The conversation about LGBTQA students in collegiate and high school sports has not been common, but it should be, according to Sarah Holmes, coordinator for the Center of Sexualities and Gender Diversity.
This week, the USM Sampson Center for Diversity in Maine will host “Changing the Game: A Panel Discussion on LGBT People in High School and College Athletics” to try to start a more open dialogue between coaches, LGBTQA student athletes and their teammates.
“It’s a difficult conversation to start,” said Sarah Holmes, coordinator of the Center for Sexualities and Gender Diversity. “In order to come out [as an LGBTQA person], you need to feel supported and welcome.” In order to have an environment that’s supportive and welcoming, Holmes said, good athletes need to start the move to be open and come out to set an example in the athletic community of support and acceptance. The conversation so far on the subject has been minimal, according to Holmes.
Al Bean, director of athletics, agrees that at universities nationwide, including USM, the acceptance or lack thereof of LGBTQA athletes into the athletics community remains a hushed topic.
“There’s [sic] some very deep-rooted prejudices and feelings in this area,” said Bean. “Anytime you have a locker room situation and you have people who spend a lot of time together, they have to rely on each other and trust each other. They’re changing in there every day and showering every day. It’s a little bit of a different dynamic than the average person might deal with.”
This dynamic, according to Holmes, makes the athletic “walk of life” for LGBTQA students more difficult than general social settings.
“It’s a relatively new conversation in athletics, not just at USM but worldwide. It’s not a conversation they’re [athletic administration] used to having because it’s a relatively new public conversation,” said Holmes. “It’s hard for them, I think, to know how to create a welcoming and inclusive environment [for LGBTQA individuals].”
According to Susie Bock, director of the Sampson Center, now is a better time than ever to address athletic LGBTQA issues.
“The next generation, kids in high school and kids entering college, are kind of like, ‘What’s the big deal [with an LGBTQA lifestyle]?’” said Bock.
Bock compares the current push to accept LGBTQA community to the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.
“No one would question today giving African Americans the same rights as white people,” said Bock. “But there are still people who say, ‘Well why do we have to do this for LGBTQA? Why are they a special group?’”
She believes the groups share the same issues.
“No U.S. citizen deserves to have prejudice affect their life,” Bock said.
Bean agrees with Holmes, noting that it takes a high-profile individual to have the courage to “come out” to create a trickle-down effect for high school and college students. Dave Palone, a former major league umpire, illustrated to him the importance of a role model to young adults.
“One day, as he said, ‘I woke up and my face was out the front page of the newspaper.’ He was outed as being gay,” Bean said. “He said that he was fired for poor performance by major league baseball, within months; he was rated as one of the top umpires for years. He’s literally had thousands of letters from people who are gay telling him he’s saved their lives. He said, ‘I keep ‘em all.’ One person can have such an impact.”
Even so, Bean agrees that an everyday person can make as big a difference as a celebrity.
Bean recognizes that even with education and resources available to students, once conversation goes beyond the public eye, it’s out of administrators’ hands. “We’ve got to trust that there are people, leaders, who will do what they can to make sure that that stuff [derogatory name calling] is eliminated or minimized.”
The panel, he hopes, will break down the unknown surrounding LGBTQA athletes.
“You’re dealing with human life. You don’t need to agree with it, you just have to respect the person,” said Bean. “Just a matter of simple respect and civility for the individual can go a long way.”
Student Body President Kelsea Dunham, who is an active member of the LGBTQA community at USM, said that personally, she doesn’t know any student athletes at USM who identify as LGBTQA, although, she admitted that she is currently working to become more connected with student athletes in general.
Erin Carlson, a senior social work major, however, disagreed. “They definitely exist at USM,” she said. Carlson explained that she knows a few student athletes at USM who are LGBTQA. “I don’t know how open they are in their athletic community, though,” she said. Carlson said that she does think that the acceptance of LGBTQA students in athletics is not just an issue at USM – it’s an issue everywhere, she said. But, she said, for many students and the public at large, the issue may not be on their radar because it may not affect them personally.
Carlson stressed, however, that the conversation is an important one for students and the community to have.
Bock agrees. “I do hope that it empowers people. If there is just one person who attends this who’s been hiding away and feels stronger for coming,” she said. “If it just helps them feel better about themselves, we’ve accomplished a lot.”
She added, “hopefully we will have contributed towards making the environment at USM more diverse, more accepting, more positive.”
The panel will be held from 5 to 6:30 p.m. this Thursday in the University Events Room of the seventh floor of Glickman Family Library in Portland.