A number of collegiate athletes have come out as gay in the months since former University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam publicly declared his sexual orientation.
Parker Camp, a member of the University of Virginia swim team, began coming out to his family and friends earlier this year as he told Outsports.com, an LGBT sports website. He and four other teammates held a handwritten sign that read “2 of us gay. The other 3 don’t care” as part of an ad campaign promoting diversity.
Derrick Gordon of the University of Massachusetts in April became the first member of a NCAA Division 1 basketball team to come out as gay. Connor Mertens, a kicker for the Willamette University football team in Oregon, in June publicly acknowledged his bisexuality.
Edward “Chip” Sarafin, a backup senior offensive lineman for Arizona State University, earlier this month told Compete, a Phoenix-based sports magazine, that he began coming out to his teammates last year.
“It was really personal to me, and it benefited my peace of mind greatly,” he told Compete.
Hudson Taylor, founder of Athlete Ally, a group that advocates for LGBT athletes, told the Washington Blade during a recent telephone interview he feels Sam has inspired many collegiate athletes.
“[He] has walked in the shoes of every closeted athlete and every closeted athlete is walking in Michael Sam’s shoes,” he said. “As Michael has a successful career and has come out without incident, I think it shows that next generation of athletes that sport is a welcoming environment for them to be themselves.”
Helen Carroll, director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights Sports Project, agreed.
“They can see positive things happening with those people,” said Carroll. “That can even be just a college student coming out, their coming out story and their teammates accept them and their coach is accepting.”
Challenges remain for collegiate athletes who are considering coming out.
Carroll said homophobic comments in the locker room persist and may deter collegiate athletes from publicly disclosing their sexual orientation or gender identity and expression. She also referred to what she described as “old-school coaches” who discourage their players from coming out until they graduate.
“There’s still that out there in a lot of places,” Carroll told the Blade.
The case of former Penn State women’s basketball coach Rene Portland remains among the most high-profile examples of anti-LGBT discrimination in collegiate sports.
A former player, Jennifer Harris, accused Portland in a 2005 lawsuit of having a “no-lesbian” policy and trying to force her to quit the team, even though she is not gay.
Harris also sued then-Penn State Athletics Director Tim Curley, who is among the former university administrators facing charges for allegedly covering up sex-abuse allegations against former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
She reached a confidential settlement with Portland and Curley in 2007.
Penn State later fined Portland $10,000 and ordered her to take a diversity-sensitivity class after the university settled with Harris.
Portland resigned in 2007 after 27 seasons.
“We’re not as likely to see a case like that, but I am sure somewhere across the nation there are more Rene Portland’s out there,” said Carroll.
Other cases have generated headlines over the past year.
Anthony Villarreal, a former track runner at William Jessup University, a Christian university outside of Sacramento, Calif., said school administrators expelled him last year because he is gay. Leah Johnson last month told Outsports.com an assistant coach at the University of Richmond in Virginia told her to break up with her girlfriend, Miah Register, “before she steps foot on this campus” to play for the team.
In spite of these cases and others like them, Carroll and Taylor maintain more collegiate athletes will come out. And they both look to the way the University of Missouri handled Sam’s decision to publicly disclose his sexual orientation as an example of how they feel administrators and coaches should handle it.
“Michael Sam was out for a good period of time before the world knew about it,” Taylor told the Blade. “It seemed like it didn’t matter one bit to his teammates, to his coaches or to the Missouri family. Missouri did a great job and really showed that they are a welcoming environment for LGBT athletes.”