For UCLA softball assistant coach Kirk Walker, some battles have been bigger than those his team faces at the ballpark.
UCLA is celebrating Ally Week, and Walker, who is openly gay, has been part of the effort put forth by UCLA Athletics and UCLA Recreation to help educate students regarding homophobia and bullying in sports and recreation.
But Walker has not always been as outspoken as he is now. It was not until 2006, when he was the coach at Oregon State, that he publicly disclosed his sexuality.
Walker and his partner were entering the process of adopting a child, and since his sexuality was about to become public, he wanted to be the one to tell his players.
“I don’t remember exactly what my words were because I was very, very nervous. … Immediately (players’) hands went up and all the questions were about the adoption. It was a relatively easy process, very relieving,” Walker said.
Walker’s announcement to his team made him the only publicly out NCAA Division I coach. It is a label he has both struggled with and embraced, fearing people would focus on his sexuality rather than his work. It was not until he received messages of support that he became an activist for LGBT rights.
“I was kind of a reluctant activist in the beginning, the first years I really fought it, I wanted to be known for my ability on the field, my ability as a coach,” Walker said. “I became less reluctant when I realized the impact that it was having.”
Since then, Walker, who graduated from UCLA in 1988 and served as assistant coach until 1994, has returned to UCLA this season to be an assistant under coach Kelly Inouye-Perez.
The team felt his impact immediately – and count Inouye-Perez, who has known Walker since her playing days in high school, among those who are glad to have him back.
“He is very savvy in getting people to understand that everyone should be treated equally and that everyone should be given a fair opportunity,” Inouye-Perez said. “So that in itself is who he is, he truly represents that.”
This past Monday, Walker, in conjunction with UCLA Athletics and UCLA Recreation, held an event for Athlete Ally, an organization which educates athletes, coaches and fans on issues regarding sexual orientation and sports.
“It was just a huge, monumental event for UCLA Athletics in general,” said senior outfielder Devon Lindvall. “Being able to come together as a community and really address the fact that straight, gay or wherever you come from, there is a safe environment.”
Despite the progress Walker has made with events like these, he said there is still work to be done regarding sexuality and sports, and he has called on college athletic departments to take a proactive stance in addressing concerns of lesbian and gay athletes.
He believes UCLA offers the perfect environment to continue progress that has already been made.
“From the days of Arthur Ashe and Jackie Robinson and breaking down color barriers to the women’s sports involvement in Title IX in the ’70s, UCLA was a leader in the fight for equality,” Walker said. “I think this is another opportunity for UCLA to continue to be a leader in the fight for equality and social change.”