There are moments in life that simply feel grander than most. They are iconic snapshots in time and memories that will forever stay with those involved.
One of those snapshot moments occurred for me on June 27 as part of the NACDA and Affiliates Convention, which was held throughout the week in National Harbor.
The convention serves as the annual development and networking function for college athletics professionals across the country.
On that Wednesday, for the first time in the 52-year history of the convention, members of the various athletic organizations associated within NACDA held the first ever LGBTQA+ convention reception.
Hosted by Athlete Ally and the recently opened Pitchers DC Bar in Adams Morgan, convention attendees reconnected with old friends, met new industry contacts and celebrated the diversity of the LGBTQA+ athletics community as a whole.
University of Texas Executive Senior Associate Athletics Director for External Affairs Drew Martin played a large role in helping to plan and promote the event and was thrilled with the turnout.
“I am so grateful for the support of Athlete Ally and Pitchers to take the concept of having a first-ever LGBTQA+ NACDA and Affiliates Convention reception,” Martin said. “The turnout was fantastic, and we are already working on details of next year’s event in Orlando. I hope NACDA will promote more of these inclusion events and programming in future conventions allowing even more of our LGBTQ and Ally colleagues educational and networking opportunities.”
Athlete Ally board member and Washington, D.C. resident Robert York, also played a large role as well as executive staff from the organization’s New York office were on hand to network with attendees. The group also promoted inclusionary best practices that college professionals could bring back to their campuses.
“Anytime that you can bring together thought leaders and change makers to have a safe place that also brings affirmation, everyone succeeds with hitting a home run for equality,” York said. “It was an honor to host this event with my good friend, Drew Martin. It was amazing to see this thought become reality and to be embraced by colleagues who yearn for a place at the table, to be a part of history and to be included. Career professionals want to be known for their great work and it is just a bonus if and when we identify as LGBTQA+ people in the game of life.”
To understand the truly groundbreaking nature of the event, one must first think back to conventions of the past. Those events reflect the decades-long struggle of LGBTQA+ athletics employees to freely express themselves within a culture that often has asked the opposite of those who identify within our broad spectrum.
In many ways, sport provides a way to build community, camaraderie and fellowship within teams, fan bases and cities. But aspects of toxic masculinity and femininity – which have prevented athletes all over the world from coming out – also have created a similar apprehensiveness within the athletic administration realm.
Famed University of North Carolina sports information director Dave Lohse made the trailblazing choice to come out publicly in 1992. He recalls conventions in the years that followed where he would make his way to gay bars in Atlanta, Chicago and other conference cities.
Often times, he would see his colleagues enjoying a drink at the bar or dancing. But once they saw Dave, they would head in the other direction or leave the bar for fear of being discovered.
“Socially it was my decision to be as supportive of those individuals as I could,” Lohse said. “I understood their situation but also would assure them that I didn’t want to out them. I only wanted to help create a place where we could all feel welcome.”
Now, more than 25 years later, that place has been fully realized and is growing in a remarkable way.
Diversity programming is becoming more prominent with each passing NACDA convention.
Panels on how to properly use a press release using non-binary pronouns have been packed to the brim. Discussions of LGBTQA+ issues in college athletics have focused on inclusion best practices that can be implemented at universities across the country. Inclusion committees have been formed to generate yearlong programming and continuing education webinars.
And for those individuals who identity as LGBTQA+ but aren’t ready to acknowledge it publicly, a closed Facebook group has been launched to create a foundation of support for those who need it most.
“As I ease into retirement, our world is in a far better place now than it was,” Lohse said. “The bottom line is, people have to be allowed to be their authentic selves without judgement. It makes us more interesting, happy and vibrant and that’s exactly what we want from everyone in our profession. It just makes us better as a whole.”
Personally, I love the initiatives our group has undertaken to launch these resources and aspects of convention programming.
But none of those initiatives can build community quite like a happy hour in a great sports bar.
At one point, I took a step back from the engaging conversation to simply take in and embrace my surroundings. As someone who had trouble being myself at work for years, I looked out over the sea of smiling faces and couldn’t help but pinch myself.
Finally, we have our own, public part of the college athletics community, and it makes me so proud to see my closeted colleagues (myself included) now out, celebrating the chance to be our true selves. A group picture taken at the end of the night will always have a special place in my heart.
But our group – albeit boisterous and wonderful – was still relatively small. It is my hope – and my belief – that in 20 years we will look back on that photo during a reception that holds 10 times as many people.
For me, that would be another spectacular snapshot in time. And one that would signal just how far we’ve come.
Mark LaFrance is Assistant Athletic Director for Communications at George Mason University. Follow him @gomasonsid.