Each day, gay and lesbian students on campus contemplate coming
out. It shouldn’t be a surprise that some are varsity
athletes. Yet this group of individuals faces a unique set of
pressures.

Even at UCLA, which prides itself on being one of the most
diverse and tolerant institutions in the country, there are gay and
lesbian student-athletes who are scared of the consequences of
revealing their sexual orientation.

Several said they are fearful they would be the victims of
verbal and physical abuse if they came out to their teammates and
coaches, and one alleged that his coach has threatened to dismiss
any openly gay athlete from his team.

“My coach has made homophobic remarks,” said a gay
varsity male athlete at UCLA, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“He said that if there were any faggots on the team he would
kick them off. I know he can’t really kick anyone off the
team for their sexual orientation, but I definitely feel like I
would be pressured to leave.”

Of the roughly 600 student-athletes at UCLA, most have never
witnessed incidents of homophobia involving their teammates or
coaches. But the fact that even a few gay and lesbian Bruin
athletes experience anti-gay sentiment within their respective
teams is troubling to Associate Athletic Director Petrina Long, who
oversees life skills and spoke on behalf of the athletic
department.

“I am very surprised,” Long said. “Any
professional staff should not be saying anything like this.
You’re taking one person, but that doesn’t make the
inappropriate comments excusable.”

While UCLA does not have a specific policy to protect its gay
and lesbian athletes from homophobia, it instead groups
sexual-orientation issues under a broader category of
discrimination that includes race, age and gender. By adopting such
a general approach, the athletic department entrusts each of its
coaches with the responsibility of handling this delicate issue on
a case-by-case basis.

Even if a coach promotes an accepting environment, there is no
guarantee that gay or lesbian athletes will feel comfortable
revealing their sexuality. Recent studies suggest that 10 percent
of the population is gay, yet no male professional athlete in any
of the four major sports is openly gay, and no male UCLA varsity
athlete interviewed for this article is either.

The result is a group of athletes who feel forced to hide a
portion of their identities.

“It’s awful I have to compromise myself to play a
sport,” the anonymous UCLA athlete said. “There’s
no good way to come out of the closet. There’s just bad or
worse.”

Is it harder for athletes?

College is the time when most students celebrate their
individuality. For gay and lesbian athletes, however, it’s
often the reverse.

One male UCLA varsity athlete, who also wished to remain
anonymous, is open with his family and friends back home, but said
that he has remained in the closet with his Bruin teammates and
coaches. Though he is tempted to divulge his secret, the fear that
his teammates might ostracize him or even harm him physically has
kept him silent.

“I could never tell my coaches or teammates, the people
who I spend more time with than anybody else,” he said.
“If I came out, it would affect my play on the team because
everyone else would be thinking about it, and I would be worried
that they were thinking about it.”

Experts said that the UCLA athlete’s predicament is not at
all uncommon.

“On campus we see many homosexual students that are out at
UCLA, but in the closet at home with their family,” said
Ronni Sanlo, director of the UCLA Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and
Transgender Resource Center. “With athletes, it tends to be
the other way around. Their family knows about their sexuality, but
they will keep it a secret from their coaches and
teammates.”

The two anonymous UCLA male athletes have numerous reasons why
they are afraid to come out to their teammates, but both said their
fears have been heightened by a slew of homophobic remarks made at
practice by coaches and teammates.

Neither is willing to discourage such comments for fear that a
response will raise suspicion that they are gay.

“Not every player or coach is homophobic, but they make
these jokes or asinine comments as if they don’t mean
anything,” said the gay male athlete who alleged his coach
threatened to dismiss all gays from his team. “I cannot tell
them how obnoxious they are because they would know I’m gay,
and that would be a terrible way to come out.”

“The reason players or coaches make the homophobic remarks
is because they don’t even think anyone on the team could be
gay,” said the second gay male athlete quoted in this
article.

Such quips, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs sociology
Professor Jay Coakley said, are a product of male athletes
reaffirming their masculinity.

Because of the dynamic of male sports, many athletes link sexual
orientation to performance, so being gay is considered a
detriment.

“If someone came out, people would associate a stigma with
him,” a straight male varsity athlete at UCLA said.
“All of a sudden they wouldn’t be this tough,
hard-nosed player, but this weak feminine athlete.

“It’s unfortunate that’s the case, but
there’s not a lot of room for homosexuality or femininity (in
male sports).”

While much of society has made great strides over the past two
decades to outlaw anti-gay behavior, many experts, such as UCLA
LGBT Center official Steven Leider, agree that sports remains one
of the last bastions of homophobia. They point to the frequent use
of slurs and lack of openly gay major athletes as proof that sports
have not made the same sort of progress as other facets of
society.

But Long, who came to Westwood nine months ago from UC Irvine,
where she worked for current UCLA Athletic Director Dan Guerrero,
disagrees, characterizing the notion that sports are worse than any
other groups as a myth.

“I don’t think athletics is necessarily that
separate from what you see in society,” she said. “I
think athletics is probably a microcosm of what you see elsewhere.
Sports has made a lot of progress.”

This is not a sentiment shared by the gay athletes interviewed
for this article.

Not only do they say they’re afraid in the huddle, on the
court or in the locker room, but because they are among the most
recognizable people on campus, they tend to keep a part of
themselves hidden even in social settings.

“Being a gay athlete limits me socially because I cannot
date or even socialize with other gay men without being
outed,” said the second gay male athlete quoted in this
article. “While other students are meeting people at a party
or just relaxing with friends, I have to constantly worry about
what people think. Sometimes I wish that someone on my team would
just find out that I (am) gay so I wouldn’t have to worry
about it anymore.”

UCLA against the rest

Homophobia, by no means, is unique to UCLA.

In fact, even the Bruin athletes who have been the victims of
alleged discrimination suggested that the climate for gay and
lesbian student-athletes is far better in Westwood than it is at
most other institutions.

“The reality is that while homophobia exists on my team,
it is not nearly as bad at UCLA as it is other places,” said
the gay male student-athlete who alleged that his coach threatened
to dismiss all gays from the team.

“All you have to do is look at Bruin Walk to realize how
ridiculously (politically correct) the school is. If there’s
homophobia here, it must be much worse in other parts of the
country.”

The examples of homophobic incidents at other institutions are
numerous.

The University of Hawai’i changed the name and logo of its
football team from the Rainbow Warriors to the Warriors in 2000
because of the association with the gay rainbow flag.

The USC marching band reportedly taunted UCLA by playing the
notes F, A and G in successive order at football games as recently
as 2000.

And North Carolina State had to apologize in February 2004 after
men’s basketball player Scooter Sherrill noted that
Duke’s JJ Redick holds his hand up on the follow-through of
his shot “like he’s gay or something.”

Perhaps the most egregious recent homophobic incident in college
sports occurred at the University of Florida in 2003, where former
softball player Andrea Zimbardi was allegedly dropped from the team
in her senior season because she is a lesbian.

The school settled the case in court with Zimbardi, agreeing to
include a sexual-orientation component in its non-discrimination
policy and provide diversity training dealing with homophobia to
all its coaches and administrators.

UCLA, like most other schools that have not experienced such a
public crisis, does not have as strong a policy in place. The
athletic department has no formal guidelines for dealing with
homophobia, Long said, besides a clause in its code of conduct for
coaches, which states that “they are expected to avoid any
exploitation, harassment or discriminatory treatment of
student-athletes.”

If student-athletes have a problem related to their sexual
preference, Long said, they know they can consult coaches,
counselors or even administrators. But no aspect of the athletic
department manual specifically mentions how coaches or
administrators should handle issues of sexual orientation, although
Long said those problems would be classified under sexual
harassment.

Such a broad policy has left some athletes at UCLA unsure of
whom to turn to when they encounter homophobia.

“If I were a lesbian,” said a straight female
athlete at UCLA who wished to remain anonymous, “I
wouldn’t know where to turn to within the athletic department
for help.”

The consensus among the Bruin athletes interviewed, however, is
that the climate at UCLA for gay and lesbian athletes is better
than at most schools.

“Every girl that I know (who’s) a lesbian out on a
team (at UCLA) has had no issues,” the straight female
athlete said.

“I have a friend who came out after college. She said it
had nothing to do with the environment. The first people she told
were her teammates, and her friendships with the team have not
changed at all.”

The role of a coach

As Pat Griffin, an openly lesbian professor of social justice
education at the University of Massachusetts, sat in a booth to
promote tolerance at the NCAA Women’s Final Four just last
week, she witnessed a strange phenomenon from the coaches in
attendance.

While some coaches had no trepidation of talking to Griffin,
others did all they could to stay away from her.

“Some coaches got whiplash just looking away from the
booth,” Griffin said. “That’s a sign of backing
down. Plenty are still not comfortable with being associated with
lesbians or thinking they might be lesbians.”

As the bridge between the student-athletes and the athletic
department, coaches are responsible for creating a positive
atmosphere to govern their teams that is reflective of their
school’s code of conduct.

But according to Coakley, coaches and the environment they
foster are the lifeline of a gay or lesbian athlete’s support
system, tipping the balance for whether an athlete would feel
comfortable coming out of the closet.

“What encourages an athlete to come out is tied to what
the athlete perceives the coach’s position to be,”
Coakley said. “That’s crucial. It also helps if
there’s some sort of institutional structure that provides
support and legitimacy.”

Six years ago, UCLA women’s basketball coach Kathy Olivier
was confronted by some of her players about a burgeoning issue
regarding a teammate’s sexuality. Olivier’s players
were not concerned that a fellow teammate was lesbian, but the
perception that the particular individual was being isolated from
the team because of the brooding silence. To combat the issue,
Olivier held a team meeting in which she brought the topic of
diversity out into the open.

“We talked about dealing with diversity in a lot of ways,
not just race,” Olivier said. “Every coach has their
own way of dealing with it differently.”

UCLA men’s and women’s water polo coach Adam
Krikorian does not even see a student-athlete’s sexual
orientation as an issue that he needs to delve into, choosing
instead to look at his players solely in terms of their athletic
ability.

“I don’t make judgments like that, I just look at
someone’s water polo ability,” Krikorian said. “I
don’t think (sexual orientation) is this big hidden issue.
There are so many different characteristics with so many different
players and athletes. It could be their homosexuality, their home
life; they could have personal issues, drug or alcohol
abuse.”

Yet there are far more athletes who publicly admit to alcohol or
drug abuse problems than homosexuality. That, Coakley said, is a
product of coaches not doing enough to combat the perception that
homophobia exists within their programs.

Team v. individual sports

Because of the different dynamics involved, the nature of a
sport can affect athletes in their decision to reveal their sexual
identity. The need to form a cohesive unit in team sports has led
athletes to keep hidden what they might otherwise disclose in
individual sports.

“If I were to tell my team that I (am) gay, I am confident
that I would regret it for the rest of my time spent in
college,” said one of the gay male student-athletes, who is
open about his sexuality with his family and others.

“There’s something about a team sport that makes it
impossible to be openly gay.”

Uncomfortable with the reaction their homosexuality might yield
from teammates or coaches, these gay athletes have opted to stay in
the closet. Rather than run the risk of getting stereotyped or
verbally assaulted, they have looked to blend in with the societal
expectations of a male sports figure.

“Because of stupid, homophobic remarks by teammates, I am
scared to tell anyone here at UCLA that I am gay,” the gay
male student-athlete said. “I think I might be physically
harmed or just roughhoused on the field.”

Conversely, gay athletes in individual sports generally need not
worry about abuse from teammates. David Kopay, who became the first
professional football player to come out in 1975 after playing 10
seasons in the NFL, feels that athletes in individual sports are
more sheltered from any potential criticism.

“The individual can compete and train on his or her own
and nobody can really blame their sexuality on the results,”
Kopay said. “On team sports, there’s a heightened
homophobia because of all the time spent together and physical
contact.”

This homophobia in the team atmosphere was a major reason why
Kopay waited until retirement to come out about his sexual
identity. Playing during a period in which anti-gay sentiment was
commonplace and societal expectations of male athletes were firmly
entrenched, the running back was too scared to come to terms with
his sexuality during his athletic career.

“The problem was that I bought into other people’s
stereotypes,” said Kopay, who was passed over for coaching
positions later in life because of his “lifestyle.”

“People involved in sports tend not to be as sophisticated
and don’t want to create any distractions. The players,
especially, are treated as nameless, faceless soldiers who are
supposed to win. Viewing them as human or different than the rest
will not sit well with coaches, owners or fans,” Kopay
said.

While the relationship with fans or opponents is universal to
all sports, only team sports involve tight-knit relationships
between teammates. Kopay believes when learning of a team
member’s homosexuality, straight players may feel threatened
and begin to question their sexuality.

“They’ll ask themselves, “˜Well, he isn’t
a sissy. If he is gay, what does that make me?’” Kopay
said.

“Of course, that is ridiculous at the surface level, but
many of these unspoken fears in the sports world become much more
exaggerated on a team sport.”

Not an exclusive club

While most athletes are not open with their homosexuality at the
varsity level, those who participate at the club or recreational
level appear more willing to come out.

But that does not necessarily mean they have always been
welcomed with open arms. UCLA graduate Jason Seagle remembers that
when he was part of an intramural football league three years ago,
some of his teammates were not comfortable with playing on an IM
team with a “gay guy.” Upon hearing that a few of them
were going to quit the team because of his sexuality, Seagle
quit.

“I decided that I would just stop playing on the team
rather than break it up because I was kind of embarrassed and
disgusted by what happened,” Seagle said.

“I just thought it was ridiculous that even on an IM
football team it was controversial.”

Given his experiences in a very casual intramural setting,
Seagle said he is not shocked that a few UCLA student-athletes have
been subjected to homophobic remarks.

“If it was like that on an IM team, just imagine how bad
it must be for a gay person on a major college sports team,”
Seagle said. “What’s sad is that UCLA might be the most
PC place in the country. It has to be worse at other places for
athletes.”

For most club and IM athletes, sexuality does not appear as
hushed a topic as it is at the varsity level. An anonymous lesbian
on a women’s club sport, who has not revealed her sexual
preference to her team, feels she would not be shunned if she did,
but nevertheless prefers to keep her sexuality private.

“I decided that my sexual orientation was not something I
was compelled to tell my team because I find straight players are
not sitting with their coaches or teammates aside and telling them
they are heterosexual,” she said. “I don’t keep
it a secret. I just do not make an issue of it.”

The future

Everyone interviewed for this article expressed optimism about
the future treatment of gays and lesbians in sports. Athletes,
coaches and experts alike believe that homophobia has waned
significantly in the past couple decades, a trend they feel will
continue.

Long is evaluating UCLA’s policies and said she will
consider making changes if she finds them necessary.

In the meantime, athletes are still faced with tough decisions,
but many in athletics believe the consequences for coming out
won’t be as severe in the future.

“It’s happened in most sports, sometimes quietly and
sometimes more at the high school level,” Coakley said.
“More people are coming out, and in more cases than many
predicted, they’re receiving support.”

With reports from Jeff Eisenberg, Bryan Chu, Andrew Finley
and Seth Fast Glass, Bruin Sports senior staff.