Taking stock in queer diversity

Over spring break, I had the pleasure of attending the first-ever National Gay and Lesbian Athletics Conference (NGLAC), hosted at MIT by the Gay and Lesbian Athletics Foundation. The conference had a number of goals, all of which served to further the Foundation’s mission of gaining greater acceptance for gay and lesbian athletes. First, it aimed to increase the visibility of gay athletes, showing that we are present in all sports at all levels. Second, it served as a forum in which ideas could be shared on how to go about gaining greater acceptance for gay people in sports. Finally, it provided networking opportunities for the participants, which included everyone from coaches to college athletes to professional athletes to Olympians.

Now, in the middle of Queer Pride Days, it’s important to recognize the diversity that exists within the queer community. While it’s easy to assume that all members of a minority group share similar views and interests, the truth is that within the minority, there is often a great deal of diversity (just as there is within any group of people). Gay athletes, a small subgroup of the gay community, have traditionally been nearly invisible to society at large, but this reality is starting to change.

The sports world has frequently been described as the last closet, and indeed, there are few other areas in society that persist in being so openly homophobic. While sports play such an important role in our culture, countless gays and lesbians have either suffered silently or else been driven out of sports completely due to the perceived hostile environment.

Despite this perception, the reality is often quite different. Before I came out to the ski team this year here at Williams, I was filled with apprehension about what the reaction would be. While I felt close to my teammates and well-liked on the team, I simply didn’t know what would happen when I said the words, “I’m gay.” I had read some horror stories about athletes who had come out, only to face total rejection and harassment. But I had read even more stories about athletes who had had positive experiences with coming out. Their teammates had been accepting and supportive, which resulted in closer friendships off the field and improved performance on it, since the amount of energy an athlete can waste trying to hide the fact that he is gay can be huge. After all, if the goal is to win, wouldn’t you want all of your teammates to be as focused as possible on the game?

Fortunately, the ski team was great when I told them. There were no negative comments and people seemed happy that I was able to be myself and accept myself for who I am.

I firmly believe that the majority of gay athletes who come out will have a good experience with it. I would not advocate for an athlete to come out unless he or she was completely ready to do so and comfortable with it, but I also think that we tend to underestimate the open-mindedness and compassion of other people. If your teammates respected you and liked you before you came out, they will most likely feel the same afterwards.

While the whole issue of gay athletes may not seem like a big deal to straight athletes (indeed, straight athletes might not even realize it is an issue), I can guarantee that this is a very big issue for gay athletes – including those at Williams – and one that we struggle with almost daily before we come out. It’s important that straight athletes are aware of the fact that they may have gay teammates and strive to create an environment in which those gay athletes can be comfortable and come out if they choose to do so. And the more athletes who come out and set an example, the easier it becomes for even more to come out.

Currently at Williams, the general attitude on campus and within the athletics department is not openly homophobic. What makes it so hard, then, for gay athletes to speak up? The biggest problem is one of visibility.

If you don’t see any other gay athletes around, then you think that you’re the only one and that the atmosphere must be homophobic. As more people realize and accept that there are gay athletes out there, then more gay athletes can see that the sports world need not be hostile to gays.

One thing the NGLAC made clear is that there are a huge number of gay athletes. Here at Williams, with so many students playing a sport, there are also undoubtedly a large number of gay athletes. We can’t let all those people suffer in silence any longer.

As the conference showed, gay athletes are starting to find a voice, and it is only a matter of time before gay athletes everywhere start speaking up. The result will be a sports world that is better for all athletes, gay and straight.