On the courts and the water, no one seemed to care that Sarah Kerndt—a well-liked high school crew, basketball and lacrosse athlete—was a lesbian.
“I’ve always had extremely supportive teammates, and my family and community [have] always embraced me,” says Sarah, 18, who graduated from West Springfield High School in Springfield, Va., last May. She came out to her family and friends when she was 12. “I never experienced any hate,” she says.
Sarah’s experience is evidence of progress, but for many LGBT teen athletes, the locker room remains a bullying hot spot. A 2011 GLSEN Sports Project survey of students in grades 6-12 found more than half of LGBT students taking physical education class said they were bullied or harassed during class because of their sexual orientation or gender expression. A third of LGBT students said they avoided PE classes. Four in 10 said they avoided locker rooms. And more than a quarter of LGBT student athletes reported having been harassed or assaulted in some way while playing on a school team because of their sexual orientation or gender expression.
The GLSEN report also noted that discrimination prevents some LGBT students from participating in sports at all. Some schools go as far as to prohibit LGBT students from participating in certain school activities, including sports, because the presence of an LGBT person is perceived to be “disruptive.”
“I lived a lot of these statistics,” says Konstantine Salkeld, a 24-year-old lesbian who played high school basketball and softball in Auburn Hills, Mich. “I wasn’t out in high school because I didn’t have anyone that was affirming me,” she says. “People need to be affirmed and welcomed. High schoolers are so fragile they need to know that they have people on their team.”
Despite her positive experience, Sarah knows other LGBT teens for whom sports teams are not safe. Her close friend Amy (a pseudonym to protect her privacy) is 15 and openly gay. She runs track and cross-country at a Virginia high school and says she’s been hurt by derogatory remarks made by other athletes at her school.
Administrators have addressed the students, she says, but the hurt feelings remain. And while her teammates are accepting of her, she hears from a friend that others are uncomfortable with her changing in the locker room. “It’s kind of weird,” says Amy. “I’m not checking them out. I just want to change my clothes and go work out.”
The Rule Book
Becky Brandt, the assistant principal at Sarah’s high school, says she regularly attends high school sporting events because she’s interested in her students, but also because it’s important to monitor behavior toward LGBT students and athletes and to call out improper conduct.
Staff, coaches and administrators at Sarah’s school have undergone hours of training and classes on how to create LGBT-inclusive environments, including in locker rooms. That has given them the tools to respond effectively to bullying or harassment, making it clear that all students are valued at West Springfield.
That training makes all the difference, says Brandt. “What you respond to and how you respond has a real impact on what is considered to be acceptable and what isn’t,” she says. “It doesn’t work if the tone is ‘You get to be who you are, but we really don’t like it, or ‘We grudgingly accept you, but behind closed doors, we get to be mean because nobody likes you.’”
Using inclusive language is a small but significant place to start, says Dan Woog, an openly gay boys varsity soccer coach at Staples School in Westport, Conn.
Woog has never had an athlete come out to him, but he says it’s important to create an environment where students feel safe coming out and expressing their gender creatively. He recommends those in leadership incorporate small changes, such as not talking about your “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” but rather “someone you like or love.”
“It goes without saying, but creating an inclusive environment means not using anti-gay or sexist terms to motivate, not saying things like ‘You throw like a girl,’” Woog says. “There are a lot of conversations that happen in a team context, and that means not using anti-gay jokes or referring derogatorily to gay marriage … whether it’s on a bus or [in] a private team talk.”
Salkeld agrees that changes in language usage would make the biggest difference to gay high school athletes. “Coaches can refrain from name-calling, and this includes attacking someone for not being ‘man enough’ or for being a ‘sissy’ or a ‘fag,’” she says. “We have to stop associating sexual orientation and gender expression with negativity or being ‘less than.’”
She adds that positive, motivating coaching language not only makes athletes feel safer; it is more likely to bolster their performance and make the team experience better for everyone. “Being called a ‘fag’ because you got hit on a football play isn’t going to build confidence, self-esteem or teach a person how not to get hit next time,” she says. “It only causes harm and teaches that it’s OK to spread hatred toward a group of people. … I’ve heard stories of men being called ‘pussies’ and told to ‘man up.’ This only gets more and more traumatizing and less and less welcoming for those who are exploring who they are at all levels.”
Sarah’s positive experience shows that these strategies can indeed create an inclusive sports environment. “It’s hard for students to go up to administrators and say, ‘I have a bullying issue, and I need help,’” she says. “Administration can do a lot just by putting it out there that they are willing to help.”
Salkeld agrees. “Coaches, teachers and adults are in a place where they have authority and power over how a young person develops—it’s time to use it wisely.”
Changing the Game
The GLSEN Sports Project supports K-12 schools in creating athletics programs that are safe and welcoming for LGBT youth.