Out of the locker room, students discuss queer identity

A new student organization called Anything But Straight in Athletics (ABS) has emerged to provide a space for bimonthly discussions in which lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LBGTQ) athletes can talk about their sexuality in relation to athletics. Conceptualization for the group began at the end of last year, when Queer Life Coordinator Justin Adkins and Jack Wadden ’11, a member of the men’s varsity crew team, realized how few athletes had come out as LBGTQ, when compared to the statistical prediction of how many there should be on campus. Adkins and Wadden held preliminary meetings last spring to gauge the level of interest and determined that many LGBTQ athletes felt as though they did not have a place to discuss their sexuality. “The stories I heard from students reinforced the need for a group specifically targeting athletes,” Adkins said. 

Although the Queer Student Union (QSU) provides a space for many types of discussion about sexuality, “it does not serve the interests of the entire queer community at Williams,” Wadden said, who is a board member of the QSU. “Because the nature of queer programming is sexualized or political, many people are uncomfortable taking part because they don’t want that label,” he said, noting that trying to fulfill the interests of every LGBT student on campus is a broad and ambitious goal, which made him believe that creating an alternate group specifically for athletes could be beneficial to the students and to the QSU.

“I do embrace the position of ABS on campus, realizing that the QSU can’t serve the needs of every queer student at Williams,” said Johannes Wilson ’11, who is the co-chair of QSU, noting that the QSU helped to spread awareness about ABS at the beginning of the year. “At the same time, I am a little concerned that the groups might become mutually exclusive.”

Veronica Rabelo ’11, social coordinator of QSU and member of ABS and the women’s rugby team, said that the atmospheres of QSU and ABS differ substantially. “QSU is a political space . . . for student activism, and ABS focuses more on being confidential,” she said. She added that QSU is peer-led, whereas Adkins facilitates discussions in ABS; in addition, ABS is specifically designed for LGBT athletes, whereas QSU members are both LGBTQ and straight students, and belong to many different extracurricular activities. “At first, people in QSU were hesitant and unsure [about ABS being a separate group], but once ABS clarified its mission, everyone agreed that it should be a separate group,” Rabelo said.

According to Adkins, this separate, specified niche for ABS seems necessary because it is often difficult for students to talk about their sexuality to fellow athletes. He and Wadden agree that barriers to this discussion may stem from inaccurate media portrayals of the relationship between athletic success and sexual orientation; Adkins noted that hardly any pro athletes have come out as LGBTQ before retirement. “Many of our LGBT student athletes are ‘out’ in some of their social circles; however, I have discovered that many do not feel safe or comfortable coming out to their team or coaches,” Adkins said. He explained that not feeling able to talk about sexuality within a close social network causes stress for LGBTQ athletes.

“Being an athlete is a unique environment because of the social commitment to the team, [which creates a] strong bond with teammates,” said Casey Lyons ’11, a rugby player who has been attending the ABS discussions. “People who aren’t comfortable sharing their sexuality with teammates have an alternative space [with ABS] to talk about that.” According to Lyons, the discussions range from considering stereotypes in athletics to personal experiences to executing concrete plans, such as creating a survey about sexuality for coaches.

“We hope that the survey will address areas of strengths and weakness in knowledge of LGBTQ issues and identify areas where we can help provide information and resources,” Adkins said, adding that it includes questions addressing how welcoming teams seem to be towards LGBTQ athletes and whether or not athletes have ever come out to the coaches.

Although ABS aims to facilitate open discussion, many LGBTQ athletes still find it difficult to discuss their sexuality, according to Wadden. He explained that as almost 50 percent of students participate in college athletics, approximately 100 of those athletes are likely LGBTQ, in accordance with overall sexuality statistics. “The fact that I am one of only about eight who regularly attend meetings of the group is proof enough that we need to address this issue,” Wadden said.

Additional reporting by Eden Amerson, staff writer.