Kirk Walker officially became the ‘gay’ Division I softball coach back in 2005 when he came out to his team at Oregon State. The press coverage followed with headlines that declared he was the first publicly out coach in the NCAA. Despite courageously sharing his story, Walker wasn’t completely comfortable with the new title.
“I didn’t want to be labeled the gay coach,” he admits. “But then I said that’s fine. I realized it needed to be said, that we needed to have some visibility. I decided to stop fighting it.”
Like his life, Walker’s role is one that keeps evolving. It has been shaped by the sports environment he works in, the confidence he continues to gain from the process of coming out and his morals. When he finally embraced who he was, he found it directly conflicted with his personal coaching philosophy. That was his motivating factor for coming out.
“I had been feeling for years like I was sending the wrong message,” says Walker, who has been an assistant coach at UCLA since returning in 2012. “As a coach you tell your athletes to have integrity and to be authentic. How could I ask that of them when I wasn’t setting that example? Your team is a family, and I needed to be true to my family. That was his motivating factor for coming out.”
Walker’s experience resonated with many, and after sharing his story, his inbox was flooded. When Rick Welts, a longtime NBA executive, decided to come out, Walker reached out to show his support. The response he got from Welts still inspires him to this day.
“I got an email from him that said, ‘I carried your story around with me before I decided to tell mine.’” He applauds the significance of sharing. “Your story can affect somebody.”
That small interaction was a big factor in leading Walker to enter the advocacy stage of his life, and he has been loaning his support to several LGBT sports initiatives for years. Nationally he has been involved since 2012 with the Nike LGBT Sports Coalition, speaking at the annual summit held in Portland, Ore.
“I have a great passion for LGBT advocacy,” says Walker, whose demeanor is both measured and charged with purpose. “There’s so much more to be done around education, bullying and diversity in sports. I hope to be able to do this full time when I retire from coaching. I look forward to any opportunity to be involved.”
Walker’s diversity and inclusion vision includes work with his foundation. Equality Coaching Alliance and the LGBT Sports Coalition both provide confidential support and counseling to hundreds of athletes. While the younger generation can benefit from more visible role models, something Walker did not have, he thinks their views on coming out or why they stay closeted are very different from in the past.
“They don’t really see coming out as being all that imperative and don’t even like labeling themselves as gay or straight,” he says. “There are many in this generation that are comfortable existing as they are, without making statements.”
Counseling and connecting high school, college and professional LGBT athletes is a major part of the advocacy work that Walker does. And he has seen throughout the years, that building a network of support creates an environment where athletes can see they are not alone, and can feel strong enough to choose to come out or not.
But Walker acknowledges there are fears around the process, and feels that the same pressures exist today.
“The perception that sports is inherently homophobic still keeps many coaches, athletes, and individuals from coming out,” he says. “You never have to come out when you are straight, it is assumed. Even in an accepting environment your sexuality will always be assumed straight because it is a huge majority of how society identifies itself.”
In his view, one of the most impactful detriments to not coming out is the amount of time and effort put into trying to be someone else.
“Every second that an athlete or a coach spends on pretending is wasted energy,” says Walker. He lived that lie for years, he says and it was exhausting. “Why does it matter whether you come out or not? Because it frees you up and allows you to focus on competing and being an athlete. It lets them uncap their athletic potential. What coach wouldn’t want that? What athlete wouldn’t?”
Promoting diversity, building awareness and helping create opportunities for LGBT athletes around the country fills up Walker’s days as much as devising strategies for his softball players. Along with the spotlight, he welcomes the titles.
“The stories we’ve seen in the last six or seven years have been powerful,” Walker says. “I think it will continue to be the headline of the story for a while. But it doesn’t have the same gravitas as before. We have to move on, to where it becomes the second part of the story. I think we will get there.”