A group of six male student-athletes have banded together with the mission of making Yale and its athletic department more inclusive for LGBTQ student-athletes.
After meeting each other through coincidental interactions and mutual acquaintances, the six students gathered for the first time in October, when they decided to create an informal support network for LGBTQ student-athletes at Yale. The group has since then acquired administrative support from Brian Tompkins, senior associate athletic director of student services, who has played a role in multiple student-led initiatives since his transition from Yale head coach to athletics administrator.
Though the group is still in its initial stages, members stressed the importance of reaching out to incoming LGBTQ student-athletes, helping to integrate them into the Yale athletic community and tackling a “locker room culture” that, according to the students, can be harmful to male LGBTQ athletes.
“Our end goal is to create an infrastructure and a social and institutional culture where any athlete feels comfortable coming out and being a queer athlete at Yale,” said men’s diver Wayne Zhang ’18, who is also a staff reporter for YTV.
When men’s golfer Jake Leffew ’19 arrived on campus last fall, he reached out to his residential college dean for help in finding other gay athletes at Yale, but his dean was not aware of any. It took Leffew many weeks and meetings with multiple administrators in the athletic department before he finally was connected with Luc Ryan-Schreiber ’17, a gay athlete on the Yale club men’s rugby team.
In their first interaction, Ryan-Schreiber and Leffew discussed the small number of openly gay athletes at Yale, and discussed potential ways of connecting those athletes, not just with each other but also with the larger Yale athletic community.
“We don’t want to have [another issue with finding peers at Yale] happen again,” Ryan-Schreiber said.
Since then, with the support of Tompkins, the group has reached out to residential college masters and deans to offer resources to those administrators for assisting LGBTQ student-athletes who come to them. Tompkins added that the group is planning on distributing informational flyers next fall to incoming student-athletes with details about Yale’s LGBTQ athletic community.
Previously, students could turn to a group called Athletes and Allies, which also worked to support LGBTQ athletes on varsity and club teams. But according to Ryan-Schreiber, the group was always tilted toward the Allies side, with “one [LGBTQ] athlete to 50 allies.” Athletes and Allies slowly became defunct, and as of last year it no longer exists on campus, Ryan-Schreiber said.
Though the group is currently made up of six male athletes, members said they hope to attract female students in the future who could run a parallel organization for female athletes.
Distance runner Timothy Cox ’17, who is also in the group, said in the next school year he will be a peer liaison to the Yale Office of LGBTQ Resources, where he hopes to get female athletes involved in the group’s projects.
“It’s what we’re trying to look for moving forward, maybe two groups in parallel for gay male athletes and queer female athletes, because they have different experiences and it might be difficult to have both completely together,” Ryan-Schreiber said.
In addition to improving the experience of incoming Bulldogs, the group is also looking to tackle the notion of what Ryan-Schreiber called a pervasive “locker room culture” across many teams at Yale.
“There is just the core assumption of heteronormativity in the locker room because you’re sure no one is gay,” Ryan-Schreiber said. “The goal is to make it clear that you should not assume there isn’t someone gay.”
Leffew said the group plans to have meetings at the start of the fall semester with coaches and captains from all 35 varsity teams to ensure that athletes and coaches alike are aware that their language could be potentially harmful for LGBTQ athletes.
That conversation, Tompkins said, should also eventually be extended to the entire athletic department to ensure administrators are part of the dialogue and can provide support for student-athletes.
“As far as the culture goes, it’s really about unseen struggles for our athletes,” Tompkins said. “We have to see how we’re going to communicate that both within [teams] and to [department administrators].”
Tompkins added that he has learned a great deal about issues that LGBTQ athletes face while working alongside the six students over the last five months, and a similar education process within the department would also come gradually.
Still, Zhang highlighted that the Yale community is overall very accepting of all students, and that the locker room culture is not an issue of intention, but instead something all should be made aware of to prevent accidental offense.
In fact, the group began work on a video last month to promote inclusivity of LGBTQ athletes on sports teams. Thus far, all teams that the group has contacted have agreed to participate in the video.
The video is part of a larger initiative by the organization You Can Play, which supports similar videos made by both individual teams and schools — both high schools and colleges — across the nation.
“The message that athletes should be judged by their contribution to a team or a sport, without regard to sexual orientation or gender identity, is easy to understand,” You Can Play Co-Founder Brian Kitts said. “We’re excited to see Yale’s video and we appreciate the chance to work with Yale’s athletes, coaches and fans.”
In the long term, Leffew said he hopes the group will become a model for other Ivy League schools to follow. He added that he would also like to see a conference held at Yale on the topic of LGBTQ athletes.
Correction, April 26: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Timothy Cox ’17 will be a peer liaison to the Yale LGBTQ Co-op; in fact, he will work with the Yale Office of LGBTQ Resources.