Six years ago, Hudson Taylor was in the midst of his three-time All-American career at the University of Maryland. I was an assistant coach on the team and also ran a nonprofit called the Terrapin Wrestling Club with a friend who was a devout Catholic. Everyday, my friend and I would attend Mass at noon, have lunch, arrive at the Comcast Center by 2:30 p.m. and listen in on the day’s locker room discussion before practice began. It was often filled with debate on a range of topics, from the first season of the television show “Dexter” to Barack Obama’s bid to become the Democratic presidential nominee. And normally, Taylor was behind it all. There was another subject that kept coming up and his arguments with one particular teammate on this specific subject became heated and full of controversy: LGBT rights.
Talk about gays and gay rights had always made me nervous. As a college football player and wrestler, I’ve been out to my family since my senior year, but I hadn’t told my team or my coaching staff. I made a point to have two lives and never wanted to mix the two in any way, shape or form. Being an athlete and being gay are both fundamental to my identity, yet all of my life experience had taught me that the two could not co-exist.
As a closeted coach, I stood in that locker room listening as Taylor defended gay marriage, gay rights, and reconciled the issues of faith and acceptance. I saw something in him that I lacked in myself because of the pain inflicted by the heterosexual community in sports and the disconnect I felt from the LGBT community.
Taylor, open minded and polished, vehemently defended LGBT rights to his teammates because he felt he was living in two worlds as well. In addition to being a nationally ranked wrestler, he was also a theater major. And he just didn’t understand why one of his worlds was so accepting of any type of sexual orientation and another was not. So he spoke out. Sometimes, when things got tense in the locker room, he would change tactics and wow the crowd with his card tricks or his easy-going, self-effacing manner. Despite disagreeing with him at times, teammates loved Taylor because he always gave you his heart. Three seasons filled with arguments, trips to Colorado, two ACC titles and an NCAA top-10 finish culminated with Taylor competing in headgear slapped with an HRC sticker and the logo for equality. Many members of the team had no idea what it was, though I did. And so in the hallway outside of the locker room, I asked Taylor if he would be willing to be interviewed for an article by a friend who wrote for Outsports. Inspired by the response to that article, Taylor and his wife, Lia, founded Athlete Ally and in the process, helped ignite a movement.
Athlete Ally works to improve the lives of LGBTQ athletes by being a support system, which is something many of us never had growing up in sports. For many, the name calling and the bullying ended any hopes of playing on a team or being in a locker room because being made to feel “less than” anyone else was too much to bear. Others, like me, continued to play and wished that someone, anyone really, at some point, would take a stand for or with you. Now, with our allies, LGBT leaders are paving a way for the next generation to compete and be open and happy.
Athlete Ally isn’t about the ally being our voice, it’s about teaching our allies to stand up with LGBTQ athletes so we can speak with one voice, in resounding thunder, to declare to the sports world that we will no longer let our friends and colleagues be bullied or pushed around. No longer should our friends be ashamed to have their boyfriends and girlfriends come down to the field and embrace them after scoring the game-winning point or making the game-winning throw.
Athlete Ally conducts programmatic work to develop inclusion of LGBT athletes in sports on almost every level, working with major sports leagues with partnerships like the NBA, NFL Players Association, USA Wrestling and many more. On both the professional and collegiate level, Athlete Ally has an active Ambassadors program across the country taking up the fight and being active leaders and role models for their peers.
Taylor helped change the life of this coach, who had been in his corner so many times. I coached at Maryland while keeping my sexual orientation a secret, but the truth was, I was a gay, black man looking for acceptance, love, and understanding from the family I loved so very much in the sport of wrestling. I had already lost so much in football after I came out to my college team during my senior year. No one, including myself, was prepared to fully deal with the ramifications of my disclosure and the impact was devastating. So although I had achieved great success on the field as a two-time All American, no feeling would ever compare to the day, years later, when I watched my colleague, my athlete, and my friend say to his fellow wrestler that day in the Terrapin locker room, “So what if your brother is gay? Why are you so scared of something that you know nothing about?”
In a perfect world, Athlete Ally’s mission almost seems simplistic: make sure all athletes, in any sport, compete in a safe and welcoming environment. Since we don’t live in that perfect world, this task is much more challenging than many people will ever realize. Fortunately for all of us, Athlete Ally was founded by someone who knows how to wrestle any foe in his path.
Akil Patterson serves on the Athlete Ally advisory board and is the director of the Terrapin Wrestling Club, which fuels the Olympic dream for all ages and skill levels.