Don’t print my name, she said.
When you refer to me, can you please only specify that I’m a female student athlete at Slippery Rock, she asked.
Coming out to a group of teammates shouldn’t have to be a stressful ordeal, but in today’s world, it is.
In a joint study between the Human Rights Campaign Foundation and the University of Connecticut, more than 12,000 teenage athletes participated in the HCR’s 2017 LGBTQ+ Teen Survey.
The study concluded a startling statistic: 80% of LGBTQ+ teenage athletes and 83% of transgender teenage athletes were not out to their coaches.
Despite the progress made by LGBTQ+ athletes in major sports over the last few years, the stigma around those athletes still weighs heavily on the minds of young student athletes.
Growing up attending a private school with religious affiliation in a more conservative region of the country, the aforementioned student athlete felt unable to truly be herself. The stigma of being an LGBTQ+ athlete, coupled with the prejudice and discrimination faced by teammates and peers, led to a sometimes uncomfortable experience.
Throughout high school, she hid her sexuality. She felt like her teammates would respond negatively to having a member of the LGBTQ+ community on their team.
The prospect of having to share a bed when sleeping in the same hotel room sometimes led to worries about what teammates might think of her. The possibility of a misconception arising in which teammates would make unfounded assumptions about her was always a concern.
When arriving at Slippery Rock, despite coming into a brand new location with a different atmosphere than her previous school, her fear manifested itself in a familiar way.
I don’t want my teammates to be able to read this and tell that it’s me, she said.
“Even though they’re my teammates, and they’re supposed to support me, I think I’m afraid of finding out who [doesn’t support me],” she said.
Although coming to a completely new place like Slippery Rock allowed her to become more independent and outspoken in her life, the fear of being viewed differently has lingered.
“I kind of realized that if people aren’t going to be OK with who I am, if that’s what they’re going to focus on, and not focus on other qualities that I myself am confident in, then they’re not really people I want to surround myself with. I’m the kind of person who looks for the best in someone. So, I would want to look past that, but it’s always in the back of my mind that someone might not be okay with me being lesbian.”
Despite being a leader on her team, having a tireless work ethic and making a positive impact on her teammates, she fears her reputation and respect among teammates would be tarnished simply because of who she loves.
That trepidation has effectively kept her in the closet to a majority of her teammates.
“That’s the thing: I don’t know [how my team would react], and I’m scared to find out,” she admitted.
Even though this student athlete has informed a select number of teammates about her sexuality, even broaching the topic of sexuality with her teammates’ causes immense anxiety.
“In a designated group of people, usually at least one of them will identify as a lesbian. I’m worried about [sexuality] ever coming up because I’m wondering if they’re going to realize I’m one of the only people on the team who doesn’t have a boyfriend and has never pursued it. I’m worried about them putting that together and people’s perspectives of me changing,” she said.
Despite her status in the LGBTQ+ community playing a major role in her life, it’s not what defines her, she said. To the people who discriminate solely on the fact that she is a member of the LGBTQ+ community, she said she possesses some amazing qualities that have nothing to do with who she is attracted to.
Aside from her personal perception among friends, family and teammates changing due to a potential public announcement of her sexuality, she pointed to the lack of rights that members of the LGBTQ+ community still don’t receive in today’s world.
“Some of the teammates who do know, sometimes I would talk about certain LGBTQ+ issues, like adoption. How some adoption agencies might not want to give me a child if they’re a more private, Christian adoption agency because of my identity. My teammate said that’s discrimination and I was like, “yeah, that’s the point.’ A lot of them don’t realize that there are a lot of issues that are still prevalent,” she said.
Members of the LGBTQ+ community are still not fully protected from discrimination in 60% of the United States.
In 28 states, there are no explicit state laws that protect citizens from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodation. One of those states happens to be Pennsylvania. In Wisconsin, citizens are not protected from discrimination on the basis of gender identity and Utah provides no statues on public accommodation.
When at home, in a state that provides no protection from discrimination in the workplace, she admitted her fear at the prospect of being terminated from her job, if she were to come public with her sexuality.
With court cases awaiting judgment in the Supreme Court, which could linger for a while or end up rejected, she expressed concern that it could be a long time before she is truly able to be herself.
Even among her extended family, who she has not yet come out to, she cannot be her true self. A harsh reality many members of the LGBT community face, she said that her extended family would react to the news of her sexuality in a negative way.
Excluding her extended family, she has come out to her parents and sister and received much-needed support, but sometimes it’s what they haven’t said that’s lingered in the back of her mind.
“When elections were going on last year, the man who ran for governor and actually won, was against LGBT people and I know that because I’ve looked up the bills he’s supported. He typically didn’t support the ones for gay people, so I obviously didn’t vote for him. I’m not going to vote for someone who views me as a second-class citizen. Even though my parents and sister knew, and they do support me, they still voted for him,” she said.
To this student athlete, oftentimes it is the words that aren’t said that speak louder than those that are.
But that doesn’t mean the words that actually are spoken can’t leave emotional and physical damage.
“I do wish I could be more outspoken,” she said. “I was walking through my apartment complex the other day and someone used, within a 30-second span, a slur and said, ‘that’s really gay.’ I thought, ‘you know, I really wish I could say something,’ but at the same time, it was a bigger group of people and I’m outnumbered here. I would be labeled as trying to shove my agenda down their throat, despite the fact that that’s a slur and it’s not OK.”
In the midst of Pride Week at Slippery Rock, with numerous events on campus bringing attention to the LGBT community, she complimented the Slippery Rock community’s approach to promoting more recognition and awareness to the LGBT community but questioned how deep that sentiment really lies.
“This isn’t aimed at any organization in particular, but organizations and people will use [Pride Week] as a way to promote themselves a little bit. They still won’t show up for LGBT people when something bad happens, so what isn’t being done or what isn’t being said is just as important as what is being done or said. That’s not what allyship is. You shouldn’t just be an ally for the LGBT community when it’s convienient for you.” she said.
When comparing the general atmosphere surrounding the LGBTQ+ community with that of athletics at Slippery Rock, she said it was almost too different to compare.
The aforementioned hotel room situation is the obvious example, she said. But it’s the prejudice and stereotyping around female athletes, especially those in the LGBTQ+ community, that cut deep.
Typically, people tend to categorize LGBTQ+ athletes as playing “those sports,” she said. Lesbian athletes are typically portrayed as short-haired, gruff basketball or softball players. She was quick to dispell this notion because she doesn’t fit that stereotype and that’s indicative of how stereotypes are not neccesarily true.
In order to buck these harmful stereotypes and common misconceptions, she encouraged open communication on both sides of the spectrum.
“I understand that there are people that are hateful, but there are also people who just genuinely don’t know better. I had a teammate ask me recently something that was completely not offensive at all about my life as a lesbian, but she prefaced it as ‘I’m not trying to offend you, I’m just asking.’ I think a lot of people are afraid to ask because they’re afraid of a hostile response,” she said.
In order to improve understanding and acceptance on Slippery Rock’s campus, she wished for an environment in which members of the community and campus could actually openly communicate with people who are different than themselves.
She stressed the importance of actually talking to people who are different than themselves in an open and positive atmosphere. Getting to know more about marginalized groups in the community can help make better allies, she said.
Differences in sexuality should be normalized. According to this student athlete, there’s a very easy way of looking at it.
“I’ve heard it compared to what pizza people like. I like cheese pizza, but I know some other people like pepperoni pizza. Some people like all kinds of pizza and some people don’t like pizza at all. Sexual preferences, I think, should be as normal as talking about what kind of pizza we like,” she said.
“In a perfect world, we wouldn’t be having these issues. In a perfect world, coming out wouldn’t be a big thing. I think being LGBTQ+ would be a normal thing,” she said.
But we live in anything but a perfect world.