When Kirk Walker and his partner Randy Baltimore decided to adopt a child in 2005, the process required the couple to fill out public records, which led to Walker making the important decision to do what no other head coach in Division I NCAA had ever done — come out to his team and the world. (Since his announcement, Sherri Murrell, head women’s basketball coach at Portland State, has also come out.)
“For probably five or six years before I came out, I was definitely in a place where I would not hide it and I wouldn’t lie about it, but I wasn’t necessarily sharing it and it wasn’t a point of conversation,” he says. “It certainly wasn’t something I shared with my team. In fact, my team was a very big turning point for me in terms of being more vocal.”
Walker was in his 11th season as head softball coach with Oregon State University at the time and it was important to him that his players learn he was gay from him, rather than through the news reports that were certain to follow.
“I brought up the topic and I shared it with them,” he says. “For the next year or so, I was a little reluctant to do a lot of articles and interviews, because I didn’t want that to be the first thing listed on my resume, that I was the ‘gay coach,’ and that was partly my ego. I wanted my record to stand from my coaching world for who I was.”
Eventually, Walker decided that he was being selfish and that his attitude was diminishing the impact he could have, and proudly wore the label as “the coach who came out.”
Last season, Walker was offered an assistant coaching position for UCLA’s softball program and decided to make the move. He was an alumnus of the school and had previously served as a coach for the Bruins from 1984-1994, helping his alma mater to six NCAA National Championships.
Walker left OSU as the Beavers’ all-time winningest softball coach, with a 594-491 record, and led the team to 10 postseason appearances, including the College World Series in 2006 and the NCAA regionals in 2012.
Somewhat surprisingly, Walker believes he is making a bigger impact with LGBT students in his new role.
“As the role of a head coach, I know I was an example for people and they were respectful and appreciative, but a head coach is someone who is hard to seek out and share personal issues,” he says. “Now, being an assistant, I am in a different role and I certainly see more accessibility to me as a resource.”
In April, Walker, in conjunction with UCLA Athletics and UCLA Recreation, held an event for Athlete Ally, an organization that educates athletes, coaches and fans on issues regarding sexual orientation and sports. UCLA released a “You Can Play” video, which encourages acceptance and tolerance for gay athletes in all levels of athletics, and UCLA head football coach Jim Mora became the first current major college football coach to encourage gay athletes to play for his team.
“Coach Mora is fantastic and has been since I was hired,” Walker says. “I didn’t doubt for one minute that he wouldn’t be on board with the video we were producing and I certainly was very pleased he was so honest about how he felt, and I believe that was very powerful.”
Athletes from throughout the UCLA program — male and female — were on-board and Walker was impressed with the younger generation’s acceptance and support for teammates and individuals who might be LGBT.
Walker was happy that NBA player Jason Collins felt secure enough to come out and doesn’t believe that moments like this are as big a deal as many others do, calling it a safer climate today.
“I think anytime a high-profile person identifies as LGBT, especially in the sports world, it’s important, but I often said that there are many people in the media and the LGBT community who believe the first pro athlete or first football player or first basketball player that came out would be an earth-shattering moment, but I never really ascribed to that,” he says. “I think it’s fantastic, I think it’s great, but I don’t think an event like that means everything has changed.”
So, when contemplating why more athletes aren’t following Collins’ lead, Walker admits part of it is the perception of the public and part the perception of teammates. Still, he thinks the external struggle is the greatest challenge.
“For high-profile athletes, they worry, “Will I still be one of the guys? Will they still value me as a teammate and want me to be part of their family?’ and I think that’s a big roadblock,” Walker says. “I think the dialogue and having more conversations about LGBT athletes, coaches and individuals has created an opportunity in the locker room where there are some vocal people who will stand up and be supportive.”
As the new UCLA softball season is set to get underway, Walker is looking forward to more excitement and success from the team in his role as assistant to coach Kelly Inouye-Perez.
“I have relished the opportunity to be back in that role as an assistant and it’s been great. I have no regrets about making the move at this point in my career,” he says. “My passion in coaching is about changing lives and building individuals into the best person they can be moving into the real world.”