His teammates on the men’s varsity swimming team threw kickboards at him. Laughing, they taunted him throughout afternoon practice, punning on his name and cracking nasty comments.
But it wasn’t because he was gay — he’s not. And they didn’t think he was.
His teammates berated him that afternoon because he had made a homophobic comment in an e-mail thread about an openly gay member of the team.
He was immediately shot down: “Are you f–king serious?” another teammate responded in the thread.
That’s right: the team was sticking up for the gay guy.
The offending commenter immediately got defensive in another e-mail blast: “You should know I have nothing against gays,” he wrote. “I’m very liberal on the issue.”
For the record, the gay athlete in question, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not out to his family, said he did not think the comment was “really that bad.” Which is why, he said, he was surprised to walk into the locker room the next day to find his teammates yelling at the commenter for his insensitivity.
There seems to be a strange dichotomy in the world of Yale athletics — episodes where teams band together to support their LGTBQ members are numerous, but so too are ignorant comments on the part of teammates. While this dynamic varies from sport to sport, all athletes interviewed agree that their teams are generally supportive of diverse sexualities, a reflection of the University’s outspoken support of the gay community.
Still, gay athletes often hesitate before coming out to their teams. Even at Yale, there’s something hetero-normative about the culture of athletics.
“THAT’S SO GAY”
The issue of insensitivity toward gay athletes is not particular to Yale, but rather reflects the mindset and culture of athletics.
Six athletes interviewed said an element of this ignorance on varsity teams — whether or not a comment was intended to be malicious — comes with the territory.
“Despite our progressively tolerant society, athletics remains a holdout community — one of the last frontiers of acceptance,” said Max Walden ’11, an openly gay captain of the men’s varsity cross country team.
The athletes also said the prevalence of insensitivity varies from team to team.
“Some sports demand more of a hyper-masculine demeanor than others,” said Scott Shinton ’12, a member of the men’s varsity swimming team. On the men’s side, he said that sports such as sailing, squash, swimming and tennis often foster more accepting environments because their team culture depends less on “machoism,” than, say, football or baseball.
Mary Hadley ’12, a former member of the women’s varsity hockey team and a current women’s club water polo player, agreed that the traditional notion of masculinity factors prominently in any athletic culture. In her experience, she added, women’s teams tend to be more accepting of LGBTQ players than are men’s teams.
“I think it’s easier to be an out athlete on a women’s team,” she said.
Hadley said she believes that part of the reason for the discrepancy is that girls tend to be more comfortable showing friends physical affection than boys. The presence of an openly gay player on a men’s team, Hadley suggested, might be more threatening to straight male teammates than the analogous situation on a female team. For example, she said there are a lot of physical rituals between players in men’s sports, like “when guys slap each other on the butt after a game.” If an openly gay player were involved, she said, men would be more likely than women to “look at their own actions, and ask themselves — wait, am I gay?”
Maria Trumpler GRD ’92, director of LGBTQ resources, said she thinks part of this anxiety stems from the fact that high-level team sports travel a lot together, shower together and otherwise experience much more same-sex physical closeness than is common in our culture.
“I think there are ways that teams have to police those boundaries to keep it from going over into actual sexual attraction,” she said.
As a result of this hetero-normative “macho” culture, athletes often use remarks to write off poor athletic performances, said Colton Staab ’12, an openly gay diver on the varsity swimming team. While Staab said he does not take every homophobic remark personally, the use of words like “gay” as pejorative terms does bother him.
“[Swimmers] say you had a ‘gay swim’ if you went really slowly,” Staab said. “People are unaware that the terms they’re using are denigrating and demeaning … it’s steeped in the culture.”
Staab added that in his experience, straight athletes’ reactions towards issues of sexual orientation has been characterized by an odd discontinuity: teammates are hyper-conscious about certain LGBTQ issues such as gay rights, while often frustratingly oblivious to the impact of their everyday speech.
“There’s a guy on my team who throws out the word ‘gay’ left and right as a pejorative term,” Staab said. “So when I saw he ‘liked’ a [gay] rights campaign on Facebook, I was confused.”
But silence can be just as devastating to a teammate as could any hurtful words, said Genny Ladiges ’12, a member of the women’s varsity hockey team.
In particular, Ladiges remembers an incident from freshman year when speaking out would have made all the difference. She said she went out to a bar with a few of her hockey teammates, including Kozlowski, who was openly gay at the time. Some guys at the neighboring table, she said, were having a loud conversation in which they repeatedly used the word “gay” as a pejorative.
Ladiges remembered that when the teammates left the bar, Danielle Kozlowski ’09 was visibly shaken.
“She was upset afterwards because nobody stood up for her,” Ladiges said. “She looked at us and said, ‘We’re teammates. I would have stood up for you.’”
“OUT” TO THE TEAM
Despite the occasional insensitivity, several gay athletes said their teams generally make a strong effort to be supportive of diverse sexualities.
Adrian Godoy ’12 said he has never had any negative experiences on the mens’ varsity fencing team because he is openly gay.
“I’ve don’t think I’ve ever felt alone or awkward,” Godoy said. “I’ve never, ever had to correct anyone’s language either.”
Godoy admitted that he had been nervous at first to come out to the team. Two months into freshman year, he said he decided to “test the waters” by first coming out to one or two friends on the team. With their support, Godoy worked up the guts to make his big announcement.
“I told them, and they were like, ‘So, um, is that all?’” Godoy said of his nonplussed teammates. “There’s no doubt that the fencing team is extremely accepting,” he added.
Kate Parker ’11 said the women’s varsity volleyball team is, too. Last spring, Parker, who has since left the team for other reasons, sat her teammates down in the locker room after practice. Parker must have looked anxious — she said her teammates wondered if she was quitting, or had a family emergency. Instead, she came out as a lesbian.
“I wanted to be out at Yale,” Parker said. “I could only do that once I told the team.” She said that while the team did not seem fazed by her coming out, some teammates had questions for her, and one or two even congratulated her.
Club teams especially seem to prioritize making their LGBTQ members feel welcome. In particular, the women’s club rugby team has established itself as a supportive community for athletes of any sexual orientation, Sophia “Yoshi” Shapiro ’11, an openly gay member of the rugby team and an LGBT Co-op Coordinator, said.
“I love the way that sexuality is dealt with on the rugby team,” Shapiro said. “It’s a community unto itself … it allows people to figure themselves out in a really safe space.”
But Shapiro said the team’s reputation for being extremely supportive of gay members is a double-edged sword because Yalies not on the team often assume that most — if not all — of the players on the team are lesbians.
“People think the rugby team is ‘super gay,’ a team full of gay women,” she said. “That’s incredibly inaccurate, and it’s hurtful to the straight women on the team.”
She added that the team works hard not to make any one subgroup feel like the minority, not only for the overall well-being of the individual players, but also for the success of the whole team.
Parker said that any team is at its best when all players feel comfortable.
“As a woman athlete, you don’t tend to go very far without learning to be accepting of lesbians,” joked Hadley.
Joel Samaha ’12, a member of men’s varsity tennis said that while LGBTQ issues are not often discussed within the context of the team, he felt the team’s closeness would contribute to its support of players of any sexual orientation.
“We all have close relationships,” Samaha said of his teammates. While he said there are currently no openly gay players on men’s tennis, Samaha said if someone on the team were to come out, “it wouldn’t be that big of an issue.”
Players who come out actually decrease any social tension that might have existed because they were closeted, Ladiges said. She recalled that because her former teammate Kozlowski was openly gay and often discussed LGBTQ issues, the team felt more comfortable in supporting her than they would have had she stayed in the closet.
Once someone comes out, the team can essentially say, “Yo, great, we’re supportive, we’re there for you,” Ladiges said.
STUCK IN THE CLOSET
Staab didn’t even have the luxury of choosing whether or when to come out to his fellow varsity swimmers. He said he was “outed” in what he facetiously calls a “blowout event,” where a misunderstanding led to the entire team finding out he was gay.
“There’s a really big fear of being outed if you’re closeted,” Staab said.
But if coming out makes team dynamics less awkward, why do some athletes choose to stay in the closet?
Staab said there are reasons other than team dynamics that athletes might choose to stay closeted — like family or religious pressures, or even denial.
When Staab realized he had been outed, he said he “freaked out.” But since then, being out has allowed him to “be more open and honest in relationships with everyone,” he said.
Actually, Staab’s teammates were not only accepting of his homosexuality, they weren’t the least bit surprised: several of Staab’s teammates later told him they were glad he was finally out because had suspected he was gay, and had jokingly referred to him “the gay boy who wasn’t.”
But when Staab moved into the swim house with several of his teammates last spring, he said he was nervous that his homosexuality might create tension in the house. “I didn’t know whether [my teammates] were ‘okay with it’ in quotes, or really okay with it,” he said.
But Staab didn’t have to wait long to find out: after a night out last spring, when Staab brought home a male date he said he was unsure how his teammates might react. He said he actually found himself hoping to be gently teased, just as anyone else on the team would be — the team has a tradition called “hardhatting,” where they repeatedly shout “HAT!” at a teammate if he is “hitting on” someone.
Staab said he was pleasantly surprised that his teammates, who had gathered on the swim house porch, “hardhatted” him as he entered the house.
“They didn’t avoid the situation just because I was with another guy,” Staab said. “They recognized what was happening and made fun of me like anyone else. I was part of the team.”
THEORY OF RELATIVITY
Godoy, Parker, Staab and Shapiro, like many other openly gay Yalies, agree that Yale is generally a supportive and accepting place to be gay. Most Yale students are familiar with Yale’s unofficial — and for the most part loving — nickname, “The Gay Ivy.” Maria Trumpler, director of LGBTQ resources, estimates that approximately 10 percent of Yale students are openly gay. There are many support networks in place for LGBTQ students, such as the Queer Peers program, which provides one-on-one counseling with student mentors trained in discussing sexuality issues.
And if you’re a gay student-athlete, the men’s varsity swimming & diving Team’s got your back. And so does women’s volleyball and men’s fencing. Not to mention Women’s club rugby. So there must plenty of varsity athletes who feel comfortable being out at Yale, since everyone is so supportive and accepting, right?
“I actually know someone on our team who hasn’t come out, and is gay,” Ladiges said. “Our team is into the frats, and people ask ‘what’d you do at Toad’s?’ in the locker room. Breaking that down when coming out would be tough.”
For her part, Parker remembers how daunting coming out seemed when she was still in the closet:
“I was terrified to come out to the volleyball team,” she said. “I had no idea what to expect.”
Several other openly gay athletes interviewed attested to how difficult it was to come out to their teams, despite the fact that in all cases their teams were ultimately accepting.
In fact, five athletes interviewed confirmed that they know at least one closeted Yale varsity athlete.
Now for some math: there are about 480 male varsity athletes at Yale, and about 370 female varsity athletes.
“At Yale, if you use a conservative approach for a baseline estimation, around 10 percent of undergraduates identify as LGBT, which is a big discrepancy between what we might expect and the people who are actually out,” Tumpler said.
Assuming that gay students are, for the most part, equally distributed across the Yale population, applying Trumpler’s estimation of ten percent means that, proportionally, there should be about 48 openly gay male athletes and 37 openly gay female athletes. Since 2006 when she became Special Adviser to the Dean’s Office for LGBTQ Issues, Trumpler said there has not been a substantial community of gay athletes — she has actually never known more than five athletes to be out in a given year.
But according to eight athletes interviewed, there are currently about six Yale varsity athletes of each gender who are out. In other words, at most, only about 1.25 percent of male varsity athletes are openly gay, as are only about 1.6 percent of female varsity athletes. In still other words, a shockingly low relative proportion.
It is possible that the tiny fraction of openly gay athletes at Yale is coincidental — as Shapiro puts it, this is the “all the straight athletes somehow came to Yale” theory. And perhaps the above assumption that gay students are equally distributed throughout the student population might not be a safe one to make. Furthermore, one might argue that the masculine culture of athletics is self-selecting, weeding out gay men before the college varsity level. Still, this argument does not hold for women — as Shapiro said, lesbians are often well-represented on “rough sport” teams such as rugby.
But five athletes interviewed said it is far more likely that there more closeted Yalies in athletics than in other areas of the Yale community, which could explain the large discrepancy in the percentage of gay athletes versus that of gay students as a whole.
ATHLETES AND ALLIES
So, where do we go from here? What can Yale do to create a more welcoming environment for gay athletes, both out and in the closet?
On Oct. 20, about 25 athletes — varsity and club, gay and straight — gathered in the Ray Tompkins House adjacent to the Payne Whitney Gymnasium to discuss these very questions. The discussion group, organized by Godoy and Walden, is informally known as “Athletes and Allies.” The group has convened annually for the past several years, but both Godoy and Walden said attendance has skyrocketed during their time at Yale.
“My freshman year, the only people at the meeting were me, Maria Trumpler, Amy Backus, and one other girl,” Walden said.
Now that over 25 students were interested in the group, Godoy said the Yale Athletic Department provided $160 in funding for pizza and soda at the meeting. The attendees were even able to break into smaller discussion groups for about 15 minutes to facilitate more in-depth conversations.
Godoy and Walden are optimistic about the future of the group — they both said they hope for it to convene more often and solidify its presence on campus so that both current students and incoming freshmen are aware of the support network it offers.
“Our ultimate goal is to have the group be visible, advertised, and have a table at the Activities Bazaar,” Walden said. “We want to be Google-able… we don’t want to fizzle out.”
Several of the meeting attendees, as well as other athletes interviewed, disagreed over the best strategy for improving the experience of gay and closeted athletes at Yale.
Walden said he thinks that meaningful change must come from the administrators in the Athletic Departments themselves: “I would push for training of coaching staff [in LGBT issues],” he said.
At the Oct. 20 meeting, several athletes said the best way to improve the social climate for gay athletes is to raise awareness through speakers and workshops.
But Staab, for one, disagrees. “I think the environment is going to have to change on its own over time, not through forced workshops,” he said.
Godoy agreed that exposure to, and developing friendships with, individual LGBTQ teammates is the only way that the culture will truly shift. Straight teammates need to begin to see gay athletes as individuals, not as labels or stereotypes, he added.
“All it may take is one gay person on a team to be like, ‘Yo, it’s chill if I’m gay,’” Godoy joked.
But Parker said she feels strongly that the upperclassmen on a team, particularly the seniors or team captains, who set the behavioral standard — for better or for worse. The best way to improve the athletic culture is to encourage upperclassmen to set a positive example for their teammates to follow, she said.
“The seniors on the team really set the tone — from what you eat before a game to who you hook up with on the weekends,” Parker said. “Before I came out to the [volleyball] team, I had met with one of the seniors to come out to her first. It really made a difference having one person behind me,” she said.
Alejandro Bustillos ’11, an out LGBT Co-op coordinator, agreed that positive change starts most organically with upperclassmen. Senior athletes serve as team “role models,” he said, and have the most power to positively influence the team climate.
Any or all of these ideas would be a step in a right direction for the Yale athletic community, athletes said. But the question remains as to how many athletes are closeted, and why they feel uncomfortable coming out to their teams. But for some, the issue boils down to language and common decency.
“It’s about athletes realizing, ‘hey, we can’t use the word ‘fag’ at practice,’” Parker said. “They need to stop and say to themselves, ‘maybe the things we do aren’t okay.’”