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Breaking the silence: Northwestern’s LGBT athletes struggle to find their voices amid a lacking support system

November 7, 2014

Tara Gordon did not want to be just another stereotype.

For Gordon, a Northwestern field hockey player, coming out as lesbian would validate the stereotype that female athletes tend to identify as LGBT.

“I felt like people would just look at me as a stereotype instead of a human being or as an athlete anymore,” she said. “That was my fear.”

For John Andrade, coming out meant breaking stereotypes. When Andrade, a member of NU’s diving team, imagines a male athlete, he pictures someone strong, with broad shoulders and a deep voice. Someone who is straight. Andrade is gay.

Despite the difference in stereotypes plaguing male and female athletes, activists and athletes said the existence of these stereotypes has led to an absence of conversation around sexuality in athletics. At NU, it is no different.

“It’s very hush-hush,” Gordon said. “It’s kind of just this understood secrecy that if you know another athlete who is (LGBT), you don’t really talk about it out of respect for them because it’s their business. I feel like athletes have this assumption that there is more pressure on them to be straight and to fit this mold, and I don’t think any of us, including myself, really want to confirm these stereotypes that already exist.”

NU’s athletic department does not require any training or education on LGBT issues for its athletes or coaches. Although LGBT student-athletes at NU who spoke with The Daily said they have never been discriminated against, they said a culture of silence persists around discussing issues of sexuality.

Kept within ‘the family’

Most LGBT athletes interviewed for this story said their experiences on their individual teams have been positive, with supportive teammates and coaches. However, athletes said their experiences outside their teams are a different story.

A former fencer who identifies as bisexual described each team as an individual unit, each with its own distinct dynamic.

“Each team is a family, and while we are all under the label of Northwestern athletics, those families don’t necessarily interact with one another the same way,” said the fencer, who asked for anonymity. “They feel like they need to keep their families’ personal lives under one roof or within itself.”

The fencer, who was one of three team captains, did not tell her team about her sexual orientation or her relationship with another woman. She said she struggled to keep so much of her personal life private and always felt she had a lot to hide. She left the team after two years to pursue other interests.

“Because sophomore year I was in a leadership position, I didn’t want to appear weak in any way,” she said. “I didn’t want to appear unsure of myself in any sense. I just wanted to be a very good role model for my teammates.”

Weinberg senior Kayleen McMonigal, who ran cross country during her freshman and sophomore years, said she was nervous to tell her teammates she was queer because she spent the majority of her time with them.

“I knew that if they reacted badly, it would be really, really bad,” she said.

However, McMonigal said the team was supportive when she came out and her sexuality played no role in her leaving the team.

John Andrade

Portrait by Sean Su/Daily Senior Staffer

John Andrade

Although Andrade, the diver, said his team has been accepting, he said some athletes are not necessarily as lucky.

“You’re on a team and you’re expected to fit that mold and if you don’t fit that mold, especially if you’re not comfortable with who you are, it’s very hard,” the Weinberg senior said. “You don’t choose the people on your team.”

The coaches’ corner

Football coach Pat Fitzgerald is often represented as the face of NU’s athletic department. A standout on NU’s football team in the ‘90s and the first Wildcats coach to win a bowl game in more than 60 years, Fitzgerald is also the highest paid employee at the University.

However, on at least two occasions, Fitzgerald has declined to comment on LGBT issues in athletics.

In February 2014, the Chicago Tribune asked four of the major college football coaches in the area about their reactions to Michael Sam coming out and what they would do if they had a gay player on their team. Sam, a former University of Missouri football player, became the first openly gay player drafted in the National Football League in May.

The head coaches from the University of Notre Dame, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Northern Illinois University all said they would work to make sure a gay player felt comfortable in their locker rooms.

Fitzgerald, according to the article, declined to comment through a spokesman, saying he did not want to discuss a hypothetical situation.

When The Daily asked to speak with Fitzgerald about the topic, he again declined to comment through a spokesman. The athletic department allowed assistant women’s basketball coach Allison Guth to be interviewed, but denied all further interview requests on the topic.

Benoit Denizet-Lewis (Medill ‘97), a former Daily staffer and a gay journalist who covers LGBT issues for The New York Times Magazine and has also written for Sports Illustrated, said a team’s culture is heavily dependent on its coach’s attitude, so he fears Fitzgerald’s lack of comment may prevent a player from being open about his sexuality.

“I would hope that if a player came to Fitz and said it was important for him to tell his teammates the truth about who he was that Fitz or any other coach at Northwestern wouldn’t shut him down,” he said. “As a Northwestern alum living in the year 2014, I really hope we’re beyond that and coaches at Northwestern would be supportive.”

Wade Davis II, the executive director of You Can Play, an organization created to help schools and teams understand the importance of safe spaces for athletes, said coaches may not have the “cultural competency” to comment on the topic and therefore may be afraid of saying the wrong thing. However, he said there is no excuse for coaches to not be educated on the issue.

“Any time that there’s silence around an issue that may be very important to a specific athlete, it further invisibilizes you,” Davis said. “It further makes you think that people don’t believe that this issue is important.”

Guth, the assistant women’s basketball coach, identifies as gay and said the most effective way to address issues of sexuality would be on a team-by-team basis.

“The issues could be brought up the same, but the way you address a football team versus the way you address a softball team is probably different in that conversation,” she said.

Not on his terms

Walter Currie was outed.

Currie, who played offensive tackle on NU’s football team from 1979 to 1981, confided in one of his teammates that he was gay during the spring of 1981. When he came back in the fall for his junior year, he found out the player had told other teammates and the entire team knew he was gay.

He said he never intended to tell all of his teammates about his sexual orientation and described his junior year as “one of the most difficult times” of his life. He moved out of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity house and lived in a single in Foster-Walker Complex. Currie said he moved out because he felt unwelcome by some of the members in the house. He became dependent on alcohol to cope with the homophobia, which was mainly in the form of anti-gay slurs.

However, he moved back into the fraternity house in the spring because he felt he had a right to live there.

Currie remained on the winless 1981 team but was cut prior to his senior season by the coach at the time, Dennis Green. He was not a starter on the offensive line but did serve as one of the captains of the special teams unit. Currie said he was the only one he remembers being cut before the season.

The coaches, he said, told him he was cut because he was not playing up to his potential. However, Currie, who said he played as much as any other second-string player on the team, said he thinks he was cut because he was gay. In a column from The Daily in 1997 written by Denizet-Lewis, Green denied that claim and said he did not remember Currie.

Green could not be reached for comment.

Currie, who now lives in California, graduated in 1983. He said he is still conflicted on whether college athletes should come out to their teams.

“There are still consequences of coming out,” he said. “You just have to weigh the consequences and in my case, I didn’t make the choice. Someone made it for me.”

A different type of student

Most student-athletes lead vastly different lives compared to the rest of NU’s student body. With their schedules dictated by practices and games, athletes have less time to engage with the larger NU community.

As a result, Devin Moss, former director of the LGBT Resource Center, said he struggled to reach athletes to discuss issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. Moss left NU in July and his position has not been filled.

“For me, it’s been a harder area to get into just because athletes seem to be really protected,” Moss told The Daily in July. “It’s one of those things where whether you want to talk about it or not, it exists.”

Unlike the rest of the student body, athletic department staff monitor student-athletes’ social media accounts and students can be told to take posts down if they are deemed “inappropriate,” according to NU’s student-athlete handbook.

McMonigal, the former cross country runner, said she felt her behavior was “policed” during her time as an athlete. She said sexual orientation seemed to be lumped into topics athletes should not discuss on social media.

“For me, it kind of felt like sexuality almost fell into that category a little bit just because we are supposed to appear proper and a good role model,” she said. “For some reason, talking about sexuality and sex and things like that just seemed like something you weren’t suppose to do.”

The handbook does not specify what behaviors are considered inappropriate. A spokesman for the athletic department said posts are only asked to be taken down, which is a rare occurrence, if they could be in violation of NCAA rules.

An underground network

The silence about sexual orientation that pervades NU’s athletic community has left  LGBT athletes without resources for support and without a community. Many of the athletes interviewed for this story said they were unaware of more than a few other LGBT athletes at NU. In most cases, the athletes they did know were on their team.

NU’s main resource for the LGBT community is the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center, which was renamed this year from the LGBT Resource Center. The center serves as a hub for programming, student groups and support for the community. Many of the groups are focused on specific identities such as LGBT students in the Greek community and queer people of color.

There is no group dedicated to LGBT athletes — something all athletes interviewed said they would benefit from.

Although most of the athletes interviewed said they feel supported by their teammates and coaches, they still said they find the silence isolating.

A bisexual male diver, who graduated in June and asked to remain anonymous, said he felt alone when he came out because of how few out LGBT athletes there are.

“I felt like I was really vulnerable,” he said. “There is — especially for guys — a macho mentality and you have to show how masculine you are all the time. It can be a little scary to be around people like that when you feel less than the idea of masculine.”

McMongial said when she came out, she tried to find other athletes to talk to. However, she said she struggled to find others because no gay athletes are “super visible” and only an underground network of LGBT athletes exists.

“It’s really scary if you are a new student-athlete and you want to come out but you don’t know any other LGBT student-athletes,” McMongial said. “It kind of feels like a black box of like ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen.’”

The silence is not new for the athletic department.

Kasha Roseta, who played on the women’s soccer team from 1996 to 2000, described a similar culture of silence during her time as a Wildcat. Roseta (SESP ’00) came out as gay the summer before her senior year.

“There’s a lot of speculation going on not only about coaches, but also about players,” she said. “Nobody really brought it up because it was really seen as something that was out there. It was stigmatized.”

A missing piece

The athletic department’s main programming for students revolves around creating an inclusive community, but there is no specific programming or education on LGBT issues in athletics.

Engage, one of NU’s new support initiatives, officially launched this year in collaboration with Multicultural Student Affairs. The program sponsors optional events for athletes twice a quarter and also highlights other programming through MSA.

Maria Sanchez, assistant athletic director for academic services and student development, coordinates the Engage program.

“We’re kind of working as we go,” she said. “We’ve committed to the dates and times and we have a loose framework for the curriculum, but we want to be able to be a little flexible based on what our students’ interests are.”

Sanchez said Engage’s November event will center around the power of language.

“What we are focusing on is developing a more inclusive community,” she said. “The actual curriculum doesn’t target a specific group.”

The only formal contact between student-athletes and the then-LGBT Resource Center was an annual meeting between leaders from each of the 19 varsity athletic teams, said Moss, the former director of the center.

Tara Gordon

Portrait by Sean Su/Daily Senior Staffer
Tara Gordon

Gordon, the field hockey player, said the lack of programming is “pretty upsetting.”

“There doesn’t have to be this issue of silence even though sometimes that’s an easier way to handle it,” the SESP junior said. “I think it would help a lot of people if there wasn’t this pressure to stay quiet.”

Davis, the executive director of You Can Play, said athletic departments must be deliberate about LGBT-specific issues because discussions about inclusivity have generally referred to race, religion and class.

“There needs to be some intentionality,” he said, “so (LGBT athletes) know that you believe that they exist because the common narrative right now is ‘I don’t have any gay athletes on my team,’ so if you’re an LGBT individual and people are using words like diversity and inclusion, you do not believe that they’re talking about you.”

A national movement

As more college and professional athletes come out around the nation, colleges have taken steps to create safe spaces on athletic teams. NU, however, has not followed in the footsteps of many of its peer institutions.

Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of Outsports.com, which covers gay sports news, said colleges have focused on three areas to improve the climate for gay athletes: visibility, education and policy.

“It is the responsibility of the athletic department administrators and every single head and assistant coach to speak proactively with their teams about sexual orientation on the team and about welcoming everyone on the team whether they are gay or not,” he said.

NU’s athletic department follows the University’s policy on discrimination, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.

One way colleges have shown their support for LGBT athletes is through You Can Play videos. The project encourages high schools, colleges and professional sports teams to make videos declaring their teams’ support for gay athletes.

“To have a school being intentional about creating a conversation about sexual orientation and gender identity is empowering,” Davis said.

Davis, who played in the NFL for four years and is gay, said the videos also show athletes that are considering coming out that they have the support of their teammates and coaches.

NU has not made a You Can Play video, but many peer institutions have, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison, The Ohio State University, Penn State University, Notre Dame and Duke University.

Davis said the project does not tend to reach out to schools; rather, schools or athletes initiate the creation of the videos.

“If Notre Dame, a Catholic university, can take some of these steps to ensure that every team is a safe space for LGBT athletes,” Zeigler said, “then Northwestern has absolutely no excuse to not do it themselves.”

In 2011, NU made a video supporting the It Gets Better Project, demonstrating support for LGBT youth and taking a stand against bullying. Both Fitzgerald and athletic director Jim Phillips were featured in the video. Sanchez said members of the Peers Urging Responsible Practices through Leadership and Education mentoring program, a group of student-athlete leaders, have discussed making other public service announcements such as a You Can Play video.

Although Nevin Caple, co-founder of Br{ache the Silence Campaign, which focuses on advancing LGBT inclusion, acknowledged the benefits of visibility campaigns, she said education on LGBT issues must take precedence.

“It’s also easy for an institution to create a video just to say we’re inclusive,” Caple said. “But unless you lay the groundwork and have that grassroots training to support that kind of visibility, then it could essentially be counterproductive.”

Caple’s ultimate goal is to start a dialogue.

“Whenever I go to a campus, I don’t really get many people saying, ‘I don’t want to talk,’” she said. “They just need a space to feel safe so that they can talk.”

Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 9 a.m. Friday.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @tylerpager

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