Out on the court: Progress for LGBTQ student-athetes comes in fits and starts
It was April 2005 and Emily Neimann should have been on top of the world. The sophomore forward had just sparked the Baylor Bears to an NCAA championship win and earned a spot on the All-Final-Four team. And she was in love.
But her kind of love was not and is not welcome on the Baylor campus. Since third grade Neimann had known that she was gay. But for even longer she had heard from those around her that homosexuality was a sin, and so she had come to regard something so essential as her sexuality as a spiritual challenge.
“I was so afraid that God was going to punish me for that thorn in my flesh,” she reflected. “I really took a lot of pride in that a huge part of my identity, spiritually, was that I was not going to act on that temptation, and this was something that was testing me.”
Over time, the Houston area native and product of Christian education since elementary school said she had come to accept “the homophobic environment we were raised in, accepted that ideology. It wasn’t until right after I turned 20 when I started to get exposure to people who didn’t think gay people were awful.”
Internalized self-doubt mixed with “the information I had, and the exposure I’d been given, and the language that people used” made Neimann feel wholly unwelcome during her two years in Waco, and she left Baylor after that championship season.
Neimann briefly considered continuing her playing career at UC-Santa Barbara, but ultimately decided to leave basketball behind and finish her degree at Smith College. Now 26, she works for the Office of Student Affairs at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
There she got a chance to see history made as Minuteman senior Derrick Gordon played this past season as the first openly gay men’s Division I athlete.
The senior guard saw much more support from the UMass community than Neimann did at Baylor. UMass coach Derek Kellogg and Gordon’s teammates all supported him openly, and the school’s chancellor and athletic director both issued public statements of encouragement for Gordon.
UMass journalism graduate Matt Vautour has covered Minuteman athletics for the Hampshire Daily Gazette since 2006. As the season began, he worried that opposing fans would taunt Gordon with anti-gay slurs.
“People can be nasty and not all that creative,” Vautour said. But throughout the season, the only taunts Gordon heard were about “his hair and his missing layups.”
As the season wore on Vautour said he would “see an occasional rainbow flag in the crowd, and you’d see people come up to him from time to time and deliver a positive message.”
“To see thousands of people get behind Derrick Gordon — get behind the call for not only acceptance, but embracing gay people” was encouraging, said Vautour.
Gordon announced after this past season that he would be leaving UMass for his final season of eligibility but told ESPN that his decision had “absolutely nothing to do with my sexuality. In fact, everyone could not have been more supportive.”
Although he found some personal fulfillment after coming out, Gordon struggled on the court, shooting a career-low 40 percent from the field. The Minutemen floundered late in the season, losing six of their last seven games and missing the postseason for the first time in four years.
While public support for gay rights has increased in the past ten years, the homophobic attitudes and policies that govern college athletics are still in place. LGBTQIA+ activists point to Gordon and Jason Collins as indicators of progress, but a number of conservative faith-based institutions are pushing back.
Dominance and Distress
For Neimann and another prominent gay Lady Bear, Brittney Griner, the blessings were similarly mixed, but their experience was the opposite of Gordon’s. The two Baylor women were smashing successes on the court but struggled to live comfortably and happily off it.
Griner arrived in Waco four years after Neimann left. Despite having been out to friends and family all her life she acquiesced to coach Kim Mulkey’s “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” policy regarding her sexuality.
On the court she was anything but quiet, breaking the record for blocked shots in her freshman year.
In her junior season, 2012, Griner blocked more shots than any other women’s NCAA team. The Bears won a second national championship that year, making Mulkey just the fifth coach to win multiple titles. Griner won all four major player of the year awards in her last two seasons at Baylor and was the first pick in the 2013 WNBA draft.
Gallup polls indicate that support for gay rights is growing — particularly among younger Americans. About 40% of those surveyed thought gay marriages should be valid in 2005; that marker reached a high of 55% in 2014. Among 18-29 year olds the approval rate was 78%; that number declined with each subsequent age group, bottoming out at 42% among those 65 and older.
Two weeks after her senior season ended, Griner broke Mulkey’s “don’t-ask-don’t tell” rule in coming out publicly, although at the time she told ESPNW that she had “always been really open about my sexuality and who I am. I never thought a big coming out was necessary.”
But throughout her time in Waco, that meant keeping her personal life a secret from both her peers and campus and team authority figures.
Sociologist Eric Anderson has written several books on masculinity and homophobia in sports, and is a pioneer himself as the first openly gay high school coach in America — coincidentally at Huntington Beach High School in California, where Robbie Rogers of the LA Galaxy (the first openly gay active professional athlete in a major team sport) once walked the halls.
Anderson writes that sports are “a place in which hegemonic masculinity is reproduced and defined, as an athlete represents the ideal of what it means to be a man, a definition that contrasts what it means to be feminine or gay.”
Faith and Education
Baylor University was chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas and is the oldest continuously operating university in the state. Since that first year it has been traditional for students to attend chapel at the Baptist institution, and Baylor has clung tightly to conservative Christian principles throughout its history.
Of the nation’s approximately 1200 faith-based institutions, Baylor is one of 181 worldwide that belong to the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (144 are in the United States; 11 of those are in Texas).
The organization requires its members not only to have a “Christian mission statement and integrate Biblical faith into its educational programs,” but also to “hire only persons who profess faith in Jesus Christ as full-time faculty members and administrators.” These influences can be seen throughout Baylor’s formalized student policies.
The university still officially bans the consumption of alcohol on or off campus, and Baylor junior Katy Humphrey said that until recent years the university didn’t even allow dancing.
“It’s the typical Baptist University,” she said. “No dancing, no drinking.” Baylor’s official “Statement on Human Sexuality” defines:
singleness and fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman as the biblical norm. Temptations to deviate from this norm include both heterosexual sex outside of marriage and homosexual behavior. It is thus expected that Baylor students will not participate in advocacy groups which promote understandings of sexuality that are contrary to biblical teaching.
Baylor’s sexual misconduct policy groups “homosexual acts” with “sexual abuse, sexual harassment, sexual assault, incest, [and] adultery,” and the university declined to certify a student LGBTQIA+ support group in 2011.
The Baylor Sexual Identity Forum does meet unofficially, but its members are reluctant to have their identities known for fear of retribution.
Dave Zirin, sports editor for The Nation, has written extensively on social issues in the sporting world, and he thinks these policies are an indication that Baylor is lagging far behind the sensibility of its students. “People do not give kids enough credit,” he said in a March interview. “This is about nervous grownups. This is about homophobic adults.”
Derrick Gordon and Jason Collins are threats to that structure, and often the result is “resistance against the intrusion of a gay subculture within sports.”
Humphrey said she does not know of a single out gay person among her fellow students and thinks many stay closeted based on some of the same fears Neimann had in 2005.
“There are gay students here,” said Humphrey. “I think they don’t feel it’s the right time and place to come out.”
Matt Owen, also finishing his junior year at Baylor, agrees. The Athens, TX (pop ~12,000) native said there are plenty of students that carry homophobic attitudes learned at home to campus and think that their LGBTQIA+ cohorts are “going to hell.”
“I don’t care if you’re homosexual, I don’t care if you’re straight,” said Owen. “No matter who you are you still deserve the love that Christ has, so if I can share that with you I’m going to share that with you in any way possible.”
A Seismic Shift
Anderson did two extensive research studies involving scholastic and collegiate athletes who were out to their teams and found that from 2002 to 2010 scholastic and collegiate athletic programs became much friendlier to LGBTQIA+ students.
In the original study, Anderson had a difficult time even finding out athletes, ultimately locating just 42. He found that most were star players on their teams and had accepted the normalization of homophobic language, and were in some cases afraid of being the victims of violence.
In the follow-up in 2010, Anderson found that there were many more openly gay athletes and far less homohysteria or homophobia. He found a near-absence of gay slurs and also found that average and below-average athletes were now comfortable coming out.
The time commitments necessary to participate in college athletics can be staggering: often upwards of 50 hours a week in-season and 20 per week in the off-season for scholarship basketball players.
Combined with the stresses common to any college student and the fear of losing everything — a scholarship, relationships with family members, and the respect of the community — it was too much for Neimann.
She escaped by moving 2000 miles away from her toxic environment. Brittney Griner poured her energy into basketball and counted the months until graduation. Many LGBTQIA+ and questioning college students have no such means of escape, however, and the consequences can be devastating.
According to a 2011 study by the Center for Disease Control, LGBTQIA+ youth from grades 7-12 are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers. San Francisco State University’s Family Assistance Project found that youth from “highly rejecting families were 8.4 times as likely to attempt suicide as those who reported low levels of family rejection.”
Neimann cited the lack of out gay role models as one of the primary forces that kept her in the closet. “I didn’t know anyone who was gay when I was 19.”
Within the context of her Christian upbringing the lack of out gay role models is not surprising. But countless openly gay musicians and actors have come out in recent years, dwarfing the number of out athletes.
Megan Rapinoe of the U.S. national soccer team and the Seattle Reign FC came out in 2012, but said at a recent South by Southwest panel that she felt that “people already knew, or assumed, or had looked at my Instagram.”
Rapinoe said she feels many female athletes are already stereotyped as lesbians, and others have simply been open their whole lives to little or no attention.
She saw an opportunity to be a beacon to young people like vintage 2005 Emily Neimann, saying that she felt “a responsibility to kind of pave the way and show there isn’t going to be a lot of negative backlash.”
While Rapinoe saw just a few gentle ripples from her announcement, Jason Collins shocked the basketball world (including his twin brother) when he came out after the 2013 season.
On the verge of retirement, he remained unsigned until mid-season injuries prompted the Nets to give him a call. Collins particularly remembers the greeting he got from one player with whom he had played — and shared a locker room — in previous seasons.
Speaking alongside Rapinoe at SXSW, Collins recalled how the teammate “went out of his way to say how proud he was of me and how big a moment it was for the NBA that I was back.”
“I wasn’t expecting that conversation from him because when we were teammates before he definitely used homophobic language,” said Collins. “When I came out his attitude totally changed.”
“It’s really cool to see that’s the kind of effect you can have when you do come out, that people’s attitudes can change and they realize THEY have to change.”
An Uphill Sprint
Zirin says that the reception for Collins and Gordon show that marginal progress has indeed been made, but “absolutely, positively, without question sports is behind the rest of society when it comes to LGBT people.”
“That’s why the locker room has long been called the last closet,” he said. “We’re dealing with an institution that historically has been the cultural bulwark of homophobia in our country, constructing what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman.”
This past December, Baylor celebrated the 2005 championship team’s 10th anniversary with a halftime ceremony. Neimann accepted the invitation. It would be the first time she set foot on campus since leaving ten years before, and she felt some of the old fears creeping back. On top of those was the apprehension that people would be “frustrated, even angry with me about the way I left the team.”
But when she arrived in Waco, she found kindness and grace at every turn. “People came up to me and said how happy they were to see me, and that I didn’t have to leave, and that I was loved.”
“It was amazing how warm everyone was,” said Neimann. “It was certainly one of those great examples of how what we think about we bring about.”
The changes Neimann speaks about have already come to Texas’ other major Christian institutions of higher learning. Texas Christian University and Southern Methodist University both added sexual orientation to their non-discrimination language in 2013 and both campuses host officially sanctioned LGBTQIA+ student groups.
Neimann hopes to build on the warm reception she received at January’s reunion. “Everyone I talked to about this realized that Baylor needed to move on this, that Baylor needed to find a better way to serve and support their students who are gay,” she said.
She says that during the reunion weekend, “no fewer than 50 people” told her that had she come out and stayed at Baylor, that she would have had their full and vocal support.
“The one exception was coach Mulkey,” said Neimann. “She was very nice, and said how great it was that I made it back for the reunion,” but never talked with Neimann about why she left or the article Neimann wrote for OutSports.com.
Zirin doesn’t blame Mulkey for not publicly supporting her gay players. “If we’re being honest, it’s not Kim Mulkey’s fault, it’s the institution of Baylor,” he said. “It’s not like Kim Mulkey could say ‘I’m now LGBT friendly’ any more than the head of the FBI could say that ‘I no longer believe we should arrest people.’”
“If she all of a sudden said ‘I’m Ms. LGBT friendly’ they would find a new coach.”
Baylor president and chancellor Ken Starr did not respond to requests for comment for this article, nor did Mulkey.
Years and miles have made Neimann more secure in her own identity and sexuality, and she now wants to turn some energy towards changing minds and hearts on the Baylor campus.
“I know so many people on that campus — students, faculty, staff, and administrators — who want to do a better job,” she said. “When I was 19 and I left, I threw up a lot of red flags.”
“I said people need to pay attention to this, and then I ran.”
Neimann knows that for Baylor to become a truly inclusive place for LGBTQIA+ students would require a tremendous shift.
“Keep your Baptist tenets; keep your millions of dollars that are tied up with your affiliation with your Baptist position. Keep that,” she said. “It’s not a conversation about belief, it’s a conversation about behaviors.”
Despite the homophobic messages Matt Owen heard growing up in a conservative Christian small-town environment, he says that “Christ calls us not to condemn the sinner, but to condemn the sin.”
Neimann is hoping that if she cannot move the hearts of those who think being gay is a sin, she can at least nudge them towards more inclusive behavior.
“It’s how we treat people,” she said. “We can believe all kinds of things but at the end of the day what we are accountable for and what impacts other people is how we behave. Just because we hold a belief does not give us the right to treat people poorly.”