Breaking the Silence in Harvard Athletics

Sunday's panel to explore the issues surrounding homosexuality in sports

Harvard's athletics program boasts 41 varsity teams and 1,543 athletes. Out of all them, Katherine M. Callaghan '03 is one of only two that are gay and out of the closet.

"The stakes are higher," she says, explaining why gay athletes might be hesitant to come out of the closet. "Taking a risk with a team is different than taking a risk with a roommate. If you tell a roommate and she reacts badly, you can find another roommate."

She says the Athletic Department does not have a support structure in place for gay athletes, and has seemed, to her, largely unaware of the problems they face.

"I feel as though the Athletic Department doesn't see us," she says.

This Sunday, Callaghan will sit on a public panel--which has been aggressively promoted by the Athletic Department--on what it is like to be a gay athlete at Harvard.

Senior Associate Athletic Director Patricia W. Henry, who is promoting the panel within the athletics department, wants to encourage this kind of discussion on homosexuality.

"Any issues that relate to diversity, tolerance, and respect are important ones to discuss," Henry says. "To put dialogue on the table is a positive first step."

Making Some Noise

Cliff S. Davidson '02, a co-founder of the gay and lesbian student group BOND, came up with the idea for Sunday's panel--which will take place this at 3 p.m. in Harvard Hall 104--last year.

Intrigued by the issue of homosexuality in athletics and particularly Harvard athletics, Davidson did some research on the subject and decided to assemble a panel to discuss the topic.

He applied to the Undergraduate Council for funding and was awarded $200.

Davidson also looked for any student-athletes willing to participate in the forum. What he discovered was that there were only two openly gay athletes out of the hundreds who don Crimson uniform and compete in one of Harvard's 41 varsity sports.

"I know of a number of closeted athletes who fear that they can't pursue a personal life for fear that their teammates will find out," says Davidson.

One of the first people Davidson asked to join the panel was Jenny L. Allard, the head coach of the softball team. Allard, the only openly gay head coach at Harvard, says she agreed to join the panel because she, too, wondered why there were fewer athletes who were out of the closet than among Harvard students in general.

As a coach, Allard also realizes the significance of starting a dialogue in order to create an atmosphere of acceptance.

"Fostering an environment of tolerance is very important, because there are those athletes who are living in fear of what others may think," Allard said. "I think shattering those myths in athletics is important."

Michael E. Crosby '02, the captain of the men's water polo team, and Callaghan, of the women's water polo team, also agreed to join Davidson's discussion panel.

"The main reason I decided to do this forum was because I was disturbed by the lack of gay athletes at Harvard and because I was skeptical that there aren't more 'out' athletes," Crosby says.

Callaghan claims that the panel is "more of a visibility thing" and a prerequisite for any meaningful dialogue on the issue of homosexuality in athletics.

"People being aware of gay presence [in athletics] is a necessary step," she says.

To round out the forum, Davidson contacted two former National Football League (NFL) players to provide an external perspective on the issue of homosexuality in athletics.

One of the former NFL players, David Kopay, is only one of two professional football players to ever publicly disclose his homosexuality. The other former player on the panel, Reggie Rivers, is heterosexual, but has recently equated racial and homosexual discrimination in sports in his columns for the Denver Post.

For both Callahan and Crosby, the response from their peers has been "overwhelmingly positive." Both say their teammates and coaches have been very supportive and understanding.

"It's tough to tell how tolerant people are and I definitely risked putting my teammates in an uncomfortable position," says Crosby, who told his teammates he was gay in May 2000.

The Athletic Department Listens

In addition to rallying support for the forum from within his student group, Davidson also contacted the Harvard Athletic Department for endorsement of the event.

He was told that it was the Athletic Department's policy not to formally endorse any student-initiated event.

Davidson said he was "disappointed" that Henry would not agree to officially sponsor the panel, which would have allowed BOND to attach the Harvard Athletic Department moniker to their posters.

However, Davidson was pleased Henry agreed to promote the panel to athletes and coaches. Henry sent an e-mail to all coaches urging them to attend the panel because it is important to "[their] roles as teachers, mentors and coaches."

Henry also recently brought up the "Sports and Sexuality" forum with the Undergraduate Advisory Committee on Athletics (UAC), a group consisting of one representative from each varsity sport. At the group's monthly meeting, Henry discussed the event and encouraged each UAC member to pass the information along to teammates and to encourage attendance.

UAC member Duretti Fufa '02 told the group that "attending the forum would give us ideas for issues to discuss."

UAC Co-Chair Sarah Mattson '01 agreed to send an email promoting the event to the entire UAC list.

"One of the primary goals of [the UAC] is to create a comfortable environment," Mattson says. "If there is a situation where someone feels uncomfortable, then that is definitely something that should be addressed."

However, both Crosby and Callaghan say more gay athletes are out there--and the Athletic Department is not doing enough to support them.

Crosby says he wishes the Athletic Department were more active in educating students about issues of sexuality--noting that they have programs in place to educate athletes about alcoholism and gambling.

"I don't think the Athletic Department does a very good job of creating a 'tolerant and comfortable environment,'" he says. "While addressing issues of alcoholism and gambling, it seems they assume that Harvard students are educated to be against racism, sexual harassment and homophobia, because they do not address these issues directly."

However, he says he is encouraged by the fact that the athletic department has agreed to promote Sunday's panel, and hopes it will signal that more changes are to come.

For her part, Henry has given all indications that she and the Department of Athletics will continue to support the dialogue concerning homosexuality in Harvard athletics.

"We are always working towards diversity because we feel that diversity is good for all of us," says Henry. "We want to keep working on a comfortable environment for all of our athletes."

--Staff writer Daniel E. Fernandez can be reached at dfernand@fas.harvard.edu.