Club and varsity athletes agree that more needs to be done to create a supportive team environment for members of their team who define as gay.
Sixteen varsity and club athletes gathered at the Ray Tompkins House Tuesday night for the fifth annual “Athletes and Allies.” Hosted by Yale Athletics since 2008, and organized this year by middle-distance varsity runner Katie Chockley ’14 and varsity épéeist Adrian Godoy ’12, the event featured an unmoderated discussion about attitudes towards sexuality within the athlete environment and what could be done to improve acceptance of athletes who do not define as straight. Chockley said cultivating an accepting environment is important both for the social and athletic aspects of a sport.
“You tend to perform better athletically when you think your team is fully supportive of you and who you are.”
The attendees included a number of allies expressing support for their teammates and trying to learn how to be more supportive. Three of Chockley’s teammates turned out to the event to support her, including captain Gabriella Kelly ’12.
In the past, the event has been advertized as for “gay” athletes and allies, and Chockley said she chose to keep the focus narrow, rather than using language such as “LGBTQ,” since the cultural dynamics surrounding transgendered athletes would involve a different discussion.
At the event, athletes including Chockley shared their stories of coming out.
When Chockley told her teammates she was gay last year as a freshman, there was already an openly gay senior on the women’s team, so Chockley said she was relatively comfortable, adding that she has never heard any negative experiences from athletes who have come out at Yale.
Still, three athletes at the event said they are hestitant to come out to their teammates.
Godoy, who identifies as gay but was unable to attend the event, said he only knows five athletes who are openly gay at Yale.
Athletes at the event said they know a number of closeted athletes and believe there are a significant amount more.
The group came to the consensus that several varsity teams and most club teams have yet to provide environments conducive to athletes coming out. Obstacles the sexual culture of athletic teams face include stereotypes about masculinity and femininity.
“Sports that are more accepting also tend to be those with weaker masculinity or femininity stereotypes,” Chockley said.
Chockley added that since varsity teammates spend a great deal of time with each other, and sometimes take group showers, gay athletes may be seen as a threat to the “macho culture” prevalent in male sports teams. Teams that have a stronger “macho culture”, such as basketball and football, make it more difficult for men on the teams to come out as gay, she said.
A teammate may be even more reluctant to come out to club sports teams because the team members do not spend as much time together, so they might not be as close.
A senior female varsity athlete at the event, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said she had not yet come out to her team because she thinks it might deteriorate the team dynamic.
But several athletes at the event said their teammates are the only people they are out to.
One male athlete, who is out to his team but not to others, said he has heard homophobic comments from this teammates, though none were directed at him personally. The student added that a friend on his team quit playing because he could not handle hearing the words “gay” and “sissy” used derogatively among his teammates so often.
While the general concensus was that athletic cultures put additional pressure on students who are thinking of coming out, the group was more ambivalent on how to resolve the issue.
Suggestions raised during the meeting included holding diversity or sensitivity training sessions for coaches and captains, raising awareness through speaker events and holding an introductory event for freshmen. Several athletes said captains and seniors contribute more to the sexual climate of their teams than coaches and should be responsible for cultivating an accepting culture. Kelley said an effective transformation takes only small changes in language such as saying “significant other” instead of assuming “boyfriend” or “girlfriend.”
Kelly said she would bring up promoting an inclusive atmosphere on teams in the captains’ council meeting, which will be held today.
An athlete who has not come out beyond his own team said he tells his teammates to stop when they use homophobic language and racial slurs.
“If you nip these kinds of things in the bud, it helps everyone recognize it as a safer space,” he said.
The student said he first came out to his best friend on the team first. Once he had gained this person’s support, he talked to each member of the team individually. All of them, he said, reacted well.
The athletes at the event said they have found their teammates generally supportive and accepting of gay athletes once they come out.
When the event began five years ago, Chockley said, only four people attended — Director of LGBTQ Resources Maria Trumpler, Athletics Director Amy Backus and two athletes.
Since then, she said the group has grown exponentially.
Although the turnout was not as high as last year’s 30 students, Chockley said the smaller group encouraged everyone to be actively involved in discussion.
“Last year, there was talk of concrete changes like speakers and suggestions for coaches to have LGBTQ training workshops,” Chockley said.
However, Godoy said the plans did not go into effect for this year because many potential organizers had graduated.
Chockley said she is pleased with both the support her team has shown for the event and the enthusiasm about expanding it.
“There’s always been talk that we should do more things,” Chockley said. “At this point, it’s important to get as many teams represented as possible.”
Several athletes including Kelly expressed interest in expanding the event to become monthly.
“I’m so happy I came,” Kelly said, “but I’m thinking of all these people I know who could really benefit from this kind of discussion.”