Acceptance of gay athletes growing, but prejudice still exists, panel says

A paradigm shift in the acceptance of gay athletes at all levels has made coming out more prevalent, but efforts are still needed to create tolerance, according to a Cal Poly panel of four people with sports backgrounds.

The discussion Wednesday night was held in front of a packed audience of more than 100 students, faculty and members of the public.

One of the panelists, Susan Rankin, a former Pennsylvania State University softball coach and lesbian who fought discrimination on her campus, said that removing stereotypes starts with changing perceptions.

Rankin is a nationally recognized higher education researcher who recently conducted a campus survey on the level of comfort and inclusion among students, faculty and staff at Cal Poly.

She described herself as someone with short hair, not married and a softball coach — which can lead ignorant people to think she might be a pedophile.

“(A gay person) can’t be a teacher because they’ll go after the kids, right?” Rankin said.

Rankin encouraged the audience to erase the notion of such stereotypes.

The rest of the panel included Bailey Brown, a former Mission Prep athletic director who was the victim of a series of vandalism-related hate crimes; Camille O’Bryant, a Cal Poly kinesiology professor; and Matt Crivello, a Cal Poly assistant football coach.

The topic of the discussion focused on the fears, stigmas and stereotypes that gay athletes experience and what can be done to facilitate change.

The forum comes in the wake of high-profile athletes, including football player Michael Sam and women’s basketball star Brittney Griner, announcing that they are gay.

Despite these developments, which have sparked widespread conversation in sports media about the impact and challenges these athletes will face, it is still difficult for athletes and coaches to come out, said Penny Bennett, the former chair of Cal Poly’s Pride Faculty Staff Association, who moderated the event.

The panelists talked about the way many gay athletes and coaches fear how they’ll be perceived, saying some believe their jobs or lives will be affected by prejudice.

“I’ve had gay friends that have actually gotten married (to a member of the opposite sex) to get coaching jobs,” Rankin said. “They thought they’d be more accepted as a heterosexual woman.”

Rankin discussed how she was forced out of her job as a Penn State softball coach because she filed a complaint against the school’s former women’s basketball coach, who refused to allow gay players on her team. Rankin was given a separate job at the university in administration.

The coach, Rene Portland, was allowed to continue coaching for years after publicly stating her anti-gay views but resigned in 2007 after a former player, Jen Harris, filed a lawsuit against her.

All of the panelists said the current generation of college students overall holds a much more progressive and accepting view of gay athletes than previous generations. But incidents of prejudice and discrimination still occur.

O’Bryant, who is African-American and gay, said there are pockets of the Cal Poly campus in which minorities don’t feel safe.

“Whether you’re gay, straight, black, brown, short, tall, we’re a community that has to stand together and say enough is enough,” O’Bryant said. “There are ways we can stand together.”

O’Bryant said that insensitive comments can “chip away and chip away” at someone’s self-esteem and break down their confidence. She referred to these actions as “micro-aggressions.”

The panelists encouraged people to speak up when they hear comments such as “that’s so gay” that make fun of a person’s sexuality — and let the person know such comments are not acceptable.

They encouraged straight people to support gay organizations and friends by attending events and standing alongside them.

For Crivello, a Cal Poly football coach who noted some of his players in the audience, a tough stance is necessary toward any player who makes a gay athlete feel uncomfortable or unwelcome.

“I would need to educate and communicate with all of the individuals involved,” Crivello said. “And I’d let them know there’s zero tolerance. They probably wouldn’t be around very long.”

Brown, now a talent manager at Left Lane Sports, said she has been a victim of threatening behavior because of her sexual orientation.

She shared with the audience her experience of having her home and car vandalized and spray-painted with threats because she’s gay.

Brown, at times tearing up during her talk, said that she previously didn’t consider being gay an issue in her work as a longtime coach, athletic director and mentor to young athletes.

“This is the part where the good comes from the bad,” Brown said. “Thanks to all of you who supported me in the community that I love.”

Brown said she left her job at Mission Prep with the support of the school and of her own volition.

But the incident was both traumatizing and life-changing in positive ways.

“I never thought anything like this would happen to me ever in my life,” Brown said. “I never had the fear of coming out. But I was outed to the entire community, and it wasn’t on my own (terms). But it’s something that I never will take back and that I will never change. It’s who I am, and it’s very powerful for me.”

Despite her experience, Brown concurred that reaching out to those who are ignorant can be the best way to create change.

She said being openly gay has been “the most beautiful thing that has ever happened to me.”

“To be able to express myself as a gay woman, and not just as an athletic director, or a coach, or a player, or as a talent manager, this is who I am, and it’s very powerful,” Brown said.