My college girlfriend and I were both Division I student athletes. Although she and I were both smart, strong and determined women, we both struggled with being the only "out" members of our varsity sports teams. According to Campus Pride's 2012 "LGBTQ National College Athlete Report," lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) student athletes face harassment "twice as much as their heterosexual peers." Unfortunately, we former and current LGBTQ student athletes are not shocked by this statistic. Although "times have changed," countless student athletes remain closeted thanks to their fear of harassment and isolation from their teams.
In 2008 eight student athletes came together to form GO! Athletes (formerly known as Our Group) in order to address the lack of advocacy and support for LGBTQ student athletes. GO! (Generation Out) Athletes is the oldest national network dedicated to LGBTQ student athletes. Over the course of this year, we younger generations of student athletes have witnessed a momentous move forward in the movement for LGBTQ equality in our nation. Studies have shown that younger generations are more likely to support LGBTQ rights than ever before. As a result, LGBTQ athletes are increasingly becoming leaders and role models for other athletes.
In recent months there has also been a great amount of media attention on the need for pro athletes to come out in order to address the lack of out role models for young athletes. However, we believe that instead of waiting for "big-name" celebrity athletes to come out of the closet, we younger generations need to do something about the problem in the present time. Though the younger generation has been called impatient when it comes to waiting for change, the truth is that we are the future pro athletes.
To symbolize the change in the movement and our own organization, GO! Athletes held an event on National Coming Out Day, Oct. 11, at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. (Just like a team after winning its first championship game, the momentum behind the formation of GO! Athletes has been nothing short of a home run.) With a packed audience of students, coaches and sports fans from all over the Philadelphia area and throughout the nation, keynote speaker and D.C. United professional women's soccer star Joanna Lohman captivated the audience with her powerful story about her struggle of "constantly coming out." While being gay in the United States was one thing, Lohman explained, being gay and an American female athlete in another country had its own set of challenges. She shared stories about her volunteer work with Joli Academy, a nonprofit she started with fellow out soccer star Lianne Sanderson to bring soccer to thousands of young girls around the world. She recalled how young Jamaican children tell her, "Ma'am, you look like a boy." Though Joanna smirked and joked about the incidents (she confessed that she resorted to showing the kids cellphone pictures of her in a dress to prove that she was female), it was obvious that these comments made her reflect painfully on just how much further the movement still has to go.
Two other out athletes courageously told personal stories. The audience also heard the story of former Division III NCAA Football captain Brian Sims, a state representative-elect who is to become Pennsylvania's first openly gay state legislator. Varsity swimmer Dan Gutnayer shared his perspective as a current student athlete at the University of Pennsylvania, and he told the story of his own coming out to his swim team -- on the first day of practice!. He told us that the "team went from having no fully out members of the team to having six, including myself." Dan wasn't sure how the courage came to him that day, but he never regretted his decision to tell his teammates.
It wasn't just the speakers at the event that made the it so meaningful. The event was significant because of the connections, friendships and history that were made and shared that evening. Sitting down with a young man named Pete reminded me about why we GO! Athletes need to keep reaching out to one another. Pete confided in me his struggle to come out and his fear of doing so, given that he had a reputation as a jock in his hometown. "Before tonight," he told me, "I never thought I would I ever be here, at an event like this, right now. I also never thought about coming out to my friends. I figured I'd get a girlfriend and maybe marry her, because I didn't think there were other people who were gay that were like me." His words made me flash back to my high school days, when I, too, knew of no other openly bisexual people, let alone one who was a successful athlete, in my graduating class of over 400 students.
Over the years I have spoken to audiences and written about the isolation I felt as the "only" queer student athlete. Little did I know when I was 16 years old that there were countless other student athletes who felt the same isolation that I felt growing up. Pete's confession reinforced the importance of an organization like GO! Athletes and our vision of a strong network ("team") of LGBTQ athletes.
Now that you are aware that LGBTQ youth need our support, you have the power to educate yourself as an ally. You need to realize the positive or negative power of your words: An article published earlier this month by Outsports.com describes how "casual homophobia" played a role in the suicide attempt of a young athlete named James. Not only will becoming an ally make you a more supportive person, but it could save the life of a friend or family member. Moreover, if you do identify as LGBTQ and want to come out, we are here to support you. If you are already out, we want to help you share your story and empower others to do the same.
This is neither the beginning nor the end of the conversation on LGBTQ athletes in sport. Many activists have come before our generation and pioneered movements that made the world a more accepting one for today's youth. Our task is to unify our voices and become more visible, and yours is to empower your peers to join us. The stories of LGBTQ athlete role models at your schools and in your communities are waiting to be shared. The GO! Athletes movement envisions what occurred in Philadelphia as just one of many grassroots awareness events that can and will occur across the nation.
We hope you will join us as part of the next generation of out athletes. We believe the best team leaders are ones who are always trying to be become better, smarter, stronger and unified together. Now is the time to put our hands together in the huddle, become allies, empower our teammates and coaches and say to one another, "We support you." Join us as we educate allies and empower our friends. It's GO! time!