The gesture is meant to convey a strong message: U.S. Olympians will compete with grace and show Russia just how far this country has come in terms of sexual freedom. But while Russia trails the United States in gay rights, the United States can’t claim much of a moral high ground for its own athletes. In 2012, the activist organization Campus Pride released a study of more than 8,000 student-athletes from 164 NCAA institutions, concluding that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) athletes were harassed — in person and online — twice as often as their straight peers. One in four gay athletes felt pressured to be silent about their sexual identity.
During the 2012 London Olympics, only 23 competing athletes — out of more than 12,000 — openly identified themselves as LGBTQ. Three hailed from the United States.
These statistics don’t surprise me; I have lived them. I am a 22-year-old senior varsity ice hockey player at Amherst College. I have been out, comfortably, since my junior year at prep school. When I chose to attend a liberal arts college in New England, I assumed I would encounter an environment accepting of gay athletes. I was wrong.
At Amherst, women have told me I’m “too girly to be gay.” Men have told me I’m “too hot to be a dyke.” I’ve been bullied by a teammate. I’ve been hit on by a female coach. I am one of the only openly gay athletes at my college. Closeted athletes have come out to me, and then ignored me the next day.
Since I began working with LGBTQ activist organizations, I’ve learned that homophobia and transphobia in sports reach further than a few players or a certain university — these problems are nationwide.
Two experiences opened my eyes to this reality. The first was two years ago, when I spoke at Bryant University in Rhode Island about being featured in photographer Jeff Sheng’s exhibit depicting openly gay, bisexual and transgender student athletes. Just before speaking, I learned that Sheng’s photographs had been stolen from the student center. The students I addressed treated me respectfully, but I will never forget the sight of those bare walls — or the fact that Bryant didn’t immediately respond to that hate crime or classify it as such.
More recently, this fall I interviewed Cahow for GO! Athletes, an advocacy organization. As we discussed her experiences as a gay athlete, she told me about spearheading a video for the You Can Play Project, a group that promotes gender equality for athletes. She approached the Canadian Women’s Hockey League and had tremendous difficulty getting straight or gay players to participate. Most of the women, she told me, worried about being perceived as lesbians.
But when the National Hockey League created a You Can Play video, many players wanted to contribute. In other words, female athletes — a part of the sports world most expected to accept gay players — cannot confront homophobia. Women are told to stay in the closet, as in the case of 2013 WNBA No. 1 draft pick Brittany Griner, whose coach at Baylor University in Texas reportedly told players to not publicly reveal their sexual orientation, saying it would hurt recruiting and reflect poorly on the program.
I can relate. For years, I stayed in the closet to prove that I wasn’t just another gay hockey player. Thankfully, those days are over for me.
But gay athletes, and those suspected of being gay, still face discrimination and alienation throughout the United States. Legally, we have more freedom, but the U.S. sports world is not that much more enlightened than our opponents in Sochi.
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