When LGBTQ college basketball player Courtney Thrun transferred to Brandeis University for the 2019-20 season, she came out to her new teammates in a very 21st century way: simply by existing as herself.
Prior to transferring, the Saskatchewan native had been in a long-distance relationship with a girlfriend while she was attending Adelphi University on Long Island. When Thrun enrolled at Brandeis, the two drove down from Canada to the suburban Boston campus together to help her move in to her new school.
During this time, Thrun met her basketball teammates and introduced them to her girlfriend. And just like that, she was out to her new team.
“It was good,” Thrun recalled about the experience, “Everyone was just excited to meet me, meet her. Definitely didn’t get any negative feedback or attitudes.”
Which is precisely how every LGBTQ athlete hopes such a moment would go. Thrun was accepted immediately for who she was and was able to bond her teammates openly and honestly from the very beginning.
Although she admitted to feeling a bit nervous entering Adelphi as an out athlete, Thrun also found that her teammates and fellow students there were receptive and encouraging. Then when she decided to transfer to Brandeis, she felt even more confident that she would find a similarly great reception.
“I wasn’t as nervous coming in because I knew that the head coach Carol Simon was an open lesbian,” she recounted. Because of this, Thrun correctly assumed that Simon had created a team culture where no one would have a problem with her living an authentic life.
In fact, Thrun was able to get a glimpse of Simon’s culture of acceptance even before she transferred. In her very first conversation with her eventual coach, Simon informed Thrun that she was out and married. As Thrun recollected, it was the most important conversation she had when she was choosing her school:
“On my recruiting visit, she told me that she had a wife. And I just remember being like, ‘Oh my God! That’s awesome!’ And it’s awesome that she’s so comfortable to tell me. She just met me! It was the first time I ever met her and in the first conversation, she’s like, ‘Oh yeah, my wife and I…’
“And it was just so normalized. And even though I wish it was normalized like that everywhere, I grew up in Saskatchewan and it’s not the same mindset.”
Coming of age in Regina as an LGBTQ child from a multiracial background, Thrun found it difficult to fully express her true self. Her father was Black and her mother was of white and Native American ancestry. She was raised by her mom in a single-parent household and reflected that “It’s hard…to feel the same kind of support. Even [with] one amazing parent, it’s still atypical.”
Attending a religious high school didn’t help matters. “I didn’t really realize how much of the information I was being given at high school was so damaging to my sense of identity, sense of self,” Thrun said. “They really taught you that it was wrong to be who you were.”
During this time, Thrun’s passion for basketball provided comfort a sense of pride in her identity. She saw the impact that out LGBTQ players like Sue Bird and Britney Griner were having in the NCAA and WNBA and this helped to give her a sense that there was a place where she could belong.
“When I did come out or step into that identity openly, I almost felt more a part of the basketball community,” she reflected.
Thrun left her hometown once she turned 18 and began dating women one year later. Now that her journey has taken her to Brandeis, Thrun has found an environment where she’s free to be herself.
While Thrun identifies as part the LGBTQ community, she does not believe in applying any specific designation to her sexuality. “I like just whoever I like,” she explained, adding “I learn towards ‘lesbian.’ I personally don’t believe in putting a steadfast label on things.”
To complement the welcoming atmosphere Simon created, Thrun has met several other out administrators in the Brandeis athletic department. She recalled a memorable conversation with one in particular who engaged her in an enlightening discussion on what LGBTQ partnerships experienced in the days before marriage equality and the Obergefell decision.
In addition to her athletic and academic work, Thrun was elected vice president of the student body, a designation she considers her proudest moment at the university. “As a woman of color and a member of the LGBTQ+ community, I feel like I have a unique platform where I can show other people — especially people belonging to groups that have been historically marginalized — that we can do anything that we want,” she asserted.
As for the highlight of her basketball career, Thrun is hoping that it hasn’t happened yet. After playing in 2019-20 with the Judges, her athletic life was upended when the COVID-19 pandemic led to the cancellation of the 2020-21 season. Then as she and her teammates were practicing to keep fresh at the end of last year, Thrun tore her ACL and missed all of 2021-22 as well.
Despite these setbacks, Thrun has applied to Brandeis International Business School to pursue her MBA next year and plans to rejoin the team as a graduate student. When she does take the court again, she’ll continue the process of living her truth in the place she’s always belonged.