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Out of the Closet and Onto the Team: LGBT Student-Athletes

LGBT Youth June 2nd, 2009
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~ By Luca Maurer

The world of sport has been called the “last closet” for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. But, as society’s attitudes change, so can those in the arena of sport. Until recently, the realm of sport could feel a lonely place for LGBT youth. Being an out LGBT high school or college athlete was nearly unheard of. And those who were LGBT may have felt isolated, or forced to choose between their sport participation and their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Participating in sport has life-long benefits
Young people who participate in sport can develop skills applicable not just to the playing field, but to the board room as well. In addition to important physical conditioning, participating in sport can develop leadership, confidence, cooperation, effectively expressing emotion, developing respect, cultivating strategies for addressing stress, and improved decision making. These are skills for life. Until recently, most LGBT youth had their opportunities for such important skills development curtailed because of the climate in sport. However, many new resources, exhibitions, and special events are changing all that at a rapid pace.

Sports Climate
In March 2009, Ithaca College hosted the Sport, Sexuality, and Culture Conference. The conference brought together an international gathering of scholars, students, athletes, academics and professionals in the field, and served to frame the multifaceted issues facing LGBT people – especially high school and college students – in sports.

One interesting research study presented at the conference examined key themes regarding the current climate for LGBT student athletes. In the study The Athletic Training Room as a Safe Space for Gay and Lesbian High School Athletes, more than 70% of respondents (athletic trainers) reported observing homophobic behavior by student athletes. But these same respondents also reported in overwhelming numbers that they felt they had created a safe training room environment with regard to LGBT issues. The disconnect between the environment the trainers believed they had created, and the behavior they observed to the contrary, serves to illustrate the challenging nature of making change in the sport environment.

Fortunately, interest is growing among educators, parents, and coaches in the topic of curbing homophobia to make the playing field safe for all. This work can allow LGBT young people to not only feel safe to bring their authentic selves to their sport, but indeed to consider sport participation as a realistic option at all – as contrasted to the past when some LGBT youth may have feared taunts or violence on the field or in the locker room. It also frees LGBT youth to more fully focus and participate in their sport performance. Likewise, it frees heterosexual teammates to do the same – to devote their full attention to issues related to sports, rather than to worrying about establishing or asserting their sexual orientation so as to avoid being labeled or bullied.

“Out” Role Models
Another force for positive change is a new availability and accessibility of out youth role models. Artist Jeff Sheng created “Fearless,” a traveling photography exhibit of LGBT athletes on high school and college sports teams from around the nation. The exhibit features panels with portraits and interviews of each athlete (see video below). Sheng explains “While these individuals are only a small segment of the LGBTQ community, I wanted to photograph them and give them visibility because they exemplify a particular courage and self-confidence in being “out” at a very young age while also competitively participating in the often-times homophobic world of sports. “

Self-advocacy and organizing efforts are also taking place among LGBT students themselves. Our Group is a newly formed outreach, support and advocacy organization created by LGBT high school and college student-athletes and allies. Our Group is dedicated to educating athletes, coaches and fans so that the sports community is an accepting one for all athletes, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Founded less than two years ago, Our Group has already provided resources and support for high schools and individual athletes, as well as informative presentations at regional and national conferences.

Out adult LGBT professional and Olympic-level athlete role models are still relatively hard to find. And even today, most make the decision to come out after their years of competition are over. As resources become more publicized and more available, perhaps today’s generation of youth will join with those professional LGBT athletes who have come out and been role models for them, such as:

  • Olympic gold medalist Matthew Mitcham (one of less than a dozen out LGB athletes in the 2008 Beijing Olympics)
  • NBA player John Amaechi
  • Michelle Dumaresq, transwoman and champion mountain bike racer
  • Esera Tuaolo, former NFL player
  • Greg Louganis, Olympic diver
  • Rudy Galindo, figure skater
  • tennis great Martina Navratilova

Since learning about LGBT history and heroes continues to be challenging, particularly in sports, knowing about such sports figures can serve to broaden the goals to which young people aspire. Whether they hope to become an Olympic or professional athlete, compete at the high school or college level, or merely enjoy an occasional friendly pick-up game or league in their community, knowing about these trailblazers is a reminder that there is room for them in sports.

As this groundbreaking change continues, LGBT youth – and their heterosexual peers – will have more role models to emulate, and no doubt feel they are at last fully part of the worldwide community of athletes and of sport.

For additional information
Time Out! A Conversation about Including LGBT Student-Athletes – a video of an NCAA panel addressing these themes

Creating a Safer Climate for LGBT Athletes and Coaches – checklists that offer a starting point for coaches and physical educators committed to an LGBT-inclusive team environment

Benefits of Addressing Homophobia in Sport – provides a review of the positive outcomes this can effect

Resources for Addressing Homophobia in Sport – provides a variety of downloadable resources, including chalk talks and handouts

Out in the Open – tips for athletic departments in addressing homophobia

It Takes a Team! – Educational Campaign for LGBT Issues in Sport of the Women’s Sports Foundation

The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association – developed the first policy in the nation governing the participation of transgender athletes in high school sports



Lis Maurer is the coordinator of the Center for LGBT Education, Outreach & Services at Ithaca College, and is on the Editorial Board of The Prevention Researcher.

One Response to “Out of the Closet and Onto the Team: LGBT Student-Athletes”

  1. The Prevention Researcher Blog » Blog Archive » Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Students’ Success in College Says:

    [...] not as highly valued by these students. This raises additional questions about the experiences of LGB student athletes and their unique needs and assets, as well as those LGB students who may summarily dismiss [...]

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