Coming out in the locker room

The night before the 2008 Canada Cup, the final meet of the fall season for the Stanford women’s swimming team, Laura Wadden ’09 lay in bed awake.

Laura Wadden '09, who identifies as bisexual, competed on the women's varsity swim team. Having won two golds at the Canada Cup, Wadden said her greatest victory was coming out to her coach Lea Maurer '94 M.A. '95. (Courtesy of stanfordphoto.com)

Three weeks earlier, Wadden was the poster child of a Stanford student campaign against Proposition 8, a California initiative to ban same-sex marriage. She was left devastated by the results, as 52 percent of state voters decided that marriage could only be between a man and a woman.

In her Toronto hotel room, the senior co-captain of the swimming team was overcome with memories and emotions of the past half-year. She remembered imploring her fellow students through a megaphone to join her in the fight for equal rights and recognition of same-sex marriage. She recalled her encouragement for her younger brother Jack, a rower on the men’s crew team at Williams College, when he told their parents the summer before that he was gay.

But on Thanksgiving night in 2008, after months of supporting others, Wadden wondered who would be there for her.

The next day, she found her coach, Lea Maurer ‘94 M.A. ‘95, just before the start of her first event.

“I’m bisexual,” Wadden told her coach.

At Stanford, coming out can still be difficult, especially for athletes. The University is home to about 800 varsity athletes, but only a handful has come out while still representing the Cardinal at the collegiate level.

It took Wadden four years to confront her identity and tell her coach, after questioning her own sexuality since high school. Looking back, she recalled her reasons for closeting part of her identity for the majority of her time at Stanford.

“I was just so scared,” Wadden said of the night before she confronted Maurer. “I didn’t know if I should come out or not, and I didn’t even know who to tell.”

“Fear of the Unknown”

Wadden’s situation is by no means unique among Stanford athletes. Nor is it a development confined to the boundaries of the Farm.

Cyd Zeigler ’95, founder of Outsports.com, has heard hundreds of stories of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transsexual (LGBT) athletes at every level of sport over 11 years of running his website. He estimated that the proportion of LGBT individuals in sports was no less than that in the world population, about 2 to 3 percent.

“That means there are hundreds or thousands of collegiate athletes who are gay,” he said.

Across both amateur and professional American sports, there has been a slow outpouring of encouragement for gay athletes. Prominent sports figures, among them former basketball star Charles Barkley and various NFL players, have stated their support and recognition of LGBT issues. Some, like former Villanova basketball player Will Sheridan, have chosen to come out after keeping their sexual identities away from the public eye.

Stories like these have been few and far between at Stanford.

The University’s nondiscrimination policy protects against any unlawful discrimination based on ethnicity, gender, disability, religion or sexual orientation in any school program or activity. Despite the stated policies, Zeigler stated that closeted student-athletes at Stanford maintain a “fear of the unknown.”

“You don’t know for absolute fact that your coach is going to accept you and your teammates are going to accept you,” he said. “You don’t have it written in a contract that these people are going to accept you.”

A Stigma in Stanford Sports?

Last Wednesday, eight current and former Stanford athletes detailed their struggles on a panel for LGBT issues in sports. Held by Safe and Open Spaces at Stanford (SOSAS), a group dedicated to opening dialogue on queer issues, the talk brought together athletes, some out and some not, from across several sports.

Sitting on couches in the Women’s Community Center, once the rallying place for 2008’s Prop. 8 protests, the athletes described their internal struggles as gay, lesbian or bisexual in a realm that has not always been welcoming of individuals of all sexual orientations.

The organizer of that panel, Holly Fetter ’13, co-president of Stanford Students for Queer Liberation (SSQL) and a Daily staffer, said that some aspects of the Stanford Athletics Department lag behind the general campus attitudes on LGBT issues. She cited the lack of out athletes at the University as a sign of the disparity.

“There’s certainly a stigma associated with being gay, even being an ally [of an LGBT student], and being an athlete,” she said.

While athletes on the panel were quick to state that Stanford’s student body and campus environment have created a relatively welcoming environment, some were still discomforted by the handling of LGBT issues and the relative insensitivity within their respective teams.

In an interview before her appearance on the SOSAS panel, Wadden recalled an instance during her freshman year when some senior swimmers joked about a teammate who they thought was a lesbian.

Laura Wadden '09 dedicated her time and energy to campaign against Proposition 8. Her personal struggle to come out, however, was fraught with uncertainty and fear. (Stanford Daily File Photo)

“The fact they would laugh about it made me feel that being a lesbian would be an out-of-the-ordinary thing that people wouldn’t necessarily be cool with,” she said.

One current Stanford women’s basketball player, who identified as bisexual, did not feel that her teammates were aware of the potential harm created by fleeting insults thrown around on the court. She did not want to be identified because she has not told her family of her sexual identity.

“There are people on our team who will say ‘That’s so gay,’ or ‘he’s a gay, she’s a gay’ and misuse the word,” she said.

Xanthe Travlos ’11, a field hockey player, came out to her teammates in 2008 after becoming close with another member of her team. After concealing their relationship for a year, she and her girlfriend slowly come out to teammates, which Travlos described as a “huge relief.”

But after a game against Davidson College in October of that year, Travlos heard the laughs and saw the pointing from members of the opposing team. As she and her girlfriend walked off the Stanford Varsity Field Hockey Turf, which had been sponsored in part by the Lesbian Equality Foundation of Silicon Valley, Travlos realized that her coming-out process would not be without its difficulties.
She later traced the source of the rumors to a member of the Stanford coaching staff, who Travlos and her girlfriend thought was someone they could trust. That coach has since left the team.

An Unprecedented Situation in the Locker Room

While there has been no systemic discrimination against individuals of any sexual orientation in Stanford sports, athletes said that it is often the little things — the insensitive remarks among teammates or a coach’s inability to handle a situation — that convey that the University’s athletics programs do not yet completely embrace LGBT participants. Some, like Dwight Slater ’02, believe that homophobic aspects have been ingrained in aspects of sports culture.

In 1999, Slater, then a redshirt freshman on the Stanford football team, decided to relieve himself of a burden that had weighed on his conscience since joining the Cardinal that summer. A highly recruited offensive lineman from Florida, Slater confronted then-head coach Tyrone Willingham with a two-word statement not often heard in a football locker room.

“I’m gay.”

As a freshman, Slater struggled with his own sexuality, his personal relationship with his father and the recent death of his mother. He saw Stanford, more than 2,500 miles away from home, as an escape.

But soon after arriving on campus, Slater came to conclude that the “hyper-masculine” nature of the sport he played and his sexual identity were not compatible. He often found himself lying about where he was going or what he was doing.

“The gay angle didn’t fit in anywhere, and I didn’t know how to fit it into my identity,” he recalled. “I just felt like a fraud the whole time.”

In the most trying academic and athletic environment he had ever experienced, Slater was left alone on the team, unable to confide in his teammates or coaching staff. It took months for him to tell Willingham, a decision that only came after being spurred on by the positive support of a dorm event, “Crossing The Line,” in which he revealed his sexual identity to his fellow residents.

But when Slater later told his head coach, he confided in a man who he believed did not know how to deal with such an unprecedented situation.

“I don’t think he was able to handle my situation,” Slater said, “I wasn’t able to handle it. At that time, I don’t think anybody had come out on a team sport…He was willing to work with me, but only on his timeline.”

Because his situation was so unique, the football coaching staff was neither trained nor prepared to deal with his situation, inadvertently making decisions that would force Slater to come out to his father.

Looking back, Slater maintains no ill will toward Willingham or the other coaches, but remembers a divided team atmosphere, with some teammates readily accepting of his identity and others choosing to openly state their discomfort. He left the team during his freshman year.

Slater is seen as one of the first NCAA Division I football players to announce that he was gay, but he did not think his situation was unique at the time or within his sport.

“I was not the only one,” Slater said.

An Effort to Change A Culture

While Travlos and Wadden have come out to their teammates and coaches, they want to ensure that any athlete can find that same comfort and confidence. Along with Fetter, the pair made a presentation last spring to Stanford Director of Athletics Bob Bowlsby and proposed that the Athletics Department institute LGBT sensitivity training for its coaches and staff.

While Fetter has said that the environment within University locker rooms and on Stanford playing fields has been slow to change, the Athletics Department has taken some initiative. In February, the department welcomed an NCAA-sanctioned speaker to lead a cultural diversity workshop.

Senior Associate Athletics Director Earl Koberlein ‘86 said that sexual orientation in Stanford sports was “not really an issue.” In an email to The Daily, Koberlein stated that the University recruits individuals that can excel academically and athletically, regardless of sexual preference.

“Any student-athlete in need of support is encouraged to meet with Athletics Department or University staffers who can provide needed support, advice and connect them to University resources as appropriate,” he said.

Some athletes are looking for the Athletics Department to move beyond their tacit acceptance of LGBT athletes in varsity sports to actively welcome them. While Koberlein was not aware of any coaches making public statements in support of gay or lesbian athletes, the anonymous women’s basketball player believed that a message from a Tara VanDerveer or a David Shaw could have a profound effect on the perception of LGBT participants in Stanford sports.

Zeigler welcomed such statements. He hoped that a more open environment within the Stanford Athletics Department could convey to closeted athletes that they would be accepted and embraced by their peers.

“A lot of people in sports don’t want to talk about this issue,” Zeigler said. “But when they’re confronted with a teammate coming out of the closet, they are supportive, because sports are about a few things. But at the end of the day, [the team is] built to win. As long as someone is contributing to winning, that person can have three legs or they can be purple.”

This was something that Wadden soon realized after coming out to her coach and her teammates. While she swam to two golds at the Canada Cup, her biggest victory came outside the pool when she revealed her identity to Coach Maurer.

“It’s okay, you’re fine,” her coach said, wrapping her arms around Wadden. “It’s not that big of a deal.”