The New Normal: LGBT Athletes Speak Out
By all accounts, USC is the perfect school for a young athlete. It’s a Division I school with a tradition of winning. It’s rich in resources, in personnel and in funding. And it’s a breeding ground for successful professional careers.
But for Matthew, a male varsity athlete whose name has been changed for anonymity, the experience at USC has been tempered by one fact.
“You are fighting for your respect. You are fighting for your manhood. You are fighting for your masculinity,” Matthew told the Daily Trojan. “That’s one of the things that mainly comes into play.”
Though Matthew is out to some friends, he has not shared his sexual orientation with coaches or teammates.
“It will complicate things to the magnitude to where I don’t know if I will be able to handle that at this point,” he said. “I just don’t know if there is enough support for that.”
Though many openly gay athletes at USC are comfortable on their teams and report a respectful environment, Matthew is not alone. Several athletes declined to be interviewed, even anonymously, for this story.
And this is an issue that persists at universities throughout the nation. In a 2012 survey of 8,481 NCAA athletes, lesbian, gay, bisexual and questioning athletes reported pressure to keep their sexual orientation from their teammates (394 participants, or about five percent, of the sample identified as LGBQ).
But USC administrators, at least in recent years, have not turned a blind eye to the issue.
It Gets Better
Last February, the head coaches of USC’s varsity teams huddled in a room for a monthly meeting.
It was a first for the department. Two gay athletes had come to speak about what it was like to hide their identities from their coaches. They also discussed how coaches should approach LGBT athletes on their teams and how fostering a comfortable environment can improve performances. And, by all accounts, the talk struck a chord.
“I think they were just trying to expose to the coaches on our staff that you are clearly going to have gay kids on your teams and, if you’re not comfortable with it, get comfortable with it,” said Dave Salo, who coaches men’s and women’s swimming.
Since Athletic Director Pat Haden took the job in 2010, USC’s Athletic Department has set on a different course in its support of LGBT athletes.
“This is the first time student athletes have come into the coach’s meeting and stood up and said, ‘Hey, I’m gay. And this is what it’s like. And this is what I look to my coach to give me,’” said Donna Heinel, a senior associate athletic director. “That’s a monumental step. That’s because the atmosphere has changed in the last two years since Pat [Haden] has taken over.”
For the last four years, the LGBT Resource Center had been meeting at least once a semester with athletic administrators. But after the athletics leadership change in 2010, the center began taking a more active role.
“It wasn’t until a lot of these changes happened that we were getting more leeway — we were getting more progress — with providing support to LGBT athletes,” said Vincent Vigil, director of the LGBT Resource Center.
Last semester, the center began ally training with some athletic department staff teams, including Student-Athlete Academic Services and the weights and training team. This semester, the ally training, which includes information about the struggles of coming out and resources on campus, is open to all staff teams.
Vigil also hopes to develop a confidential support group for LGBT athletes, similar to Greek Chat, a weekly group for LGBT students in the Greek community (Vigil underscored that the identity of LGBT athletes who seek resources, either through the center or the Athletic Department, remain confidential).
“We want to make certain they don’t feel alone, they don’t feel isolated [and] that they know there are other students going through the same thing they are,” Vigil said.
This in and of itself is a step toward creating an accepting climate within the program, according to Jim Buzinski, the CEO of Outsports.com, a blog about the convergence of sports and the LGBT community.
“It has to be sort of broadcast,” said Buzinski, a former sports editor at the Long Beach Press-Telegram. “They have to let this be known. They have to have seminars and meetings and bring this up as a general thing.”
Room for Improvement
Despite the Athletic Department’s recent efforts to support its LGBT community, Matthew said he feels pressure from the attitudes of his coaches and the program-at-large.
“The culture of the program is very conservative,” he said. “That’s the way it has always been. That’s the ’SC way.”
The general environment at USC is one of the reasons Mallory Smith, a club softball player last year, was not open about her sexual orientation while on the team. Smith, who came out as a lesbian during her freshman year of high school, even questioned adding some of her teammates to Facebook, where she posts photos of herself with her girlfriend.
“At USC, especially with girls, it’s hard for lesbians to make straight girl friends because I feel there is still that stigma,” Smith said.
The structure of a sport also plays a role in coming out, many athletes explained. Smith, who went on to compete in boxing, said she found it easier to come out on a team where competition is more individualized, a sentiment echoed by experts and athletes alike.
LGBT stereotypes, though they have decreased in past years, can also affect the environment around the team, according to Buzinski.
“It’s lessening but it’s still there in people’s minds. It’s like people say everyone who is a skater has to be gay whereas a football player can’t be,” Buzinski said. “Well, no. You can be a straight skater and a gay football player. But our stereotypes are still strong.”
And because of these stereotypes and other factors, athletes are often concerned that coming out might seriously affect their prospects for a professional career.
“I just know I’m going to regret it if I come out before I sign a contract,” Matthew said.
A difference also exists between the experience of male and female athletes. In the Campus Pride survey, a higher proportion of female athletes (8 percent) identify with the LGBQ community than male athletes (3 percent).
For Sean Mulroy, a gay swimmer who has been out since high school, participating openly at USC has never been a problem, but he added that it’s a struggle for athletes who must contend with coming out during their college years.
“When I got to college, I knew who I was and I was very confident,” Mulroy said. “But if people are struggling with that here, it definitely would hinder their ability to come out on a team, because it does take a lot of guts to go ahead [and say], ‘Yo, I’m gay.’”
According to the Campus Pride survey, LGBQ athletes are also two times more likely to experience harassment than their straight counterparts. Mulroy and several other athletes said verbal or physical intimidation is rare. More common are gay jokes, according to Matthew, which can unknowingly make closeted athletes uncomfortable.
“It’s like I can’t show that [I’m uncomfortable],” he said. “It’s not like I’m participating in it, but it is uncomfortable because it hits home because you know that people are rejecting who you are.”
Coaches are key to fostering a comfortable environment for LGBT athletes, as crafting greater acceptance often starts at the top, according to Robin Scholefield, a USC sports psychologist who works closely with LGBT athletes.
“In general, the teams that are safer are the ones where the coaches have been able to articulate an acceptance for all differences, including sexual orientation,” Scholefield said.
But in the heat of the game, coaches can forget how damaging their demeanor or language can be; in a recent example, video of former Rutgers men’s basketball coach Mike Rice showed him screaming homophobic slurs at players.
Even in less-extreme situations, LGBT athletes have their own perceptions about a coach’s view, and they said that this greatly affects how comfortable they feel on the team.
Portia Mitchell, a center for women’s basketball from 2000-02, was out to her team while playing at USC. Mitchell said she felt knowledge of her sexual orientation might have affected her role on the team.
“I always had some thought in the back of my mind that my sexuality did have an effect on my coach’s willingness to play me and fill the role she said I would fill when I was a recruit,” Mitchell said.
Part of these perceptions might stem from a generational difference, particularly with older coaches, Matthew noted.
“That whole entire generation is probably not accepting of what’s forthcoming,” he said. “Now, when a new coaching staff comes in, it will be interesting to see how they receive it and how attitudes change.”
Heinel came to USC in 2003 after coaching swimming at the University of Massachusetts. She said she does not believe USC coaches as a whole are homophobic, despite some athletes’ perceptions.
“I don’t see any of our coaches kind of carrying that,” Heinel said. “For a lot of them, I don’t think that’s part of their DNA. I don’t think they would get to this high of a level.”
And Salo, as a USC coach, believes his players are living in a more accepting environment than the one he grew up in.
“Kids nowadays are so much more enlightened because they are exposed either through media or the news or publications about gays and lesbians,” Salo said. “It’s not this taboo word. It’s just something.”
Nevertheless, Mulroy, who maintains a strong relationship with head assistant swimming coach Jeremy Kipp (he sometimes asks about Mulroy’s personal life), said coaches should always be aware that some of their players might be gay.
“[It’s important to] make coaches aware that they probably will have an LGBT athlete on their team and how to approach it because I assume that football coaches don’t necessarily know how to wrap their heads around me listening to Whitney Houston in the weight room,” Mulroy said.
When Mitchell played basketball about 10 years ago, she said she knew of very few gay athletes.
“At that time, it was so hush-hush that, unless you were someone like me who just lived your life and didn’t care, you were going to keep it under wraps between your teammates and to yourself to make sure that everything went smoothly,” Mitchell said.
With the national dialogue more focused on LGBT issues, Mitchell, who is still involved in university life through USC’s LGBT Alumni Association and occasionally visits her former team, said the environment has changed slightly.
“The gay culture overall in the last 10 years has become a lot more open, especially in L.A. and with things like Prop 8 going on,” Mitchell said. “It’s more of a vocal topic and not so hush-hush.”
But challenges still exist. For many gay athletes, coming out is still a particular struggle.
“A lot of people say we are in 2013 and gay marriage is being accepted so coming out should be easy,” Vigil said. “But it’s still going to be difficult for those within athletics.”
Additionally, there tend to be fewer out athletes in higher-profile sports, such as football, basketball and baseball, Vigil said.
“There probably are gay athletes in there, but there aren’t any who are proclaiming their identity very proudly,” Vigil said. “But that doesn’t mean that’s not going to happen. It’s a progression.”
With scholarships and professional careers on the line, athletes often stake a lot in their image, which could determine how teammates treat them both off the field and on. This compounds the already complex and tricky process of coming out, Buzinski said.
“You have just the process of coming out when you are young. Then you have the whole athletic thing and the whole team atmosphere,” Buzinski said. “It just makes it dicey. People don’t want to rock the boat. They fear that they will be treated differently and they’ll hear things in the locker room.”
Developing an accepting culture from top to bottom is crucial in creating a respectful environment for LGBT athletes, experts agreed.
“A system is only as good as the individuals in the system and it takes time to do that,” Scholefield said.
At the professional level, straight athletes who have been supportive of LGBT issues have helped improve the climate for athletes, Vigil said, citing Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe as an example. Kluwe publicly excoriated a Maryland legislator last September for suggesting that a Baltimore Ravens player be silenced for his pro gay-marriage stance.
As more allies speak out, Vigil believes it will be easier for LGBT athletes to do the same.
“Athletes who are straight have a lot more pull in telling other guys it’s OK to be gay,” Smith said.
According to Buzinski, athletic departments have found success in creating greater acceptance for LGBT athletes by stressing diversity and a tolerance for all differences.
“That message gets down and makes everybody feel comfortable,” he said.
Many LGBT athletes at USC still face an uphill — and often covert — battle. But the climate has steadily improved and administrators are hopeful for the future.
“What I can say is we definitely have an increased tolerance,” Scholefield said. “Can we have more? Yes we can.”