She used to be nervous around lesbians.
When Margaret Aiken ’04 played ice hockey in high school, she felt awkward around her one gay teammate. But when the former Yale women’s hockey player came out to her teammates here, she said she could imagine them feeling some of the same awkwardness.
“I didn’t really feel any overt homophobia, but it always makes things more difficult,” she said. “You have to shower together, share the same beds when we travel. I think it probably made some girls uncomfortable. To tell you the truth, they really didn’t have much to be afraid of. I really don’t find straight girls attractive.”
While the locker room has often played a central role in tales of athletic awkwardness and embarrassment, in recent years some light-hearted locker room lore has turned into a more serious national conversation about the treatment of homosexuals in athletics. Rising national concern over the issue spawned a recent NCAA initiative to educate athletes and administrators about homophobia in collegiate sports.
Although Yale athletes said they did not feel victims of direct homophobia, some said sexual orientation can create an underlying tension between gay and straight athletes on a team.
Joking and jockeying can be part of any team’s dynamic, but sometimes what may be intended as a playful jab can hit closer to home.
A junior male athlete said that his high school teammates occasionally teased him about being gay, even though he was not out — and would not be until several years later. At Yale, he said he has continued to hear some epithets from teammates, although not directed at him.
“I hear some disparaging remarks, like ‘gay’ used in a derogatory sense,” he said.
But more often, the situation is more uncomfortable than antagonistic, said the junior, who is not out to all his teammates.
“Sometimes when I’m with some guys on the team they’ll skirt around the term and allude to the fact that I’m gay,” he said. “Sometimes I wish they would just ask. Obviously, what I would want is them to not make any comments at all. But if there’s something on their mind, they should just talk about it.”
The junior told some teammates he is gay and said they were very supportive when he came out. The reason the whole team does not know, he said, is simply because not all of his teammates are his close friends — not because he suspects they would be upset by it.
But even on a team with members who were uncomfortable with homosexuality, Aiken said she doubts a Yale athlete would be the target of overt homophobia.
“I don’t know that there would be any violent reaction, just awkwardness that no one on a team likes,” she said. “It’s kind of like this joke that people want to make fun of and laugh at but they’re a little afraid. More than anything, homophobia just brings that element of awkwardness to a team.”
Even without direct slurs or attacks, the atmosphere of the team can often make some gay athletes uncomfortable, Aiken said. While she said it is not uncommon for women’s hockey teams to have several gay players, she said she felt out of place on the Yale team, which had only one other lesbian. At first, she joined her teammates for Saturday night dance parties at Toad’s and sexually-charged late nights at fraternities. But after coming out, she abandoned many of the team’s social activities.
“I don’t mind going to Toad’s once in a while, but going there or the DKE [fraternity] house or out with the baseball team all the time wasn’t very fun for me,” she said. “I didn’t really feel like I was involved in the culture. There really is an athlete culture and a team culture, but I just didn’t really fit into it.”
At the end of her freshman year, Aiken quit the team. Her decision was based in part on her dislike of the team’s rigorous schedule, but she said she may have stayed on the team if she had felt more connected with her teammates.
But sometimes the stereotypes work in reverse, and it’s not the teammates that create discomfort for athletes.
The women’s rugby team — one-third of which team president Caitlin Dean ’05 estimates is gay — sometimes finds itself struggling to overcome misconceptions.
“I’ve said to people, ‘Yeah, I play rugby.’ And they say, ‘Oh, you’re gay?’ And I say, ‘No, actually. I’m not,'” Dean said.
Dean said some members of the team worry that a lagging interest in the team in recent years may be because of the team’s reputation for attracting only lesbians.
“It’s something we try to combat a little for recruiting,” said Marjorie Friedman ’03, the backs captain. “I have heard from people thinking about joining the team that their friends have said, ‘Why do you want to do that? They’re all gay.'”
A sports mentality
But concerns over sexual orientation and athletics echo beyond the walls of Payne Whitney Gymnasium.
Eugene Marshall, chair of the NCAA Minority Opportunities and Interests Committee, said he has heard nationwide concerns about the relationship between gay and straight athletes.
“We had gay students feeling like they are not respected or treated fairly, and on the other side we had heterosexual students feeling uncomfortable and uncertain with teammates,” he said.
Last month, the NCAA piloted diversity education workshops on race, gender, and sexual orientation at the 2003 NCAA Conference. The half-day workshops were targeted at educating athletes, coaches, and administrators about the importance of diversity in athletics.
In the next stage of the program, NCAA facilitators will travel around the country and offer the workshops at selected colleges and universities. Marshall said the workshops will begin within the next few weeks.
It is not uncommon to see concerns about the status of minorities in sports, said Professor William Kelly, who teaches Sport, Society, and Culture.
While he said he didn’t think athletes themselves are more homophobic than others, he said the high profile of athletic contests can make homophobia seem especially acute.
“The nature of sports is the physicality,” he said. “This is about bodies competing and competing under the persistent gaze of spectators. It seems a natural place for people’s anxiety and prejudices to land.”
But the divide between athletes and non-athletes at Yale is not as wide as may be elsewhere, Kelly said.
“It is a persisting issue in American sports. And from my reading it’s a very deeply rooted problem at the university level. But I have not come across any evidence that it’s particularly virulent at Yale — or that athletics here can be singled out as a hot spot for homophobia,” Kelly said.
Barbara Chesler, the associate director of varsity sports at Yale, said that while the Athletics Department is concerned about homophobia, she does not believe it is a problem at Yale.
“If coaches or captains have concerns they haven’t been brought to us, and I don’t think we’re the kind of athletic department that’s inaccessible,” she said. “I would hope that we have an environment here at Yale that would be accepting of all our athletes.”
Frank Keefe, who has coached the men’s and women’s swimming team for the last 24 years, said he’s never been aware of anything that would indicate a problem.
“In my sport, where you walk around basically naked, you’d think there might be a problem [with homophobia],” he said. “But I’ve seen absolutely nothing.”
Football player Tim Barrett ’04 said the team is open-minded and he thinks it would accept a gay player.
“To my knowledge, no one on the team has ever actually openly demonstrated against homosexuals,” he said. “But there are some guys who are real Christian. They’re all-around great kids, but they might have some issues with homosexuals.”
Barrett said open Bibles are not uncommon in
the locker room, and if any players had issues with homosexuality it would likely be a result of their religiosity — not their status as athletes. He said that it is easy to assume sports teams have a problem with homophobia, but that is often not true.
“It’s a group of guys spending a lot of time together and showering together. To them it means nothing. But to someone unfamiliar with how that all works, it might seem like it could be an issue for someone to be homosexual,” he said.
One runner for the cross country team said an openly gay team member is accepted unquestionably, although some runners occasionally crack jokes.
“I’ve heard flippant remarks made in jest, but never anything vicious,” he said. “Even if someone were homophobic, the attitude on the team would be so against it that the homophobia would be suppressed, I think, more than the other way around.”
The junior athlete said that there are closed-minded people in any community — homophobia is not unusually prevalent in sports.
“There’s the stereotype of the testosterone-charged athlete who is like ‘I’m all man,’ that any time you enter a locker room you get a cock-swinging mentality. But in my experience here, I haven’t encountered that at all,” he said.
When Peter DiFrancesca ’04 was a freshman on the heavyweight crew team, he said he was not trying to hide his homosexuality from his teammates. He just had not gotten around to mentioning it to everyone before the Stiles Screw.
“I was screwed with a guy and they saw me there,” he said. “At practice that week they said, ‘Man, someone really screwed you. They screwed you with a guy.’ I sort of said, ‘Yeah, they did.’ They thought it was a joke. But I think slowly it dawned on them that it wasn’t. But they never mentioned it after that.”
DiFrancesca, who quit rowing at the end of his freshman year for unrelated reasons, said he encountered no problems with homophobia on his team or felt any divide.
Tension between gay and straight teammates would hurt the team’s performance, Dean said, and such a divide “makes no sense.”
But Dean — who was initially nervous about joining the rugby team because of its reputation — said the common goal of winning can be the best way to overcome such tensions.
“I had hardly known any gay people,” she said. “But once I played with the team, I felt totally comfortable. Being on a team with someone who’s different from you — whether their sexuality or race — is the best way to get to know them. You are forced to be close, forced to trust them.”
Keefe said he is sure he has coached some gay and lesbian swimmers here, but he has never considered asking about it or discussing it. He said he does not know which of his swimmers might be homosexual, but that it’s not relevant to his role as a coach.
“Our kids walk in, get in the water, train their butt off and get out of here. All I know about them is that they’re good kids and they work hard two hours a day for us,” Keefe said.
One gay junior athlete agreed that sexual orientation is an irrelevant question in an arena where results are what matter.
“I don’t see how sexuality plays into being part of an athletic team,” he said. “We talk all the time about separating our academic lives and athletic lives. Our social lives are just as separate. As a team, all we want to do is win.”