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Lesbian ultimate player Irene Zhou finds her comfort zone in her team’s accepting atmosphere

Zhou has flourished with her LGBTQ teammates, who use ‘that’s gay’ as a compliment.

Irene Zhou has found acceptance in both ultimate and basketball.
Irene Zhou

This week we’re highlighting the experiences of LGBTQ athletes who have come out to their teams and participated in the Out In Sports study, which Outsports conducted with the Univ. of Winchester and the Sports Equality Foundation. The study revealed widespread acceptance of LGBTQ athletes who come out to teammates in high school and college. You can find more here.

Irene Zhou had two sports-related coming out experiences during her high school and college careers. And the common threads that tied them together were acceptance and support.

Zhou played on the women’s basketball team while enrolled at the Grier School, an all-female boarding school in central Pennsylvania. Then when she enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis, she joined the ultimate Frisbee squad.

In both instances, she found teammates who welcomed her for who she was.

Irene Zhou represents Washington University in St. Louis in ultimate.
Irene Zhou

Describing the atmosphere at Grier as “a kind of expensive private school so people [leaned] more toward the liberal side,” Grier didn’t even have to inform most of her teammates she was a lesbian.

“People just knew,” she said. “It’s like a small school. So I dated people in that school. So people knew.”

Because of this, Zhou didn’t notice any differences in how her teammates related to her after finding out she was a lesbian. Nor did she experience any noteworthy differences in her play on the court after coming out — albeit for an entirely different reason.

“I wouldn’t say so for this team, she said, “because I suck at basketball.”

When she began her Wash U career, Zhou admitted she was introverted as a first-year student and remembered feeling uncomfortable at social mixers with the men’s and women’s ultimate teams.

Despite this, she didn’t attempt to hide who she was from her teammates.

“When I went to college, I already had short hair and my closet was already shorts, hoodies, you know, that kind of stuff,” she said. “It’s kind of implied, I feel like. And whenever we were talked about being gay and stuff, it’s just kind of assumed.”

With the ultimate team, it was just a matter of Zhou growing to feel comfortable as she became more accustomed to college life.

“I’d become an upperclassman so I felt more confident on the team. And maybe part of the reason is that I am out to my team. I wouldn’t say it directly affected my play but I definitely felt more comfortable during practice, games, and also social events.”

With a growing sense of self-confidence, Zhou felt freer interacting with others on the team at mixers. She recalled going to a party as an upperclassman and meeting a freshman who asked her if she was gay.

Assuming it was completely obvious to everyone, she couldn’t help but offer a fun remark.

“I was like, ‘You’re drunk!,’” she responded.

Not only did Zhou experience support from other members of the ultimate team, she also found a community. Estimating that a third of the team is LGBTQ, she described an atmosphere where teammates truly understood one another, sharing jokes about their sexuality or planning a group night at a gay bar.

She says that feeling of community also helped motivate the team.

“We just had a team meeting and they were talking about our lifting sessions,” Zhou said. “One of our captains just straight up said, ‘Lifting is cool ... it makes you better ... we’re all competitive here. And that’s gay!”

Zhou heeds her captains’ words of inspiration.
Irene Zhou

When someone on the Wash U ultimate team said “that’s gay” in the locker room, everyone understood it was a compliment. That helps explain why Zhou found her comfort zone with them.