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Athletes Stand Up for LBGT Equality

By Sarah Lehr

Avery Anderson ’15 and Emilia Louy ’15 have a simple message for Kenyon athletes: it’s okay to be gay.

Anderson, a member of the Ladies basketball team, and Louy, a former Kenyon softball player, have founded Kenyon College Athletes for Equality (KCAE), a group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) athletes and their straight allies. Their first project is a video that will be released today, in which various Kenyon athletes — including members of the football, baseball and women’s lacrosse teams and every senior in the swimming and diving program — speak out about the importance of creating safe spaces on the court, the field and everywhere else Kenyon competes.

“We wrote a script that basically says, no matter who you are, no matter your sexual orientation, if you can kick a soccer ball, if you can make a save, you can play on our team,” Louy said.

Louy and Anderson said they were delighted with the enthusiasm of athletes, coaches and administrators who agreed to appear in the video. The taboo surrounding gay athletes has lessened in recent years, according to the group’s advisor, Head Women’s Basketball Coach Suzanne Helfant. “At Kenyon, I’ve seen a dramatic change but I think it’s parallel to a societal change,” she said.

Director of Athletics, Fitness and Recreation Peter Smith agrees that Kenyon has become more open. “LGBTQ athletes can feel they have advocates in fellow students and coaches,” he wrote in an email. “I think we are in an era where students can feel okay to be who they are — students.”

Helfant, who just began her 19th year of coaching at Kenyon, didn’t fully come out as gay until around 12 years ago. “My players are amazing,” Helfant said. “They always have been supportive. They’ve always asked about my partner and that’s something I didn’t solicit.”

Helfant certainly wasn’t open about her sexual orientation when she played softball and basketball for Allegheny College 30 years ago. “It was not something that was acceptable,” she recalled.

A few of Helfant’s teammates were openly gay — and Helfant feared being associated with them for that very reason. “My best friend had a guy come up to her at a frat party and call her a dyke and throw a beer in her face,” Helfant said.

The world has changed since then: this year, NBA player Jason Collins became the first out gay man to be active in one of the country’s four major professional leagues and transgender MMA fighter Fallon Fox saw a groundswell of support when another fighter used anti-transgender slurs against her in an interview.

None of the athletes interviewed for this article identify as transgender, and the dialogue surrounding sexual orientation in college sports differs from the conversation centered around gender identity. Among other issues, transgender athletes have had to fight to participate on teams consistent with their gender identity, rather than the biological sex they were assigned at birth — in addition to contending with the use of transphobic language in athletics at large.

Intolerance against all on the LGBTQ spectrum can linger in locker rooms and on the sidelines, and Kenyon is no exception.

“I would say that my freshman class was less mature in general and that they had never really been exposed to [openly] gay people before,” said a male varsity athlete, who identifies as gay and who asked that his name and team affiliation be withheld. “I would say they were pretty homophobic. They used faggot a lot, especially during actual [games].”

According to the athlete, one of the team’s former coaches also used anti-gay slurs, regularly calling players “fags.”

“Even though he was homophobic to the n-th degree, I’m actually on good terms with him now,” said the anonymous athlete of his former coach. “He was probably the most inspiring coach I’ve had at Kenyon, but for other reasons [aside from the homophobia.]”

Other coaches heard the players and the former assistant coach using anti-gay language and did not intervene, according to the athlete. “The players define the sport. The coach can’t force anything, socially,” the athlete said. “At the end of the day I wasn’t really expecting acceptance. At the end of the day, I was thinking, I’m here to play.”

Head Cross Country and Track and Field Coach Duane Gomez acknowledges that a coach’s scope of influence is limited. “I always tell our captains that we want to make sure that are locker rooms are accepting and that everyone feels respected,” he said. Nonetheless, he added, “It’s the coach’s job first and foremost to serve the athletes, no matter what differences they have.”

Helfant said she hasn’t personally encountered intolerance from other coaches. “I’ve certainly felt respected within the athletic department but I also haven’t stood up in front of a room and said, “I’m a lesbian,'” she said. “I kind of operate under the assumption that they all know that I’m gay.”

While the athlete who asked to remain anonymous did not officially come out to his team, he also did not make an effort to hide his sexual orientation. “I would usually just do my own thing — go out on the weekends with everyone, maybe hook up with a few guys,” he said. “Of course, the team found out, like I expected them to.”

Once his team became aware of his sexual orientation, the athlete says the slurs stopped.

“At first, I was apprehensive because when they were being assholes about it at least I knew where they stood. I wasn’t sure if their mindset had changed or if they were just saying things behind my back,” he said. “But now I’m pretty confident that everyone on my team is pretty accepting of me.

“On the team, you earn respect by winning and doing the best that you can do, so in the end it didn’t matter so much that I was gay,” he added.

Some teams are more pointedly accepting, according to athletes. Morgan McClure ’14, a member of the track and field team, said her teammates made her feel welcome from the start. Still, she described disclosing her sexual orientation to her team as one of her most difficult coming-out experiences.

“With friends, if you come out and they don’t support you, you find another supportive group of friends,” she said. “You don’t have that much flexibility when it comes to teammates.”

Helfant affirmed that coming out to a team can be particularly nerve-wracking. “When student-athletes have to rely on each other, there’s this notion that you don’t want to let people down [and] part of coming to terms with being gay is that you feel like you’re letting people down,” she said.

Then, there’s the perceived complications that come with LGBTQ athletes sharing a locker room with their teammates. “There’s this completely false idea that because I’m queer I’m going to be interested in all women,” McClure said. “I’m very aware of that, actually, when I’m in the locker room. Once again, I have a supportive team, but something could be misconstrued.”

McClure said her team did not treat her any differently in the locker room or elsewhere. If anything, McClure, who identifies as queer since she is attracted to both men and women, wishes she came out sooner. “It sucks being in the closet,” she said. “It’s complicated, especially at a school like Kenyon because you can’t be walking around with someone of the same gender holding hands, kissing in public and not be out to your team because people see you everywhere.”

For most, that coming out process is ongoing, especially on sports teams when new first year recruits join each season. “It’s hard to keep dropping it in a casual conversation,” McClure said. “You can’t be like, ムHi, I pole vault and I’m also queer.”‘

“I didn’t, you know, stand up in the locker room and say something,” Dylan Kaye ’15, a former Kenyon track and cross-country runner who identifies as gay, said. “I just let it trickle out in conversation. When I came to Kenyon, I thought that it would be more of a big deal than it was.”

Not all teams are as tolerant as his were, according to Kaye. The men’s varsity teams, with the exception of swimming and diving, share a locker room and Kaye says he’s heard homophobic language from other Kenyon athletes.

“I’ve heard things in the locker room that I wish I’d had the guts to say something about,” he said.

Running may be inherently more accepting of LGBTQ athletes, according to Sam Lagasse ’16, who is on Kenyon’s cross-country and track and field teams and who is also gay. “Being super masculine or being a jock I don’t think is really associated with running, so I think there’s less policing of sexuality norms,” he said.

Still, talking about being attracted to women can be a bonding activity on some male teams, potentially alienating gay male athletes. “Immediately, when you enter as a freshman on a guy’s team, I think, one of the most [important] topics you can talk about is who you’re hooking up with and what girls you think are attractive,” the athlete who asked to remain anonymous said.

In the wider sports world, players and fans often associate gay men with femininity and therefore weakness ラ another obstacle that may be preventing male athletes from coming out.

“There’s a reason why there’s only one [professional] male gay athlete in a team sport [who] is out,” Helfant said. “It’s much more acceptable to be a female and to be gay when it comes to team sports in particular.”

Female athletes, however, are not exempt from assumptions about sports and sexuality. “Sometimes female athletes will exude this femininity so people don’t think they’re gay,” Helfant said. “If you ever watch women’s softball, they wear these big bows in their hair.”

And for coaches, these assumptions can have an effect on one of the activities central to their job: recruiting. Helfant has encountered parents of prospective athletes who let a coach’s sexuality become part of their recruiting deliberations. “I’ve heard them say things like, I don’t want my daughter playing in a program with a bunch of gay women,” she said.

The leaders of KCAE aim to showcase the diversity of LGBTQ athletes. “What I struggled with the most, when coming out, was that I didn’t really relate to that commonly painted picture of what gay was,” Lagasse said. “I wasn’t really into shopping or clothes in high school, but I really loved running.

“The first person who I really dated in high school, and the one who outed me, had this very strict idea of what it was for him to be gay, and so I had a very upsetting conversation with him where it was basically like, if you’re gay, you can’t be an athlete,” Lagasse said.

Those are the types of stereotypes that the KCAE say they want to dispel. But, in the true style of athletes everywhere, nothing short of unequivocal victory will do.

“Hopefully, the work that this club does will make the club unnecessary in the future,” Anderson said.

[starbox id=”Sarah Lehr”]


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