LGBT athletes find inclusive community

Senior swimmer Steven Stumph first told his teammates he was gay the summer after his sophomore year at USC. He remembers being nervous and sweating, his heart pounding heavily the entire time.

It turns out he had nothing to worry about.

“We just laughed about it like, ‘Why did I hold it in so long?’” Stumph said. “There was no reason to. All my fears of wanting to hold it in were all for nothing.”

Stumph is part of a community of LGBT athletes and coaches at USC, ranging from openly gay athletes to those who remain closeted. Most gay athletes, coaches and administrators generally describe USC as an inclusive school for LGBT athletes, who feel safe and supported by their teammates and peers, but the University is always trying to make strides to become more accepting.

Though athletes understandably feel apprehensive about opening up about their sexual identity, the culture at USC is welcoming to those who do, according to those at the University who have come out.

Lypheng Kim, a junior majoring in human biology and member of the club dragon boat racing team, has been out since he was 17. As the captain of his high school track and field team, Kim said he had gained a “level of respect,” but was still a bit nervous about coming out.

Those fears, though, were quelled when his high school coach sent him a message reading, “We are here for you to support you.”

When Kim came to USC, he found his club team to have a similar reaction.

“Everyone was kind to me,” he said. “They didn’t use sexuality as a basis to determine how they would treat you.”

In her four years working with LGBT athletes as a clinical and sports psychologist at USC, Nohelani Lawrence has never seen an issue regarding a player or coach based on how they identify.

“My experience with athletes who identify as gay is they feel very supported by their teammates,” she said. “They feel free to express themselves and feel supported by their coach.”

Lawrence is the director of the LGBT committee at USC, a group that meets to improve the treatment of LGBT athletes on campus. When she took over the committee three years ago, one of her first projects was creating a “You Can Play” video, featuring former Athletic Director Pat Haden. Rather than simply seeking acceptance of LGBT athletes, Lawrence wanted to take a step further toward appreciation.

“Initially, there was a lot of talk about accepting student-athletes who identify as LGBT, but even accepting has a negative connotation because that implies there might be something wrong,” Lawrence said. “Our goal was to really let student-athletes know that we appreciate their presence.”

According to Lawrence, one of the biggest complaints from the athletes she works with is trying to find other LGBT people to date. It’s a minimal issue compared to other schools, but that doesn’t mean she and LGBT athletes don’t have ways to further increase inclusivity and support on campus.

Lawrence wants to spur the discussion on how to support transgender athletes, which she thinks is an area that hasn’t gotten much coverage. Stumph would like to see an organization for LGBT athletes where they can share updates and concerns, similar to one that exists at UC Berkeley. And Kim lamented the fact that he doesn’t see other Asian-American athletes come out, noting that he is often the “token Asian” in the room.

“Sometimes, you just have to put yourself in that uncomfortable setting for others to speak up,” he said. “That’s been the theme of coming out as an athlete. Putting yourself in uncomfortable situations to allow others to be more comfortable to come out.”

When Stumph was a freshman, two seniors on the swim team were openly gay. He admired that they were proud of their sexuality and didn’t let it affect their presence on the team, but he wasn’t quite ready to come out himself.

Reed Malone, a member of the LGBT committee, is also a senior and a teammate of Stumph’s on the swim team (Malone does not identify as gay). He recalls Stumph trying to figure himself out during freshman year.

“He was quiet. He was pretty reserved,” Malone said. “For our freshman class, there were six of us. He hung out, but liked to be on his own a bit.”

Finally, Stumph came to terms with it.

“I was just tired of holding it in,” he said. “It was like a big relief was lifted off my shoulders. There was nothing holding me back. No secrets.”

The decision has made him more comfortable as a person and a teammate, more open to talk about any kind of subject and coming into his own.

It was more of a seamless transition than an abrupt announcement for his teammates.

“He never sat everyone down and said, ‘Yeah, I’m gay.’ He just lived his life and ended up hooking up with guys,” Malone said. “It wasn’t a huge deal to anyone.”

They didn’t say it to his face, but Kim could sometimes hear the whispers, the homophobic slurs from his teammates and competitors on his high school track and field team in Philadelphia.

“When I hear things like that, I obviously feel uncomfortable because I question their intentions,” he said. “I question their level of awareness. I give them the benefit of the doubt, even though they’re saying those things and they’re conscious of the impact that it has. Words hurt. Words can make a huge dent on someone’s mental health or mental capacity.”

Such incidents are far less common at USC and its neighboring schools in the liberal West Coast demographic. It’s one of the reasons why some LGBT athletes, including Stumph, chose to attend USC.  But Stumph, who is from Moraga, California — about 13 miles east of Oakland — said he would not feel safe attending a swim meet at a school like Auburn, which is located in a region that is less tolerant of the LGBT community. He noted that there are some schools where the culture is not yet ready to accommodate people like him.

“Here I’m totally comfortable to tell anyone that I’m gay,” Stumph said. “I don’t fear for my safety.”

Stumph is aware of gay athletes at schools on the East Coast who don’t feel comfortable coming out to their team because they fear they will be ostracized and the coach won’t put them in events.

Then, there was the time he posted a photo to social media while visiting a friend in Austin, Texas, tagging his location.

lgbt-athlete-julia-erickson-3“Some random person wrote a very discriminatory comment on my photo,” he said. “I think that has to do with the region. In L.A., for the vast majority, people don’t care whether you’re gay or not. In Austin, it’s a bigger deal.” Stumph admitted he is more “reserved” about telling people about his sexuality in places such as Texas, where a University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll last year found fewer than half of the state’s residents support gay marriage. It’s an indication that USC is far ahead of the curve in comparison to other parts of the country.

Lawrence noted that while USC celebrated National Coming Out Day last month, passing out T-shirts for coaches and athletes to wear (they ran out by noon), some schools on the East Coast didn’t because they feared it would negatively impact recruiting and publicity. Last year, LeTourneau University, a Division III school in Longview, Texas, banned “same-sex dating behaviors” as well as advocacy for same-sex marriage for student athletes.

For its part, the NCAA has been swift on denouncing anti-LGBT legislation. In September, NCAA President Mark Emmert took action in the wake of the so-called “Bathroom Bill” in North Carolina — which requires transgender people to use public restrooms that correspond to their gender given at birth  — by pulling seven championship events from the state in the 2016-2017 season.

While L.A. natives may be accustomed to inclusivity, some people from other parts of the country may not be aware of the accepting environment. Lawrence, who grew up on the East Coast, said she didn’t know what to expect when she took a job at USC. She heard from people who thought the University was “extremely conservative, especially within California.”

“I wasn’t sure here how accepting athletics would be toward LGBT athletics,” she said. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised.”

Creating a nationwide culture of acceptance for LGBT athletes is somewhat of a dilemma. While there would be progress if more gay athletes came out, some are just not willing to take the risk to put themselves out there.

“It’s a gradual change that needs to occur socially,” Stumph said. “I’m sure it was the same [at USC]. When the first athlete came out as gay here, it was a huge shock. As more and more come out, people realize it’s normal and not a rare occurrence.”

The end goal, ultimately, is for the entire discussion over LGBT athletes to become a moot point. It’s one thing to make note of an athlete who identifies as gay. But, according to Kim, it’s another to make their sexuality the headline.

“That title in a way perpetuates the notion that sexuality comes first before athleticism,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s a good thing and sometimes it might not be. People are so focused on the sexuality aspect that they forget about who the athlete is.” Stumph is a perfect example. The senior is much more than an athlete who is gay; he is a team captain and one of the top swimmers in the Pac-12, playing a key role for USC in dual meets and postseason action. His sophomore year, he broke the school record in the 200-yard breaststroke to help claim the first Pac-12 title in 37 years for USC.

Outside the pool, Stumph likes to travel and cook. A self-described food connoisseur, he invites friends over and converts his apartment into a “pop-up restaurant” complete with waitresses and hostesses, cooking seven-course meals for them. Each one has a theme, from Mexican to Mediterranean to even a Halloween a few weeks ago.

“It’s amazing food,” Malone said. “The presentation is unbelievable. Unlike everything I’ve ever seen.”

This seemingly insignificant display represents Stumph’s transformation from shy freshman to a senior who has come to terms with who he is and beyond, showing that there is more that defines him than simply being gay. It’s part of what USC is continuously striving to improve on — making sure LGBT athletes are not just accepted, but also appreciated for more than just their sexuality.

“He travels the world and he cooks,” Malone said of Stumph. “Being gay is such a small part of him that it doesn’t even matter.”