Last week, the Athletic Department and the Resource Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity teamed up to put on “Winning Together: Allies in Athletics,” an event to discuss topics of sexual orientation and gender identity on athletic teams at Bowdoin. The dinner event, which occurs annually, featured five speakers who shared their personal experiences with representatives from each team, as well as small group discussions facilitated by campus leaders.
The yearly panel of speakers features a variety of athletes and coaches who speak about personal experiences or read anonymous statements by others regarding the experiences of LGBTQ athletes. This year, Baseball Head Coach Mike Connolly joined four students to share his story about a roommate and teammate who came out to him after college—a narrative that inspired one of the students who had intended to have her statement read anonymously to read it herself.
“I was sitting at the front of the room, and I got a tap on the shoulder from the person whose story I was about to read anonymously and they swapped out with me and read their own story,” said Kendall Schutzer ’18, who helped organize the event. “It had been just after Connolly had spoken about courage, and this person wanted to share their own story and it was a really powerful moment.”
Now in its ninth year, the program was initially developed to address the homophobic language used within athletic teams and the Bowdoin community, according to Kate Stern, associate dean of students for diversity and inclusion and co-director of the Center for Sexuality, Women & Gender.
“When I got here in 2008, there was a lot more homophobic language on campus and some of that existed in the athletic realm, although not all of it,” said Stern. “The athletic teams were the places where people began to say ‘Let’s change our community. Let’s change the language we use on and off the field or ice.’”
The program’s continued success over the last few years demonstrates Bowdoin and the Athletic Department’s effort to improve the LGBTQ athlete experience.
“We were the first NESCAC athletic department to participate in a “You Can Play” video, so we’re at the forefront of partnering with that organization and thinking about the ways in which we can spread information to our current students and prospective students about the culture that we promote within our athletic programs,” said Ashmead White Director of Athletics Tim Ryan, referring to the national initiative to promote respect and safety for LGBTQ athletes.
The program has shifted and grown as campus culture has changed, including changing its name from “Anything but Straight in Athletics” to “Winning Together” four years ago.
While in its first few years, the program focused primarily on eliminating explicitly homophobic language from team rhetoric, it has since extended to encompass eliminating more implicit behavior and exclusive norms in team culture.
“Homophobia is socially unacceptable in the wider Bowdoin community at this point, so I think that the next steps are figuring out what happens behind closed doors and in smaller communities on certain athletic teams,” said Schutzer. “But I think more importantly it’s about norms. I want to see this campus be less normative about sexual orientation, but even more so about gender.”
The event stressed the importance of intentional, inclusive language and behavior as many of these norms are reflected in social interactions among team members. In situations from asking about weekend plans to discussing relationships and hookup culture to planning team mixers, avoiding making assumptions can help create an environment that lets members know it’s accepting of everyone.
“It’s become more the heterosexist assumptions that keep people in the closet,” said Stern. “How do all of those things keep people in the closet from coming out and being their whole self on a team? Or what are the signposts along the way that let somebody know that it’s going to be okay to come out, that this is a place where you can come out?”
The event also challenged the attendees to reflect on small aspects of their athletic experiences that reinforce gender norms—things that often go unnoticed because they are deeply ingrained in the binary nature of their sports.
“One of the panelists spoke about uniforms, and somebody who played on a team that also wore a skirt like the panelists described said they’d never thought about that. They never thought about how their sport had been gendered through their uniform, and how they were being sexualized potentially through that,” said Schutzer. “So I think we moved beyond the conversation about language and a little bit more deeply into culture.”
However, enacting cultural change on sports teams and in the wider Bowdoin community doesn’t come without intentional action and leadership, according to Schutzer.
“The sophomores that were in the room needed to take the good that they found on their team and improve on that, but that good didn’t happen by accident and it’s not maintained by accident,” said Schutzer.
The “Allies in Athletics” event will further be built upon in the spring with “Winning Together: Intersections between Race and Athletics” in an effort to address other ways athletes can build an inclusive team.
“I’m really glad to see that that new event is happening, and I would love to see a little more continuity and connection between the events and thinking about intersectionality between different identifiers on athletic teams,” said Schutzer.