Athletes who happen to be gay, lesbian, or bisexual: It was a topic no one in the room lost interest in over the course of three-plus hours.
And in the end, while no one left with any easy answers, they did hear one clear message — respect the privacy of others and value your teammates.
Helping anchor a panel for OSU’s “National Coming Out Week” observances was Esera Tuaolo, the former Oregon State football star and Super Bowl defensive tackle for the Atlanta Falcons. He made his first appearance on campus since going public with his orientation in 2002.
Tuaolo, who graduated in 1991 and was a member of the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity, joined Kirk Walker, head OSU softball coach, and Julie Williams, teacher and coach at Corvallis High School, at the Memorial Union discussion, one of two mandatory attendance classes for OSU undergraduates.
“Don’t judge others,” he said in response to a question asking if gay and lesbian lifestyles ran counter to Christian principles. “Please, read your Bible and lead your own life as you should.”
“Everyone in the room learned they will have teammates dealing with a lot of sexuality issues, and they may never know it,” Walker — who came out in 2005, the same year his team made its first appearance in the College World Series and he and his partner adopted their daughter — said after the panel discussion. “Yet no one needs to find out because athletics and sexuality are not mutually exclusive.” Walker is the only known openly gay NCAA Division I coach in the country.
Students coming to OSU may feel physically safer in Corvallis than elsewhere because it is “a rare little pocket of acceptance,” said Williams, the recipient of several awards for advising gay and lesbian students at CHS.
But students’ emotional safety is another matter when others turn a blind eye and feel uncomfortable addressing the matter, she said.
The best strategy for dealing with questions of sexual orientation is to be “very individualized,” Walker said. This is especially true for those working with those students: coaching them, teaching them, helping them register for classes, serving them lunch.
“It’s not like there is a door, where you are either ‘in the closet’ or ‘coming out of the closet,’ ” the softball coach said. “Athletes have different degrees of comfort and should only take the steps they feel comfortable with.”
Among the suggestions for coming out at OSU:
- Find someone to talk to, even if they don’t have much to say in response.
- Seek out allies — a family member, someone from your hometown, a coach or a teacher.
- Visit or call OSU’s Pride Center: 737-6342. Oregon State was named one of the top 100 campuses in the U.S. for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues in 2006 by The Advocate, a national gay news magazine, and the Pride Center is a safe place for students to discuss their orientation in private.
The gender issue also fits into the sexual orientation issue, Williams said. For men, being gay is often seen as degrading, and for women, being lesbian could be a “step up” on the playing field.
“But it hurts the female who tries too hard, gets too strong and gets the message she must be a ‘dyke,’ ” she said. “That causes women to cut back on their training, which actually hurts their athletic abilities.”
During the week’s activities, professors distributed 300 ribbons as a pledge that their classrooms are safe for gay students. Given the demand, they could have given out two or three times that many ribbons, Williams said.
The strange thing is, she said, only about 20 percent of the population is probably absolutely gay or absolutely straight. Most people fall on a continuum. “You can’t tell me sexual orientation is a dot,” she said.
People need to understand it’s still risky to be openly gay in America, Tuaolo said. That’s why gay athletes should never be “outed” at a time other than their choosing.
“It doesn’t matter who you are,” he said. “Coming out is difficult.”
Since declaring his sexual orientation, Tuaolo has worked with the National Football League to combat homophobia in the league and is a board member of the Gay and Lesbian Athletics Foundation.
In 2006, he sang the national anthem at the opening ceremony of the Gay Games, a quadrennial Olympics-style event, and testified at a legislative hearing in opposition to anti-gay-marriage bills.
Tuaolo’s autobiography, “Alone in the Trenches: My Life as a Gay Man in the NFL”, was released in spring 2006, and he has spoken out against the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy of the U.S. military.
~ by Ed Curtin
Esera Tuaolo passionately describes his early childhood fears and professional football panic, and ponders what his life story would have been “if I could have been myself.” Click on this link EseraTuaolo then on the orange podcast button below his photograph in the right column.