The New York Times published two articles in May, one on an openly gay male college lacrosse player and the other about an openly gay male college coach. The lacrosse player, Andrew McIntosh, and the softball coach, Kirk Walker, describe how they their openness has been a completely positive experience for them and for their teams.
The common thinking has always been that it is more difficult for gay men in sport than it is for lesbians in sport. Many people accept as a given that male athletes and coaches are more uncomfortable with the idea of a gay coach or teammate than women athletes are. Perhaps there is some truth to that, but the stories that Andrew and Kirk tell of their own experiences challenge these assumptions and suggest that the sport world, at least the college sports world is changing. Maybe not in every school or on every team, but the times are definitely changing.
So, what is the recipe for a positive coming out story in sport? I have always believed that, in the case of athletes coming out, the coach sets the tone. If the coach creates a hostile team climate, whether she or he does it intentionally or unintentionally, athletes are less likely to come out, even if teammates are accepting. And here’s an important factor to consider: Silence does not signal a positive climate. To intentionally send a message of openness, a coach must speak up to stop team members from using anti-gay slurs and the coach must use inclusive language. The coach must assume that there are lesbian, gay or bi members of the team or team members who have LGB family members. The coach must believe that creating a team climate of openness to difference is an integral part of developing a winning team on which every athlete can bring all of who they are to every game and every practice.
Andrew says that, even before he came out, his coach talked to the team about their use of anti-gay slurs. He was setting the tone. He was demanding that the team think about the effects of their casual bigotry. Andrew took notice and when he was ready, he knew his coach would be there for him and he was. It is so simple, really. Why is it so difficult for so many?
This is a message I always try to give to coaches. They are the leaders of their teams. They set the example – good or bad. At this moment in the long journey to equality in sport, coaches are playing catch up with their athletes on LGBT issues. This is another part of the recipe – Young heterosexual people, both male and female, know more LGBT people and are more comfortable with them in their lives than their coaches. Athletes of this generation are more likely to wonder what the big deal is about same-sex marriage, passing federal non-discrimination laws protecting sexual orientation and gender identity, or lesbian and gay people serving openly in the military. An important generational shift is underway and coaches need to get up to speed. Even if the team is open, if a coach is not, the coach sets the tone. They are the key to what the team climate will be.
Another part of the recipe for success is, of course, the athlete or coach who is coming out. Both Andrew and Kirk are leaders. They command respect because of who they are as members of their teams. They are both comfortable with themselves. In a culture where being gay, lesbian or bisexual is often equated with the worst kinds of sin, sickness and depravity, it is a testament to strength, resilience and the powerful drive to live one’s inner truth that LGBT people overcome social hostility and resistance to say, “This is me. I am worthy of respect. I will live my life according to what I know is my truth.”
Kirk and Andrew are role models for others too who have not quite gotten to this point of inner strength so that they are ready to come out publicly. One of the most important parts of each of their stories is their willingness to be a resource and role model. Kirk talks about the emails and phone calls he receives from other closeted coaches who want to talk to him. I am sure Andrew has received similar emails from closeted athletes. Every athlete and coach I know who has come out publicly serves as an example for others who are sick of the lies and the secrecy that restricts their experience in sport. Kirk and Andrew and Sherri Murrell, the openly lesbian basketball coach at Portland State, provide hope and possibility to many athletes and coaches who are still living in the shadow of fear and prejudice.
As more coaches and athletes come out, the stereotypes that kept Andrew from accepting himself will die: Gay men do play sport. Lesbians and gay men are parents. They are team captains and they win championships.
One of the things I see is that when lesbian, gay and bisexual athletes and coaches come out, they invite their teammates and colleagues to live up to their best selves. Their quest to live openly and honestly calls on everyone around them to live up to ideals of respect and understanding for people who are different from ourselves. That, my friends, is quite a gift. We should all have such people in our lives. Thank you, Andrew. Thank you, Kirk. Thank you, Sherri. College sport is a better place with you in it.