

We do see situations where LGBTQ youth and young athletes are able to come out and find acceptance from their teammates. Sometimes, they unfortunately still face the kind of discrimination and prejudice you and I did. But it is changing. And more importantly, to my mind, sports is not unchangeable. It is a place where there is great hope and great work can be done in these spaces of advocacy. And I’m seeing it happen.

ENNIS: Talk to me a little bit about why, especially LGBTQ closeted athletes, should take advantage of The Trevor Project’s resources.

PICK: Absolutely. At The Trevor Project, we know that one supportive adult can reduce the likelihood of an LGBTQ youth attempting suicide by 40 percent. And we strive to always be that one supportive adult. And even if they are not directly calling us, we are also striving to do education work, so that others can become that once supportive adult, whether it be perhaps a coach or a trainer.

But we know that especially for those who feel, for whatever reason, that they are not in a position to come out of the closet or disclose their sexual orientation or gender identity to those around them, that the need for safe and confidential and specialized services that The Trevor Project provides is essential.

So we are here. We are absolutely a safe resource. You would not be the first trans or LGBTQ athlete to reach out to us and you will find a sympathetic ear and we’ll all get through this.

ENNIS: At Outsports, we say Courage Is Contagious, because people always seem to be amazed at how wonderful a reception they get when they come out, and their stories in turn inspire our readers. Of course, there’s always going to be some asshole. I recall friends telling me, “If you have doubts, or you’re not ready, don’t come out yet. Wait. Wait until it’s almost to the point where you cannot live except as your authentic self.” And I’m wondering, what you think of that kind of advice?

The Trevor Project

PICK: I’m fortunate that I have the ability to point to The Trevor Project’s Coming Out Handbook, which is a resource that our experts put together with input from our crisis services and clinical experts. It provides tips and advice that LGBTQ and especially transgender youth can take into their own hands.

It covers the calculations of, “Is it now the right time? Or should I wait?” Included in this resource is guidance on just about everything, from what does sexual orientation or gender identity mean, and what can those feelings look like, to help someone as they explore their identity, to self care. Tips and advice on how to put yourself in a good mental state before trying to come out to somebody, and after, so that whatever their response may be, you can take care of yourself. And, some strategies for things like, here are different ways you can come out. You can come out with a letter, via a text, in person; how to think it through. “When’s a good time? Do you want to do this over dinner? Do you want to do this at a time when the person you’re talking to is relaxed?” Things like that.

This guide is actually fairly new. I think we just published this one in the last year. So, it is up to date, but it is not specifically targeted towards athletes. Obviously, dealing with the entire population. I think, however, there are some particular considerations for athletes that we know they think about in terms of “distraction.”

“Will this be a distraction from my ability to perform?” This, I think, is part of what contributes to the lower rates of “outness” among athletes as opposed to non athletes.

ENNIS: You mean, male athletes, right?

PICK: Well, female athletes as well. So often at the elite level, they talk about needing to be focused-in on the sport at the expense of the work-life balance.

These are all factors that an individual takes into account when they think about what’s the right time for them. But I will admit that this week Showed me something interesting in the progression of how elite athletes are choosing to come out these days. It was not so very long ago, Sue Bird wound up on a magazine cover with an entire press strategy around how she was going to come out and win. That’s one choice. It is a valuable and valid choice, and I appreciate her representation.

PICK: But I also noted this week news about Sami Whitcomb, who I had not known was a lesbian or I’m not sure if she identifies as lesbian or bisexual. Either way, I didn’t know she was married to a woman until we found out that she left the WNBA bubble to go home and attend to the birth of her child, when her wife gave birth. And that was a different way of coming out, which I also appreciate, as the WNBA is simply normalizing that some of their players have wives. So, we are in a very interesting time for the athlete contemplating coming out and simply living out.

We know that this is not just an issue within sports itself. It has become an issue within politics: the ability of athletes to participate, especially trans athletes, to participate consistent with their gender identity, is something that is now not just in the realm of sports teams and those experts in that field who who care deeply about both inclusion and competitive equity. But we also know that there are politicians getting involved who are not taking the kind of nuanced eye or the deep understanding of these athletes into account.

So, we see many states this last year introducing legislation and Idaho passing it into law, prohibiting transgender athletes from participating consistent with their gender identity. That kind of legislation is harmful. It sends a chilling message to athletes. And while there are many factors that an athlete can take into account in choosing whether or not they want to be out of the closet, a state’s laws and politics should not be one of those factors.

The Trevor Project has the following resources available:

Coming Out: A Handbook for LGBTQ Young People

Trevor Project Support Center, including the Lifeline, Available 24/7:

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