Athletes who have come out as LGBTQ while competing in high school and college report widespread acceptance from teammates across American sports, according to a new study.
More than 95% of the athletes surveyed said their teammates’ responses to them coming out were overall “neutral” to “perfect.” The study was conducted by Outsports, the University of Winchester and the Sports Equality Foundation.
“I don’t think I could have experienced a better response for what I needed,” said Thomas Roth, a survey respondent who was a goalie for the Kentucky Wesleyan College men’s soccer team when he came out to teammates in 2018. “They couldn’t have done any better. Camaraderie was always part of my team experience, and nothing about that changed at all.”
Only 4.6% of survey respondents said their overall experience coming out to teammates was “bad” or worse. Conversely, 24.8% — more than five times that number — said the response from teammates was “perfect or near perfect.” The rest rated their experience between “neutral” and “very good.”
The study asked LGBTQ high school and college athletes in the United States and Canada, all of whom have come out to at least one teammate while on the team, to answer questions about their experiences. A total of 820 different student-athletes submitted 1,000 team coming-out experiences, some reporting on their coming-out experiences on both their high school and college teams.
Even when looking at responses from out athletes just in the big five men’s sports — football, baseball, basketball, soccer and ice hockey — the vast majority report at least “good” responses from teammates, with only 7.6% of the athletes in those sports reporting a “bad” or worse experience, and 25.0% saying they had a “perfect or near perfect” response from teammates.
“The first time I ever admitted to someone I was gay was in front of all 130 of my fellow teammates,” one college football player, who came out to teammates in a rural area in 2016, reported in answering the survey. He rated his teammates’ overall response as “perfect or near perfect.”
“It was a team-bonding exercise led by a professional outside of the football program. Many teammates were sharing very personal struggles that they’ve had in their life and I felt like that was the time to come out. I never planned on coming out like that, it was a spur of the moment decision. So glad I did it.”
Comparatively, respondents across women’s sports reported only a slightly better experience, with 4.1% saying they had a “bad” or worse experience, and 26.7% saying their experience was “perfect or near perfect.”
Of the 1,000 experiences reported, only 29 were by athletes who said they came out to their teammates as trans. We will have a separate report on those numbers later this week.
College athletes report better experiences coming out than high school athletes
When broken down by level of sport, LGBTQ college athletes on average reported a better coming-out experience with teammates than high school athletes.
Of college respondents, 88.4% said they had at least a “good” response from teammates, with only 3% saying they got a “bad” response — the remainder saying the response was “neutral.” Of high school respondents, 71.3% reported a “good” experience, with 7.4% saying their teammates’ response was “bad.”
While the positive experiences of high school athletes were still a large majority, there was a difference in overall experiences between out high school and college athletes.
“I correlated my athletic experiences in high school, which was hyper masculine, to what I thought would happen in college,” said Landon Bordner, who played volleyball for Wilkes Univ. “To my surprise, everything was completely different and everyone was so welcoming. It made me the student athlete and pharmacist I am today.”
The overall positive results showing acceptance from teammates of out LGBTQ athletes did not surprise the lead researcher of the study.
“This reflects years of research that I have conducted on smaller scales, all showing athletes are more comfortable with gay teammates than most anyone thought possible,” said Dr. Eric Anderson, Professor of Sport, Health and Social Sciences at the University of Winchester. “Athletes across sports and across genders love their gay teammates, and they support their gay teammates, and this goes beyond differences of sexual orientation.
“This acceptance isn’t new at all.”
Respondents reported teammate acceptance going back decades
In the study, athletes who came out in high school and college before 2016 reported high levels of support from teammates. When asked about the level of “support” they received from teammates, of the 420 ratings from before 2016, the percentage who said they got at least “some” of the support they needed from teammates — 94% — was almost identical to those who came out from 2016 to today — 95.7%.
This acceptance reflects the publicly shared experiences of many dozens of athletes across women’s professional sports over the years, in addition to male pro athletes NFL player Carl Nassib in June, MLS player Collin Martin in 2018, NFL prospect Michael Sam in 2014, NBA player Jason Collins and MLS player Robbie Rogers in 2013, and Major League Lacrosse player Andrew Goldstein in 2005.
“I went to a Catholic school and was very surprised at how not only my classmates treated me, but the teachers and staff as well,” said Carlin Yetts, who came out to his high school wrestling team in West Virginia in 1999. He said the response to his coming out from his teammates was ‘very good,’ and his coaches’ response was ‘perfect or near perfect.’
There were less than two dozen total responses of athletes who came out to their teammates before 2000, so we can’t draw broad conclusions about the state of acceptance in sports in the 1990s and before from this study.
Still, the study found evidence that acceptance by teammates existed decades ago, even if it may not have been as widespread.
“It was a very different world, but on my team, I felt really accepted,” said Tricia Collins-McCarthy, who played on the women’s soccer team at Cal Poly Pomona from 1985 to 1989. “There were other gay women on the team, and they very much helped my coming out process, and watched out for me, so to speak. I owe them so much.”
More support from teammates than other schoolmates
That acceptance from teammates in sports is reported to be measurably better than the acceptance these student-athletes received from other schoolmates outside their team.
While 9.8% of the out athletes said their teammates’ response to them coming out was worse than that of their other schoolmates, more than three times that — 31.7% — said their teammates’ response was better than that of other students at their school.
“I have spent decades coaching at the highest levels of sports, the past 16 as an openly gay coach,” said UCLA softball coach Kirk Walker. Walker is also president of the Sports Equality Foundation, which empowers LGBTQ people to build inclusion in sports. “My experience has overwhelmingly been that teammates are more open and supportive of their peers when coming out because of the shared bonds through adversity and commitments to their common goals that sports offer them.
“Time and time again we see teams achieving some of their greatest accomplishments in seasons when teammates or coaches have trusted them by coming out.”
Interestingly, one of the athletes who reported a worse experience with his teammates than his other schoolmates said that was because the male athletes in the big team sports at his school treated him so well.
“I had a better experience with members of other high school teams — football/baseball/basketball — who were more supportive than my track and cross-country teammates,” said the athlete, who came out to his team more than 20 years ago. “In later years, I realized this was because several of my teammates were closeted gays themselves, and directed their ire toward me.”
Acceptance in sports exceeds expectations
An exceedingly high number of athletes reported that the response to them coming out from their teammates was more positive than they anticipated.
Only 3.3% of the student-athletes surveyed said their teammates’ response was worse than they expected. Conversely, about 20 times that number — 65.4% — said their teammates’ response was better, or even “much better” than their expectations.
The remaining athletes — 31.3% — said the response was “the same” as their expectations.
This reflects the high level of acceptance reported. In addition, various respondents shared comments about their expectations for low levels of acceptance from teammates.
For decades, LGBTQ athletes have often been paralyzed with fear created by the perception that fellow athletes would reject them if they came out.
“I live in a very conservative state, and being outed to teammates was a big fear of mine, especially because it is a swim team,” said a current high school athlete in North Dakota. “But this year I told a handful of my teammates that I was bi and had a girlfriend. The support was amazing and I learned there were several other girls on the team who also identify as LGBT+.”
Even when they had low expectations or fear of their teammates’ responses, all of the athletes surveyed came out to at least one teammate.
“I was scared to come out to my college team, but did it because I just couldn’t take the daily slurs they would hurl around on the ballfield like they were nothing,” said Bryan Ruby, who came out to his college baseball team at Vassar College in 2018. He came out publicly this summer while competing as a professional athlete.
Ruby said the response from his college teammates was “good,” but not perfect.
“After I came out to them they were tolerant, sometimes publicly supportive, of me, and refrained from using the homophobic slurs in front of me.”
Because of the environment of fear, and the subsequent levels of actual acceptance, athletes who came out to their teammates were often shocked by the support they found.
“Coming out on a team is a great way to learn to accept yourself just by the support you receive from your teammates,” said McKena Ramos, who ran for the University of Wisconsin from 2013 to 2017. “I officially came out to everyone once I entered college, and the reaction I got from my teammates and how accepting they were really helped me grow into my own and love myself for who I am.”
Acceptance of LGBTQ athletes is not universal
While widespread, acceptance of LGBTQ athletes by teammates is not universal.
There are relatively small percentages of respondents who reported what they consider to be bad experiences coming out to teammates, or who say they got none of the support they needed. Just three of the 1,000 coming-out experiences reported the response from teammates to be a “worst-possible scenario.”
These experiences reflect the need for more education.
“It was incredibly isolating to be the sole out lesbian,” said Susie Poore, who competed on the Lehigh University track and field team when she came out in 2017. “I often found myself as the punchline of the joke, intentional or not, and some of my teammates liked to use my identity to get a laugh when it was convenient for them.”
The presence of such language — be it overtly anti-LGBTQ or not — was indicated by respondents, with almost 70% saying they heard similar language from at least one teammate on a weekly basis before they came out on the team. That number dropped after they came out. Outsports will have a report on those findings soon.
Given the impression of rejection this language represents, it’s even more important that people across sports redouble their efforts to end language perceived to be homophobic.
If sports is to reflect the welcoming environment it truly represents, language and outward representations of inclusion need to change dramatically to undo decades of assumptions and rejection.
Be sure to check Outsports all week for more survey results, analysis and profiles of athletes who responded to the survey.
You can find Dr. Eric Anderson at the Univ. of Winchester. The Sports Equality Foundation is on Facebook.