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Freedom of Choice

Still A Long Way to Go For Gay Athletes

BY Smriti Sinha

Jallen Messersmith agonized over how he should come out. (Photo: Benedictine College Athletics)

Jallen Messersmith agonized over how he should come out. (Photo: Benedictine College Athletics)

On Christmas break in his freshman year, Jallen Messersmith heard the worst possible news. One of his basketball teammates at Benedictine College in Kansas, died in a car accident on his way home for the holidays. The death affected him for months. “For the longest time I couldn’t figure out why it shook me so much,” he said in a phone interview. And then one day looking at himself in the mirror, it occurred to him: life was too short to keep secrets. And Messersmith didn’t want to hide his anymore. He was gay.

At the beginning of the fall semester in 2012, almost eight months after his teammates’ death, he decided to tell his team. From previous locker room conversations, he knew some of his teammates felt that being gay was a stigma. The idea of coming out to them ‘freaked’ him out. “Because there was no predecessor, I didn’t know how it would go,” he said. “I was hoping it wouldn’t come to me having to choose something other than basketball.” Messersmith, as did all other sources in this story, spoke in phone interviews.

Long before Jason Collins in 2013 became the first pro player in a major American sport to announce he was gay and long before Missouri’s Michael Sam made history as the first gay player picked in the NFL draft, college athletes, usually in non-revenue sports, had been coming out to their teams. Despite the anxiety and fears of being rejected and a lack of precedent in pro sports to relate to, they were inspiring others to do the same. Messersmith, 21, first told his story last year because he wanted other closeted basketball players to know that he found support in his teammates and coaches, and that it’s possible to be openly gay in a college locker room.

But the voice of LGBT athletes has been growing more prominently in sports other than basketball and football in the last decade. According to the 2012 LGBTQ National College Athlete Report by Campus Pride, a national non-profit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer organization, student athletes face harassment “twice as much as their heterosexual peers.”

 

When Paul Farber came to The University of Pennsylvania in 2001, one of the first things he heard when he joined the track team was: faggot. Even though it was just casually thrown around and not directed at him, Farber said he felt distraught. Farber was gay and he felt conflicted keeping it inside him. “When I went to my coach to ask for advice on coming out to my team, I was silenced,” he said.

It hadn’t gone down well in the past sometimes, his coach, Charlie Powell told him. “Make sure that you make the right choice,” Farber said he recalled him saying.  He felt alone, threatened, scared and the message was clear: he’d have to deal with it on his own. “I felt like I had to chose between being an athlete and being myself,” Farber said. He quit the track team after his freshman year but he started something else – Penn Athletes and Allies Tackling Homophobia (PATH) – the country’s first formal resource group for LGBT student athletes that has now survived ten years.

Avery Stone decried the "behind your back homophobia." (Photo: Avery Stone)

Avery Stone decried the “behind your back homophobia.” (Photo: Avery Stone)

Because of a sports culture that encourages hyper-masculinity, locker rooms are often considered a safe space to use homophobic language. “If you’re playing soft, you’re not finishing or someone thinks you should’ve dunked that ball and you didn’t, you’ll definitely hear: man, you’re playing like a fag,” said Cameron Hill, who plays as a forward for Loyola University’s Division I basketball team. Hill said he thinks that male athletes are still not sensitive about what they say in the locker room; there are no filters and that “no homo” is one of the most commonly used terms.

PATH is trying to change that culture. “A lot of universities had adopted non-discrimination policies. If you’re taking a sociology class and someone’s using homophobic language, it won’t be tolerated,” Farber said. “But athletic departments were operating on a double standard isolating LGBT athletes.”

Many gay athletes can relate to that. “My teammates (high school) hated gay people, so I felt they would hate me if they knew,” said Nora Cothren, who plays ice hockey at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. In her sophomore year in high school, a group of guys chanted “the dude” every time Cothren passed by and referred to her as a “half girl” in public. She felt she’d lose her captaincy and her spot on the team if the secret came out, so she fawned over male actors to make girls on the team believe that she was one of them.

Nora Cothren

Cothren clearly remembers having to deal with gay slurs in high school. (Photo: Nora Cothren)

Another ice hockey player, Avery Stone said she was bullied by one of her teammates in her freshman year at Amherst College in 2010. Everyone on the team knew she was gay because she had been out since high school. They didn’t say anything to her but she felt there was consistent “insidious, behind your back homophobia.” In another incident, Stone was talking about her girlfriend one day in the locker room. As soon as she walked out, one of her teammates remarked: “Why did we have to talk about that dyke,” Stone, 22, recalled. “It was like I could be gay as long as no one has to see it, or hear or talk about it.”

Cothren, who volunteers for Generation Out Athletes, an organization for student-athletes support, said she feels that the homophobic locker room culture is cyclical. When a freshman joins the team and hears casual homophobic slurs like ‘You’re so gay,’ or ‘faggot’ or ‘dyke’ being thrown around, they feel they’ll be more welcomed and accepted if they laugh at the seniors’ gay jokes.

University of Southern Maine’s former baseball player James Nutter has experienced those jokes. Each time his teammates called someone a “faggot” or told a “fudge-packer” joke, Nutter, who was a closeted athlete, cringed and felt depressed.

“I started feeling that being gay is gross, weird. Everyday to call something negative as gay wore me down,” said Nutter, 22. “In the back of my head I started feeling that being gay was less than a man. I didn’t feel I’d be accepted if I came out to my team.” His secret was eating him up so much that he said he tried to commit suicide and had to be taken to the hospital in the fall of 2011, the same year when he quit school because he couldn’t come out to his team.

“Sports is looked at as such a masculine activity. Everything powerful and strong is associated with men. Athletes feel it’s easier to feel more powerful if they call gay names and make others feel inferior,” said Amy Weinberg, who feels that coming out was easier for her because people believed in the stereotype that most female athletes are lesbians. But Weinberg feels a sense of responsibility after coming out; she realizes she cannot overlook the homophobia. Last year, someone on her softball team at Rhode Island’s Bryant University tweeted something using ‘faggot’ and Weinberg confronted her. “I let them know that it’s not okay. We do a good job of policing it,” she said.

Many college athletes said they feel there is a generational gap between them and the pro athletes that makes it easier for people to come out in college locker rooms, where younger people are often more accepting and understanding. “Right now the pro locker rooms have a lot of people from the older generation who grew up with it (being gay) as a negative thing but I think eventually it’ll be fazed out. It wouldn’t be a story anymore,” said Messersmith, who has received a lot of support from his teammates since coming out to them.

Until ten years ago, there was a blanket assumption that there were no gay athletes in the locker room. Today a lot of coaches and athletes have started assuming that there are gay athletes among them and they watch their language accordingly. This has been one of the biggest paradigm shifts, according to several athletes interviewed.

“We are down from an atmosphere that was overtly homophobic to one that’s neutral on the issue of homophobia. What these athletes need to hear is overt support,” said Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of OutSports.com, a website that has been writing about gay athletes since 1999.  “They need to hear their coaches and their captains say we accept you regardless of you’re gay or not. Even before they come out, they need to hear their coaches talk about boyfriends and use a language that’s of overt support.”

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