Gay athletes keep sexuality secret for years

Branden Peterson

Whether it’s in the locker room or on the playing field, being an athlete and being gay are two traits many athletes find tough to combine.

Athletes, students, administrators, gay activists and scholars filled Coffman Union’s theater Wednesday night as three openly gay athletes spoke about the homophobia they faced growing up, and how it kept their secret locked up for so long.

Harvard University softball coach Jenny Allard, former professional football player Esera Tuaolo and former University of Florida softball player Andrea Zimbardi were the guest speakers for the event, sponsored by the University’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport.

The three said they hid homosexual feelings from coaches and teammates for years and that their lives changed once they stepped forward with their sexuality.

Homophobia in sports causes some student-athletes to keep their sexuality a secret, they said. Their teams’ discomfort with homosexuality and lack of respect for gays made them remain secretive.

Tuaolo, a former player for the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings, said the harassment he received for being gay grew every year as he played in high school, college and professionally.

It was not until 2002, after a nine-year professional career, that he publicly expressed his sexuality.

Many student-athletes said society is becoming more accepting of gay athletes, but being gay is a more difficult challenge for men than women.

Society will accept couples of two women much easier than male couples, Concordia University (St. Paul) football player Wesley Hill said. Hill, a junior wide receiver and defensive back, said comments players and coaches make in the locker room or the weight room make it tough for players to express their sexuality.

“In football, or sports in general, it’s about being macho,” Hill said. “It’d be hard to be the first to come out.”

Mary Jo Kane, the Tucker Center’s director, moderated the event, and said homophobia is one of the barriers discouraging gays and lesbians from participating in sports.

Kane said although homosexuality is still taboo in sports, she hopes discussions can provide a safe space where student athletes, coaches and others can be open and honest on the delicate topic.

Melissa Roche, a senior rowing team member, said it would not be a big issue if one of her teammates came forward as a lesbian. She agreed that female athletes can step forward on their teams much more easily than males can on men’s teams.

Girls are more accepting of homosexuality, she said.

University men’s gymnastics coach Fred Roethlisberger said that during his 33 years of coaching, he has coached approximately five gymnasts who, for the first time, have told others they were gay. This never caused problems to his teams, he said.

“Their sexuality didn’t really affect anyone else,” Roethlisberger said. Sexual orientation is a personal issue that rarely surfaces, he said.

Although she is confident there are probably girls on her team who have homosexual feelings, University rowing coach Wendy Davis said it is much easier to come out now than years ago.