On Monday evening, a group of about 50 student-athletes came together with coaches, staff and peers for the tenth annual Winning Together: Allies in Athletics event. The program was organized by the Athletic Department and the Center for Sexuality, Women and Gender (SWAG) and looks to address the challenges facing LGBTQ athletes at Bowdoin.
The event featured speeches from Head Softball Coach Ryan Sullivan and women’s squash captain Lex Horwitz ’19, as well as anonymous testimonials from two other student athletes. Attendees also participated in small group discussions facilitated by out athletes and out allies.
In 2008, the program—originally called Anything but Straight in Athletics—was started by Ben Chadwick ’11, an out member of the men’s lacrosse team who partnered with former men’s tennis coach Colin Joyner, Director of the Center for Sexuality, Women and Gender Kate Stern, and former athletic director Jeff Ward. In addition to the name change a few years ago, the events, format, content and goals have shifted over time.
“It’s been 10 years now that we’ve been having formal programming on campus to bring together emerging leaders within our programs to talk about the language that we use when we’re in the locker room,” said Ashmead White Director of Athletics Tim Ryan. “[It] focused largely on homophobic language in the past and now has evolved to focus on the language that we use, but also focusing on gender identity awareness within the team setting as well.”
Kat Gaburo ’19, a member of the women’s swim team who helped organize the event, recounted an anecdote Stern shared at the dinner about a former football player who once heard the word “fag” used 13 times in one hour of practice and ended up leaving the team because he didn’t feel he could be queer in that setting.
“He said he didn’t think it was because his teammates really had angry or malicious feelings towards gay people. It was just the culture,” said Gaburo. “And I think that’s a huge thing, because I would say the majority of the people on this campus are not homophobic. I don’t think they’re going out of their way to make queer people feel uncomfortable or unwanted. I think that the culture just isn’t as accepting as it could be in terms of making people feel comfortable.”
Language can form a particularly large barrier for LGBTQ people, in everything from homophobic slurs to pronouns to assumptions about sexuality and gender in conversations.
While slurs are not as apparent a problem as they were 10 years ago, heteronormative and cisgendered language is one of the next obstacles to be tackled.
“Students often talk about it as sitting at brunch and people wanting to talk about the night before and who you wanted to hook up with or who you think is hot,” said Stern. “Another part are social mixers between teams—everything from a party to get the men’s and the women’s team together to sometimes students talk to me about being handcuffed to somebody of the opposite gender. There’s a lot of pressure and assumptions to be handcuffed to somebody of the opposite gender.”
While Stern noted that these are some of the more extreme parts of the social climate on teams, they perpetuate the assumptions that can exclude LGBTQ team members and make the idea of coming out to their teams seem more disruptive to team culture.
Ultimately, barriers like these and questions of how their teams would react to them coming out all serve as extra weight carried by LGBTQ team members in practice, competition and throughout their lives at Bowdoin.
Sullivan honed in on this idea, and the way it keeps members from performing to the fullest of their ability and teams from achieving their potential.
“If you really want to be a championship program, and the challenge to each of the people in the room was if you think of yourself as a leader or hope to be a leader, then how are you going to deal with a roster where not everybody feels like they have a part in it or feel included?” said Sullivan.
Discourse at the dinner also highlighted a change in focus from simply eliminating negative and harmful experiences to proactively creating a more positive and welcoming environment.
“Sometimes it’s really just not knowing and the silence,” said Stern. “If people could find a way to mention their awesome gay uncle, or to go to Out Allies [training] and put a sticker up on their water bottle, get their name on the list, it’s really that sign of ‘you don’t have to come out with a big giant coming out story, but I’m OK with who you are.’”
These ideas were reflected in the individual and team action plans attendees created during the discussions.
“I was thrilled with the seriousness with which our student-athletes approached their action plans,” Ryan wrote in an email to the Orient. “Several themes emerged such as working with teammates to avoid using heteronormative language and making assumptions about members of our programs, correcting teammates when they use offensive language, being aware of gender issues when planning social events and participating themselves and encouraging teammates to participate in Out Allies training.”
“I hear from a lot of athletes over the last few years who are not out on their teams who still talk about how good it feels to know that there are Out Allies on their team,” said Stern. “But they wish there were more. If there’s a bit more of a critical mass or a team got together and made more of a statement, then maybe they’d be able to come out on their team.”
Shifting the language used in conversation away from these assumptions helps create a clear space for other identities on these teams.
“It comes back to brunch and [when] someone uses open gendered language that lets people know explicitly ‘I am not making assumptions about who you are attracted to, about your gender identity, about whether or not you’re attracted to anyone anyway,’” said Stern.
Intentional actions such as using more open language and attending Out Allies trainings has been a huge part of the progress that’s been made in creating more LGBTQ-welcoming team cultures.
In addition, the potential for further progress that won’t just fade when a particularly motivated class of students graduates lies in the committed partnership between the athletic department and SWAG.
“I work really closely with coaches, and I’m always amazed at how supportive our coaches are of students who come out, of the idea of having a welcoming climate and how willing coaches are to come to workshops and trainings,” said Stern. “So I’m very lucky to have partners in the coaches and then also in the [athletic] administration.”
Outside of the dinner, another element of this partnership is Yellow Shirt Day, which will take place on Thursday. The Athletic Department will order the shirts and pay for a shirt for any athlete who wants to wear one. They strongly encourage all athletes to participate.