Three gay Nebraska athletes feel alone in struggles

By Ross Benes, NewsNetNebraska

As a successful sprinter, Todd Gulizia felt he couldn’t reveal his sexuality. Even though his twin brother already came out, Todd couldn’t. He wanted to be seen for just his athleticism, not his sexuality.

“Athletics was part of the reason I couldn’t come out when my brother did,” he said.

So when Gulizia finally came out to his family as a college freshman, they were caught off guard.

“They didn’t associate athletics with something a gay person would do.”

In a football-crazy conservative state where many residents despise Barack Obama as much as the hated Texas Longhorns, coming out ain’t easy for anyone. Go Big Red isn’t just a Husker chant. It’s a political slogan too as every Congressional seat in Nebraska is now Republican. Given the political climate, it’s no surprise the majority of the state opposes gay marriage.

But for three former Nebraska state college athletes, coming out in a red state isn’t the difficult part. Rather, the difficulty lies in finding anyone who can relate.

“I never knew any gay people on campus, “said Erin McCormick, a former all Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference basketball player from Wayne State who identifies as lesbian. “I didn’t know many students outside athletics, so I felt like I was the only one. If there were gay athletes, they just weren’t out because maybe they didn’t feel as comfy as I did.”

A lack of out LGBT athletes isn’t unique to Wayne State.

Chase Petersen is an openly gay tennis player who played at both Northwest Missouri State and the University of Nebraska-Omaha. But he never met another out gay athlete at either of these schools.

“I’m sure there were others,” Petersen said. “But just not any that were out.”

That sentiment was echoed by Gulizia’s UNL experience.

Either there weren’t many out athletes or they weren’t too open to discuss it, Gulizia said.

“I think I was the only gay or bi athlete on the cross country or track team,” he said. “I can’t speak for the women at all, but I feel like I would know if there was a gay guy on the track team, but there were none I knew of.”

A lack of out of the closet athletes goes beyond Nebraska college athletics. An October HBO Real Sports segment reported that no active American athlete has ever come out from the big four professional sports leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL).

The subject, gays in sports, is somewhat of a societal enigma HBO reported. There are gay sitcom characters and talk show hosts. The president supports gay marriage. There are now open gays in the military. But in sports, the subject remains taboo.

The latest major U.S. study  to address homosexuality estimated that between 1.5 and 3 percent reported a homosexual orientation. If professional athletes reflect the general population, which isn’t certain one way or the other at this point, that means about 200 gay athletes participate in the big four pro leagues.

“I personally know about six, seven guys (homosexual athletes),” said LZ Granderson, an openly gay ESPN and CNN columnist who was featured in the HBO segment. “I don’t think it’s a stretch to think there could be 200.”

That means there may be enough homosexuals in the four pro leagues to fill the rosters of the Yankees, Red Sox, Red Wings, Raiders, Steelers and Lakers. But not a single active athlete has ever come out from these leagues.

And if there are likely many professional gay athletes, shouldn’t it be likely that there are more than just a handful of LGBT individuals among the thousands of the state’s college student athletes?

Just at UNL, where about 600 student athletes, this means they may be enough gay athletes to fill an entire basketball roster.

The environment

As far as sexuality and sports go in Nebraska, two stories dominated the press this past year.

One is the alleged hate crime against former Husker basketball player Charlie Rodgers that Lincoln police stated was a hoax. Rogers reported men broke into her home, cut anti-gay slurs into skin and then tried to burn her house down.

The alleged hate crime received national media attention and prompted a candlelight vigil. Police then arrested Rogers for providing false information to police. The case is still being tried in court.

The other is Husker assistant football coach Ron Brown speaking at the Omaha City Council against a non-discriminatory ordinance for the hiring and firing of homosexuals in the workplace. Brown stated his address as “1 Memorial Stadium Lincoln, Nebraska,” before testifying against the ordinance. This angered proponents of the ordinance, who felt Brown represented UNL while violating its anti-discrimination policy.

Both of these stories, coupled with the fact that Nebraska is incredibly conservative and doesn’t support gay marriage, could lead one to believe athletes don’t discuss sexuality due to a dreary environment.

Pat Tetrault, an out lesbian and assistant director of the UNL LGBTQA resource center, says the local environment’s sexuality acceptance is complex. Though the state is conservative, there are many accepting progressive people that live here.

“It can be a comfortable place to live despite not having equal rights,” she said.

Brown doesn’t tiptoe around his stance. He believes the Bible says homosexuality is a sin and he is opposed to the gay lifestyle.

But even Brown realizes there are gay athletes and workers in the athletic department.

“I think there’s some student athletes here that have publicly professed they’re living a gay lifestyle,” Brown said. “I assume there are some coaches living that lifestyle too…I was told by one athletic director several years ago that there is a definite proportion at this university, at the athletic department even, that is very much involved in a gay lifestyle.”

“He (the athletic director) was concerned I was speaking publicly about homosexuality being a sin and that wasn’t fair to those people,” Brown said.

“It is fair (to speak out). They think my lifestyle is sinful. They would think what the scripture says is wrong. I believe in the scripture so they would think I am wrong. But that doesn’t mean they should be ostracized because they think I am wrong. That doesn’t mean I should go to them and complain to them that they think I am wrong. But we all live in a world where people have opinions.”

One person who disagrees with Brown is Gulizia.

“Just hearing stuff like that (Brown’s stance against homosexuality) makes me take a step back and realize that we haven’t come as far as I thought,” Gulizia said.

Gulizia isn’t alone in disapproving Brown’s actions. Media outlets as diverse as ESPN, the Huffington Post and Outsports.com called for Brown’s removal following his protest. Some politely disagreed, others vehemently wanted Brown gone.

“Those involved in gay lifestyle think that Ron Brown is a major league violator,” Brown said. “They might as well have my picture up on a wall somewhere from some of the email and hate mail I’ve received…But we’re gonna have to agree to disagree. And at end of day there’s gonna be one truth. And may the best truth win. And the truth will prevail.”

Brown believes his view that homosexuality is in violation of God’s will, should be protected by the university’s diversity policy the same way gay students should be protected by the diversity policy to express their views.

Though he believes in equal rights and respect whether an individual is gay or not, he still doesn’t support athletes living a gay lifestyle.

“If they are looking for consent to that lifestyle they will have to find someone who consents to that lifestyle. If they are looking for someone to be safe with, someone who won’t ostracize or ridicule or discriminate against them, then come to me and I will give them that.”

As of now, no player has ever approached Brown about being homosexual. So how would he react if a player were to come out to him?

“I’d say thank you for sharing that with me. Now let’s get ready for practice. Let’s go.”

What’s next?

The UNL resource center has communicated with the athletic department about setting up programs for LGBT athletes. However, it is up to the athletic department on how much they want to be involved, Tetrault said.

The resource center is now included in student athlete orientation and at the orientation students have developed skits dealing with sexual orientation. But communication with the athletic department hasn’t produced any programs specifically for gay athletes.

“Over time I hope they (the athletic department) collaborate with us to have programs for LGBT athletes and allies,” Tetrault said. “The focus is on having excellent athletes, but it would be nice to have support for LGBT athletes so they can be who they are and be comfortable with that.”

On the HBO Real Sports segment on sports and sexuality, Outsports.com founder Cyd Zeigler said everyone he talked to from fans and media to pro athletes and Fortune 500 companies, would support an openly gay athlete.

“This idea that this (homosexual) player will not be embraced, there is no evidence whatsoever to say that,” Zeigler said. “There is no reason for them not to (come out) other than fear of the unknown.”

There’s an even larger issue at stake besides athletic perception if an athlete were to come out.

A lot of LGBT youth health and well-being is correlated with if families are supportive and accepting, Tetrault said.

A study by the Suicide Prevention Resource Center estimated that between 30 and percent of LGBT youth have attempted suicide. Much of this increased suicide risk is related to children’s experience as LGBT youth, Tetrault said.

“When people are loved and accepted for who they are, it’s very different than being in an environment where you may be rejected for who you are,” she said.

In Nebraska, most kids grow up wishing to play at the Coliseum or Memorial Stadium. The athletic department often puts on outreach programs where student athletes serve as role models and send positive messages to aspiring youth.

Since athletes often serve as primary role models for children, Zeigler believes gay athletes have a strong responsibility to come out and be a positive influence to gay youth.

“Kids are trying to kill themselves. And they are succeeding,” Zeigler said.

“Because they are gay and because they’re being bullied about being gay. Having a (gay) role model to look up to in one of the big sports would be incredibly powerful for those kids’ lives. And pretty soon people will start saying what took you so long? Look at the kids who have killed themselves. You could have done a lot of good, and you didn’t.”

Who knows what impact a single Husker could have by acknowledging their sexual orientation? One thing’s certain – it’s at least worth discussing.

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