Proud to Play: Where the Gay and Athletic Communities Intersect
“Stereotypes are like records,” Jack Thorne – a soon-to-be Big 10 swimmer, who hails from Loveland, Colorado – says, repeating a quote he liked, “they’re meant to be broken.”
June 3 marks the one year anniversary since YouTube launched their video introducing #ProudToPlay, a movement working to end the anti-LGBTQ biases in the heteronormative culture of sports, while celebrating out (as well as closeted) LGBTQ athletes. Athletes who’ve reached celebrity status, such as Jason Collins, John Amaechi, and even Kobe Bryant, have all spoken out against discrimination and oppression for LGBTQ athletes, as both members of and allies to the larger gay community.
While some are thrilled about the notion of an LGBTQ-based sports league, Aidan Bardos – a sophomore on Wesleyan University’s track team- finds the idea both, “exciting and problematic.”
As the number of out, gay college students increases, universities have often become a model place of tolerance. Collegiate athletic teams are so intertwined with their school’s community, and can often create a great support network for youth struggling to come to terms with anything – including their sexuality – but only during the academic school year. While college kids are flocking to their summer jobs and internships, they are looking for another community in which they can thrive with acceptance. Many of these students are newly out and feel great about themselves at college, and heading back to the real world can come with a harsher reality.
LGBTQ-based summer sports leagues are also beginning to offer the same type of community that schools offer, for athletes with skills ranging from the intramural to the high division-I level. While some think with many kids still struggling to come out and find a gay community, these LGBTQ-based sports leagues are certainly the future. However, as coming out becomes less and less stigmatized and the queer lifestyle is becoming so integrated into what was traditionally thought of as “normal” culture, LGBTQ-based sports leagues are going to go out almost as soon as they came out.
Here are the stories of a Big 10 commit, a CAC champion, and a record-setting collegiate runner (who is also a Feminist, Gender, & Sexuality Studies major), on who they are, how they got there, and what #ProudToPlay means to them.
JACK THORNE, who will swim at Northwestern next year, has not only made a name for himself with a sub-48 100 yard backstroke, but he has pushed himself to become the first out athlete at Loveland Swim Club, just outside his hometown in Northern Colorado.
“I wanted to push the coming-out thing back until after recruiting.”
Jack – who likes helping people and ultimately, wants to go into the mental health field – reflected on what it was like to go through the Division-I recruiting process nearly parallel to the coming out process.
“Right before I told my mom I was, like, freaking out.” Jack says, “I’m pretty sure she thought I hit someone with my car.” Jack begins to laugh, “but I wanted to push the coming-out thing back until after recruiting. I really didn’t want to focus on that but I realized it became a lot more difficult to balance not telling people with recruiting and school.”
But for Thorne, who grew up in a conservative, small town, what was the big deal in coming out?
“My biggest fears in coming out – and I wish I didn’t have this thought – but I thought people would think of me as less than a man or less than an athlete.” Thorne said, “I sat down with my coach and had a long talk and he said, ‘you’re still the same Jack.’ It was a great experience knowing he had my back.”
“Even though I was out, I was able to do exactly what I’ve done in the pool before. My swimming has gotten so much better since I’ve been out because I’ve been able to focus on swimming instead of being closeted.”
Although Thorne was nervous about his recruiting coinciding with coming out, he found that once a lot of the pressure of being in the closet was alleviated, his times began to drop.
“Even though I was out, I was able to do exactly what I’ve done in the pool before.” Thorne says, “My swimming has gotten so much better since I’ve been out because I’ve been able to focus on swimming instead of being closeted.”
Thorne says that although he had so many fears that pushed him back from coming out earlier, ultimately, “Those fears just weren’t real at all.”
While Cassingham has come a long way in the past four years, the issues with coming to terms with his sexuality – while training at an elite level among kids who have gone on to swim at D-I NCAAs – took a toll on his adolescent years.
“I quit club swimming sophomore year and in hindsight, it was because of my sexuality,” Cassingham says, “Those feelings were getting a little overwhelming and I didn’t know what to do. I decided to just step back.”
While he stepped back in high school, Cassingham has made great strides in his freshman season at Mary Washington – winning the 200 free at the CAC Championships in addition to taking bronze in both the 500 and the 1650.
Cassingham, an Indiana native whose family moved to Plano, Texas when he was younger, speaks with a comforting, calm-and-collected-type accent that is perhaps a mix of midwest, Texas, and Virginia. “I didn’t really think about having to come out until senior year of high school. I never really contemplated, you know, having to live life.”
Cassingham reflected on what is growing up gay in Texas, along with training in a heteronormative athletic community is actually like.
“I was always aware of what being gay meant to the conservative people.” Cassingham says, “Understanding what being gay meant in Texas, I was reluctant to say anything. Even if you know people won’t care, you still think they’ll care. It’s horrible.”
But is there a need to go out and find this connection?
“There’s not really a need to find my niche,” Cassingham says, “my niche has just been with my people. My friends are like me, we all think the same. As a gay person, you don’t have to become friends with other gay people, but I have become friends with gay people in college and it has been great.”
“The gay world and the sports world are interconnected and you’re gonna find friends in gay people who play sports, straight people who don’t play sports, and everything in between.”
Even living in and growing up in a conservative state, having a separate gay community is not directly necessary (or even an option) – but it does help. Cassingham’s place in both the gay and the athletic communities, is now bigger than he ever thought would be possible.
“Ever since I wrote my article for outsports, a lot of other swimmers reached out to me. I have an awesome support network and I think I’ll be friends with them for a long time,” Cassingham says, “The gay world and the sports world are interconnected and you’re gonna find friends in gay people who play sports, straight people who don’t play sports, and everything in between.”
AIDAN BARDOS – a queer student-athlete and FGSS (Feminist, Gender, & Sexualities Studies) major at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut – finds the idea of an LGBTQ sports league, “both exciting and problematic.”
“At first,” Bardos explains, “I am drawn to the idea of a sports team providing the structure for queer youth to build community and feel safe. However, a couple concerns come to mind.”
Bardos, who anchored the Wesleyan record-setting 4×800 women’s relay at NESCAC Championships this spring, explains that although it’s fantastic that these teams and leagues can provide a safe space for queer athletes, having separate teams for cis-gendered (meaning people who identify as the gender they were born with) and straight athletes, takes the responsibility away from them to fight oppression.
“#ProudToPlay and queer sports leagues encourage or require the athlete to be out or come out, and being ‘out’ is not a realistic situation for many.” Bardos says, “Many queer youth are not ‘out’ for reasons of safety and survival. So, a queer athlete who is not ‘out’ wouldn’t join a queer sports team. This is why I think it is important for all sports teams to talk about the heteronormativity, homophobia and transphobia that is present on the team and engrained in the sport’s structure.”
“Imagine,” Bardos says, “if [all] sports teams could talk about the ways sports are oppressive and exclusionary!”
“When I brought up an issue of heteronormativity on the sports team, five or six team members emailed me telling me they supported me and was glad I spoke out.”
“Of course, I have had a number of uncomfortable experiences being queer on a sports team, but overall I have gotten amazing responses from my teammates at Wesleyan.” Bardos says, but “these are my own personal experiences and every queer athlete will have a different one, especially when other oppressions are coming into play.”
More specifically, Bardos says these oppressions include, “the ways the structure of sports teams is exclusionary; the lack of gender-neutral bathrooms and changing rooms, the cost of sports equipment, and the necessity of a ‘normal’ and ‘healthy’ body to participate.”
ON THE OTHER HAND, Stonewall Kickball – an LGBTQ & Ally-based kickball league, believes every person should be able to to feel comfortable being oneself in organized sports. Furthermore, Stonewall’s vision is that, “Our league will value each player for who they are and what one brings to the league’s community. We also believe organized communities have the ability and responsibly to support others in need.”
Other LGBTQ-based sports teams in Philadelphia include the Philadelphia Fins – a masters team founded in 1988 for LGBT members of the Philadelphia-area community. The Fins are also a member of the IGLA – the International Gay & Lesbian Aquatics – a league that holds championships and events for LGBTQ swimmers around the globe.
A Division-III swimmer (who wished to not be named) said, “I trained with the Fins while I was taking some time off from college. I didn’t like who I was as a gay man at the time and all the smiling faces on the Fins really helped me and supported me coming to terms with who I am as a gay athlete. It was really cool to go to meets and practices and have this community that I felt a part of.”
While Stonewall Kickball has had a few years running in D.C. and Raleigh, Philadelphia has by far the largest LGBTQ population. Taking this into account, Stonewall’s success might come because most of its players are in their late-20s-early-30s – far out of the range of college sports leagues.
Although some LGBTQ athletes prefer to stick to their “traditional” sports leagues that are beginning to incorporate and welcome their lifestyle, some other LGBTQ athletes prefer newer, more friendly sports leagues, having the option to choose is what might really provide the perks of being an out athlete in 2015.
“The track team at Wesleyan is very special,” Bardos says, perhaps describing the entire reason #ProudToPlay exists, “For me, the team is a family that supports and watches out for each other … When I had a queer event this winter that was a disaster and had almost no turn out, a handful of track teammates came to the event to support me.”
Regardless of preference for or against LGBTQ-based athletic leagues, the use of the hashtag #ProudToPlay can instantly to connect anyone feeling isolated with a larger gay athletic community, even as an intramural benchwarmer or as a Division-I champion.
#ProudToPlay is not about segregation in sports, but rather, the movement is about support, understanding, and having a family that accepts you.