Scholarship reflects challenges of coming out for gay student-athletes

Correction: An earlier version of this article gave the incorrect employer for Ellen Kahn. She works for the Human Rights Campaign. The earlier version also gave an incorrect number of scholarships awarded to men and women.


Justin Kanga, 18, a freshman at University of Maryland at College Park, received one of Team DC’s scholarships for LGBT student-athletes. (Linda Davidson/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Brent Minor and his colleagues developed a college scholarship they thought was innovative and important: an award for Washington area student-athletes who came out of the closet during high school.

There was just one problem: The students couldn’t be found.

“It was more challenging than we originally thought,” said Minor, program director for Team DC, a sports networking and advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. “Much more challenging.”

Finding LGBT student-athletes would mean weaving through mazes of school systems and persuading counselors who feared they might “out” a student by accident.

Minor also had to face a hard reality: Eligible student-athletes still had to function in a teenage universe of sweat, swag and machismo — similar to the one that kept many of his peers in the closet when they were in high school generations ago. To come out was to risk social isolation and stigma.

But this month, Team DC awarded $2,000 apiece to three students who stepped out of the shadows. Minor considers it a success. A record number — six — applied for the scholarship.

“Actually, five, because one didn’t complete the application,” Minor said with a sigh. “The truth is, we just have to grow the program slowly.”

The group allows students to apply even if they don’t want their identities published when they win. One student this year applied only as “H.” Others vowed to apply but didn’t follow through.

Anecdotal evidence suggests students are coming out earlier in life. But, even at a time when former NBA star Charles Barkley said that gay athletes playing a sport should be no big deal, there are still barriers.

In a 2009 survey of gay Maryland high-schoolers published by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, 40 percent of students said they endured physical harassment. The most-feared place for many gay and lesbian students was the locker room, leading many athletes — particularly males — to be wary of coming out.

“They are watching what the others guys do, trying not to be seen, and mimicking the [others’] actions, because they don’t want to take a risk of standing out,” said Ellen Kahn, a family project director at the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign. “You can’t blame them. If you’re different, you’re targeted.”

Scholarships directed at LGBT athletes are rare. Applying for them often forces students to ask themselves questions they might not have considered:

Just how out do I want to be? Is it all right for my friends to know? Is it all right for my parents or my community? Is it all right for the world to know, if it’s posted on the Internet?

Justin Kanga’s answer was “yes” to all of the above. As a freshman in the science magnet program at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Kanga feared he wouldn’t stand out among his competitive peers. So he joined the track team and started jumping over hurdles.

In his winning application to Team DC, Kanga wrote that participation in sports instilled a confidence that allowed him to tell friends he is gay.

“It was April 25, 2009, at 3 a.m.,” said Kanga, a freshman at the University of Maryland at College Park. “We were up all night talking, and it just felt right.”

Kanga wasn’t too surprised when his friends shrugged and moved on. Reflecting on that day, he said he’d been worried because “once that is revealed, you can’t take it back. You have to live with it. I felt blessed that I had such good friends.”

In four years, all of Team DC’s winners have come from Montgomery County or Northern Virginia. There have been nine winners — seven men and two women. No student from Prince George’s County or the District has applied, but organizers have tried to reach them.

Their first strategy: Use existing networks. Greg Campbell, one of the initial scholarship organizers, advertised it through gay pride events and a gay men’s chorus.

“The kids we were looking for were not the type to go to gay men’s chorus events,” Campbell said.

Next, they tried to enlist the help of local Gay-Straight Alliances, many of which are registered with the network. The committee hoped most schools would have such groups. Not true. Although virtually all high schools in Montgomery and Fairfax counties have registered alliances, only four in Prince George’s were listed. In the District, only one public high school was listed.

Organizers produced brochures and asked school counselors for recommendations. Usually, counselors were shocked that such a scholarship existed. About two years ago, Campbell said, one enthusiastic counselor encouraged a basketball player to apply. The player thanked the counselor for the opportunity but let her know that she wasn’t a lesbian.

“They had a good laugh about it,” Campbell said.

Still, the strategy worked well three years ago at Wakefield High School in Arlington County. In 2009, the student council president saw the flier and asked a counselor for more information. The counselor encouraged the student to talk to Campbell, who is the school’s swim coach. The student, Clayton Miller, happened to be the captain of Campbell’s swim team. His interest surprised his teacher, as well as his classmates.

Now a junior at Virginia Tech, Miller said he kept his orientation mostly under wraps because he didn’t want anyone to doubt him as a leader. Then he saw the brochure.

“At first, I was a little hesitant, because I didn’t want my name put out there,” Miller said. “So I evaluated the reward versus the social cost. And I figured, I thought, if I did this, I might be able to motivate someone in the future to do the same thing and not be afraid of the stigma, like I was.

“That was leadership.”

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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