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Off fields and at parties, heteronormativity dominates LGBTQ+ athletes’ experiences

October 16, 2020

Amira Oguntoyinbo

In recent years, there has been a higher general level of acceptance in the Bowdoin athletic community towards students who identify as LGBTQ+ and non-binary than existed previously. However, student athletes who identify with one or more of these terms still often grapple with particular challenges that vary according to their unique identity and the culture of their team.

Sage Kashner ’22, a member of the women’s rugby team who identifies as non-binary, describes their experience in athletics in a mostly positive light.

“The culture on the women’s rugby team is one of complete acceptance,” Kashner said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “Whenever somebody new shows up to practice, everybody shares their pronouns. Everybody makes a very good effort to use my pronouns. I can’t say anyone’s perfect, but there’s a concerted decision to respect others.”

However, even if the community is accepting, some athletes may face particular challenges because of rules put forth by the National College Athletics Association (NCAA).

“If I were ever to attempt any sort of hormonal transition, I would not be able to play on the women’s team any longer because testosterone is a banned drug,” Kashner said. “Similarly, it is nearly impossible for anyone assigned male at birth, even if they are taking hormones, to join women’s teams.”

Annie Maher ’21, a member of the women’s basketball team and LGBTQ+ community, emphasizes the atmosphere of acceptance on her team as well, but she makes it clear that an inclusive atmosphere doesn’t necessarily make it easier to feel comfortable.

“There hasn’t been a point on my team where I didn’t feel welcome or included by any of my team members in terms of my sexuality specifically,” said Maher in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “But even though I am really close with my team, it was still hard to be open and honest about that for quite a while.”

Being open and honest is difficult for many LGBTQ+ and non-binary athletes, and even coaches, because of the heteronormative atmosphere prevalent in collegiate athletics.

Assistant Coach of the women’s lacrosse team Paula Habel, who identifies as part of the LGBTQ+ community, states that she feels accepted at all times by her team inside the locker room and on the field. However, she warns that the discussion of the heteronormative hook-up culture at Bowdoin often creates barriers for members of the LBGTQ+ community.

“If I’m saying, ‘We accept everyone,’ but everyone’s always talking about the heteronormative relationship they’re in, then someone as an outsider wouldn’t really feel comfortable and have a space to talk,” said Habel in a phone interview with the Orient.

Heteronormativity is especially prevalent in athletes’ experiences at parties.

“A lot of times, mixers are intended for people to hook up with each other,” Maher said. “But if you’re only going to parties with different genders, it doesn’t really create a space for people who don’t identify as straight.”

This problem is widespread throughout the athletic social sphere at Bowdoin. Runner Melissa Magrath ’22, who identifies as part of the LGBTQ+ community, points out that the problem begins with the sexualization of other teams at parties.

“If we do mixers, they are with the opposite gender team, or if we hang out with the men’s cross country team, it’s always very hypersexualized,” Magrath said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “We’re either not talking to them at practice or we’re interacting with them in a party setting—which I think is very sexualized.”

For Magrath, the solution to the sexualized atmosphere between men’s and women’s teams is to turn away from these men’s/women’s mixers as a way to meet other athletes and focus on holding more non-sexualized activities with teams of the opposite gender.

“It starts with me and my friends continuing to push against the separation [between men’s and women’s teams] at practice,” Magrath said. “It’s normalizing interactions with the men’s team, even on a day-to-day basis.”

Habel notes that the progress being made on racial inclusivity this year is a great starting point to move into issues of sexuality and gender.

“I’m glad we’re focused on race at this point,” Habel said. “I think that if we can make some steps there, then maybe we can take that momentum and help other groups as well.”

However, according to Head Coach of the nordic skiing teams Nathan Alsobrook, these conversations will not come easily.

“If I sat down with my team tomorrow and said, ‘Guys, I’d like to talk about your individual impressions of gender and sexuality within campus and our team,’ I think we would have to work to get a conversation going there,” Alsobrook said in a phone interview with the Orient.

He sees a route forward in separating the athletes’ personal experiences from the conversation, focusing on learning from external sources rather than placing the onus entirely on students to educate one another.

“I think that if we sat down and I said ‘Guys I’d like to read an article, I’d like to go to a presentation, I’d like to hear a speaker talking about these things,’ I think you’d have a group that’s very open and interested in learning,” Alsobrook said.

While diversity reform this fall is important progress, Maher explains that to make lasting change, conscious thought needs to be continuously applied by both individuals and teams.

“Having diversity reform is really important, not just for race but also for inclusion in its entirety,” said Maher. “But I think it’s more important that students really commit to making change and thinking about who are we going to mix with this weekend or who are we going to hang out with.”

Assistant Athletic Director for Operations, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Coordinator Katie Greene notes that as a member of the LGBTQ+ community herself, she is committed to focusing on inclusion of her own community and the non-binary community in athletics.

“DEI includes race, it includes gender, it includes the LBGT community. So I think that, while our efforts are focused on race right now, we will start to work our way through some of these other issues. There will be more initiatives starting to come up along these other lines,” said Greene in a Zoom interview with the Orient.

She also mentioned that a significant number of coaches and staff members at Bowdoin have taken part in the Safe Zone program, which trains individuals in the best ways to hold conversations about sexuality and gender.

Ashmead White Director of Athletics Tim Ryan points to events like Winning Together: Allies in Athletics, which has been held each fall for the past 12 years, as a reason for the inclusive culture in Buck Fitness Center and the athletic community on the fields.

“We talk about the ways in which it’s important for our entire athletic community to support members of the LGBT community within their programs,” said Ryan in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “And we have focused that event on sophomores and emerging leaders within our programs.”

These programs and events demonstrate the progress that has been made in just the past 10 to 20 years, as described by Head Coach of Sailing Frank Pizzo ’06.

“Back in the day, I think a lot of athletes kind of faced the issue of being on their teams or coming out,” said Pizzo in a phone interview with the Orient. “It was my impression that you couldn’t really do both things in the early 2000s when I was on the [sailing] team.”

Looking forward, members of the LGBTQ+ community are optimistic about the fact that, while there are still issues now, some progress has been made already.

“There is space for queerness in athletics. It’s not always the amount of space you need, and it doesn’t always have the amount of support that you need,” said Kashner. “But there are many groups, including quite a few of the sports teams, that are not only not discriminatory, but [are] welcoming and wonderful and some of the best communities you can find.”


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  1. Class of 2010 says:

    This all comes across as rather ironic. The article reports that heteronormative athletes are outwardly welcoming to their gay/non-binary/etc. peers, but also pushes a conclusion that heteronormative sexuality itself makes LGBTQ+ athletes uncomfortable. As if, to make non-heteronormative athletes comfortable, heteronormative students have to play down their own natural sexuality, or treat it like a taboo to be suppressed.


    Don’t get me wrong, having mixed-gender sports teams socialize more often in non-drinking settings is perfectly reasonable, but to be put off by “discussion” of hetero hook ups is preposterous, unless these putative representatives of the LGBTQ+ community think that they are obligated to live by similar constraints. Beyond the offending “discussion,” to expect either heteronormative or LGBTQ+ athletes to treat each other with sterile solemnity, lest someone somehow be offended by the orientation of their desire, is simply pushing the college experience further outside the realm of reality.

    • Alumna says:

      Thank you for saying what absolutely everyone was thinking.

    • Class of 21 says:

      I feel like they’re not saying that simply the discussion of heteronormative hookups are what makes these athletes uncomfortable, but rather the discussion is just one piece indicative of a greater total culture that is kind of uncomfortable sometimes… when my teammates talk at practice, at lunch, and at our workouts about who hooked up with who between the women’s and men’s teams, it creates this sort of pairing system and expectation that all the eligible and/or worthwhile partners will be across gendered team lines (men + women), meanwhile emphasizing the sisterly desexualization of our other women teammates as confidants and wingwomen in this process. That is an entirely valid role for us to play as teammates and friends — but it also feels exclusive and makes me feel guilty and shameful for breaching this confidant-sisterhood if I ever have a crush on a woman teammate who isn’t explicitly out as “queer”. Discussing hereto hookups is not the problem — it is a symptom of the problem that it seems our entire team culture and world revolves around the heterosexual dynamics between two teams.

    • Class of '21 says:

      Heteronormativity is not heterosexuality.
      The students quoted here did not say they were uncomfortable with their teammates’ sexualities. They were uncomfortable with the heteronormative spaces created by teams, such as mixers, where the expectation is for men and women to hook up. Even if this is not the expectation, there are no opportunities for same-gender hookups at these parties (except within the team, which could be uncomfortable).

    • Class of 2010 says:

      Replying to Class of 21 (no apostrophe) at October 21, 2020 at 9:26 am:

      I can sympathize with the wingwoman dissatisfaction you describe, but I think that’s problem has little to do with “heteronormativity” as an athlete-centric socio-structural dilemma, and is merely a universal symptom of being human. No sex or sexual orientation has a monopoly on the loneliness that comes with unrequited feelings. A soccer freshman may play the forlorn wingman to a teammate when his female floormate, who he admires and loves, nestles closer to the star striker. C’est la vie, she likes who she likes. Or a male swimmer likes a female swimmer who likes a male Orient editor: bummer. And within, say, the small(er) homosexual community at Bowdoin, hookup gossip is shared at lunch tables, cliques are formed, social exclusions drawn, peers rated, and crushes are occasionally crushed. Having feelings for a straight same-sex teammate cannot be meaningfully different from having a crush on a straight same-sex lab partner, coworker, or roommate. You may play wingwoman to that crush just because you enjoy her friendship, and that’s bittersweet, but that is not a structural, social issue. She just likes who she likes, as do you.

  2. Class of 21 says:

    I really appreciate the perspectives shared in this article as a fellow queer athlete on campus. To whoever edited this, though: if we truly want to further a culture of LGBTQ+ inclusion, we have to stop using terms like “opposite gender”. Reading this term over and over, I understand where you’re coming from in that it mirrors the heteronormative binary in the team dynamics that we’re staring at as we read, however it would be productive to move away from this “opposites” framework altogether. As we know, we are assigned a sex at birth, and are then encouraged by society to form a “corresponding” gender identity. We are socialized to form a gender binary (based on limited assumptions about the binary of our sex organs) that there are only two genders — using the term “opposite gender” reinforces the existence of that gender binary by implying that, at the very least (as you had a great conversation with a nonbinary student here), the gender identities of man and woman are the “main” ones, or the most “important” ones. I would consider how sports team/mixer culture reinforces the feeling that “opposite genders” exist, but that in reality, we’ve constructed that binary.

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