In a society that has gradually become more accepting of the gay community, athletics are considered society’s last closet. Few professional athletes have publicly acknowledged their sexuality while still participating at the professional level. In fact, in the history of the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL, not a single athlete has come out while still an active player. Recently, Esera Tuaolo, a former NFL defensive tackle, spoke to this fact at Williams, revealing his own struggle with hiding his sexuality in the hypermasculine environment of the NFL.
The fear of coming out for athletes is not just a problem in professional sports, but a difficulty that student athletes face at the College as well. Justin Adkins, assistant director of the Davis Center, pitched the proposal to bring Tuaolo to campus for Claiming Williams. “I really want students to see that you can be a great athlete and not necessarily ‘look gay,’ and be gay and be happy and live a full life,” Adkins said. “A lot of people don’t realize that that’s possible.”
As part of Tuaolo’s visit, varsity coaches met with Tuaolo to discuss queer issues in athletics before his speech. Adkins sees both the speech and the meetings as just one piece of the puzzle to make LGBTQ athletes feel more comfortable at the College. Adkins has also done some training on campus with a group coaches dealing directly with LGBTQ issues in athletics. He hopes to expand this training to all coaches at the College in the future.
To address these issues with students, Adkins and Jack Wadden ’11 started a student group called “Anything but Str8 in Athletics.” The idea came after Wadden, a member of the men’s crew team, discussed with Adkins that he was the only openly gay varsity athlete that he knew of. “I know that statistically cannot be true, but we didn’t see any varsity athletes in any of the [LGBTQ] programming,” said Adkins. “Clearly, we were doing something wrong … Statistically, there had to be a need, and obviously, it wasn’t being met.” At first, meetings of Anything but Str8 in Athletics were held off-campus and few students came. But now, the group meets regularly on-campus and attendance ranges from five to 10 students each week.
One of the greatest challenges of LGBTQ athletes on campus is facing the stereotype of male or female athletes. Male athletes are expected to be tough and masculine. However, the stereotype for a gay man is one of weakness and femininity. “Esera talked about this the other day,” Adkins said. “The stereotype is that [if you’re gay,] you’re more feminine … that you’re not interested in sports.” Tuaolo was brought to the College in part to show that it’s possible to be gay and be “this big defensive lineman,” Adkins said. However, the mere fear of these stereotypes is one factor that keeps male athletes in the closet.
Female athletes also face rigid stereotypes. According to Adkins, this stereotype is that “just because you’re a female athlete, you’re automatically a lesbian.” Because of this stereotype, “there are intense pressures in women’s sports to be feminine and to act a certain way,” Wadden said. Women in sports feel they need to prove they’re straight. But when one team member comes out, it leads to a concern that one lesbian on the team might be interpreted as everyone on the team being a lesbian.
Challenging these stereotypes, however, is just one difficulty that LGBTQ athletes at the College face. Many fear how their teammates will react. Adkins believes that although there may be a few players who would react poorly, they would not be in the majority. “People at Williams are awesome. I haven’t encountered anybody that’s like ‘I don’t want a gay person on my team,’” Adkins said.
Matt Ratajczak ’13, co-captain of the men’s soccer team agreed. “I cannot speak for all of my teammates’ viewpoints, but I do know that we respect a lot of differences in one another already, and the way we embrace someone’s sexuality shouldn’t be any different.”
Not only would coming out be accepted on many teams, some believe it could even help the team. “I would be completely supportive of anyone coming out, and I believe the team would, too,” Chris Mason, head coach of women’s lacrosse, said. “Coming out would be great for them and the team as well, as they could then be themselves and released from any worry, free to focus on playing, studying, enjoying life, etc.!”
Although acceptance of LGBTQ players was universal among teams contacted, there was a difference in opinion on how team dynamics may change. “I do not think having an openly LGBTQ would change the dynamics of the team,” Grace Horwitz ’13, co-captain of the women’s lacrosse team, said.
However, while Ratajczak stressed that his team would be supportive, he also believed that an openly gay athlete would affect team dynamic. “I’m pretty confident that things would change, but I can’t say exactly how,” he said. “Personally, I don’t think things would change in the heat of the battle [on] the field. However, some guesses as to how things would change might be behavior in the locker room.”
This is a common concern among straight athletes. “This is a totally normal reaction,” Wadden said. “It might be uncomfortable at first, but after a week, everyone just forgets about it.”
Besides Adkins’ training with coaches, there are also plans to make a You Can Play video. You Can Play is an organization that advocates for the fact that sexual orientation has no effect on athletes’ abilities to play their sports. Bates and Bowdoin have already made videos.
Speeches, training and videos all have doubtless benefits for LGBTQ athletes. But there’s one simple way to start the long road toward breaking down the last closet.
“Things that make LGBTQ players feel more comfortable are things that make all players/people more comfortable,” Wadden said. “Don’t say homophobic things. Don’t say transphobic things. If you think you need any of those things to do well in your sport, you’re doing it wrong and your team is going to suffer for it.”