Gabby A. DelPico ’24 — who said she is the Harvard women’s soccer team’s first openly queer member — described her initial experience on the team as “weird and difficult.”
“When Covid happened, I really took the time to reflect on how it wasn’t the experience that I wanted it to be at Harvard as a queer athlete, and that there wasn’t a lot of visibility,” DelPico said.
Working alongside one of her teammates who had come out to her during the pandemic and two other athletes from different teams, DelPico co-founded Harvard Athlete Ally, a chapter of the national LGBTQ+ advocacy group. She now serves as its president.
Athlete Ally is a nonprofit athletic advocacy group focused on “making athletic communities more inclusive and less discriminatory and helping athletes to advocate for LGBTQ equality” across the country, according to its website.
Among Harvard Athlete Ally’s largest initiatives last year was helping to plan the College’s first Trans+ Community Celebration, an event dedicated to raising awareness, facilitating education, and promoting resource advocacy on behalf of transgender people.
This fall, Harvard students and affiliates attended the second celebration. According to the group’s website, it was “the largest student-run Trans+-focused event in the world.”
But organizers said they struggled to sustain engagement from Harvard Athletics while planning the event. For some who continue to call on administrators to increase outward support of LGBTQ+ athletes, this was emblematic of a larger pattern of inconsistent engagement with queer inclusion from the department.
Athlete Ally board members also said they were disappointed that Harvard Athletics had not yet hired a new staff member dedicated to promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives within the department, after pledging to do so at the beginning of the semester.
Harvard spokesperson Jonathan Palumbo wrote in an emailed statement that the Athletics Department is “committed to creating and sustaining an inclusive environment.”
“Harvard Athletics stands by its statements of support for students who identify as LGBTQ,” Palumbo wrote. “We work with all student-athletes, coaches, staff, fans, and alumni to address the evolving needs of our community and will continue to listen, engage, and promote a supportive experience for all.”
When Schuyler M. Bailar ’19, the first openly transgender man to compete in NCAA Division I athletics, attended Harvard, he was one of only a few trans students on campus. This year, he was the keynote speaker at the Trans+ Community Celebration.
“I don’t think I ever could have really dreamed of something like that happening when I was there. Not because I think Harvard wasn’t a supportive place necessarily — but just because I wouldn’t have even conceptualized it because there were two other trans people I knew at Harvard the entire time there,” Bailar said in an interview.
“To walk into the SOCH and have a whole room filled with trans Harvard people was really healing and special,” he added.
Kris B. King ’24 — the executive director of TransHarvard, a student advocacy group for transgender people on campus — said while ultimately successful, securing departmental involvement in the event was a challenge.
“It took us about 18 months to get a tangible response from Harvard Athletics,” said King, the former policy chair of Harvard Athlete Ally. “We went so far as to work through the Ivy League, the NCAA DEI team, as well as the NCAA broadly.”
The Crimson reviewed emails sent to Harvard Athletics by Athlete Ally members and Trans+ event organizers, including requests for feedback on “dozens” of policy briefs that King said received delayed responses or nothing at all. Recipients included Athletic Director Erin McDermott and Assistant Director of Athletics Erin West, who oversees diversity, inclusion, and student development.
For King, a “tangible response” eventually came this year in the form of Harvard Athletics’ funding commitment to this year’s Trans+ Community Celebration. Funding was “huge” and, according to King, “primarily the work of Erin West.”
West declined through a spokesperson to be interviewed for this article.
King said financial support from Harvard is “a fantastic step,” but they explained that “we want all of our partners to be critically engaged with these conversations as well.”
“Putting money into things isn’t the end all be all. I really want them to follow up on some of the other demands that we sent,” King added. “Asking for meetings, roundtables, further engagement with trans+ athletes, and having critical conversations about their needs in and around campus, which we haven’t had any follow-up on.”
McDermott discussed her involvement in Trans+ event during an October interview with The Crimson.
“I was very pleased to be able to introduce Schuyler Bailar for his keynote, which was great to see, and just really trying to make sure that we’re present, that we’re visible, that it’s known that this is an expectation here — that it is inclusive and we will support who our athletes are,” McDermott said.
But aside from McDermott’s introduction, King said they saw limited presence from Harvard Athletics at large during the event, including at seminars designed for education surrounding trans and intersex athlete issues.
“It’s one thing for us to share the information and the resources. It’s another thing — for us — to really back it in a public way,” they explained.
“What would it look like for Harvard Athletics to host a follow-up conversation for their internal staff and coaches to say, ‘What did we learn and what are we going to do with this information?’” King asked.
Carly M. Lehman ’25 — the policy director of Harvard’s chapter of Athlete Ally and a member of women’s rugby — attended the Trans+ Community Celebration last year. She also said she recalled low attendance from Harvard Athletics administrators. Lehman said she hopes for the department to commit to “openly backing” more trans-related programming on campus in the future.
“It’s a political issue when it shouldn’t be. But I remember last year talking to Kris about how Dartmouth Athletics did more of a backing for trans+ at Harvard than Harvard Athletics, which is crazy because it’s our school,” Lehman said.
Lehman said public stances from Harvard Athletics have “a larger impact” on feelings of inclusion for LGBTQ+ students and athletes.
“I know there’s divided opinions, but I still think Athletics can make a stance and support students when they do run initiatives and run projects and run events like Trans+, because they matter for people,” Lehman said.
Last month, Riley Gaines, a swimmer who has advocated against the participation of transgender women in women’s sports, was invited to campus by Harvard’s Network of Enlightened Women, a conservative women’s club.
TransHarvard organized a demonstration, throwing what they called a “Big Trans Party” outside Boylston Hall — where Gaines was speaking.
King invited Harvard Athletics administrators to attend the demonstration. In an email to McDermott, West, and Alex Carras, the Harvard Athletics director of club sports and intramurals, King asked the department to “act on their words of support by calling in these anti-trans leaders for conversations about the realities of trans+ athletes by showing up this Thursday.”
None accepted the invitation. West, who said she could not attend due to a scheduling conflict, offered to provide non-alcoholic beverages funded by Athletics, according to an email obtained by The Crimson.
Denver S. Tolson ’26, the vice president of Harvard Athlete Ally and a member of the women’s soccer team, said the bureaucratic nature of Harvard Athletics makes organizing queer programming difficult.
“When it comes to any Harvard-sponsored programming, there’s a lot of bureaucracy and red tape that you have to go through,” Tolson said. “But I think Athletics has tried their best to help us and make any events and study breaks and stuff possible.”
Bailar said he was “so excited and grateful” to be introduced by McDermott at the Trans+ event this year.
“I do know there was a lot of back and forth behind that. But ultimately, they came out and supported,” he added. “I think they’ve done a fairly good job of supporting their athletes.”
Still, Bailar said McDermott “doesn’t necessarily speak for every single Harvard athlete” and advocated for greater institutional education on transgender athletes.
“Harvard athletes, I think, should be better educated on the issue of trans athletes and have more education and contact with trans athletes, because the amount of hateful rhetoric that is largely based on propaganda and lies doesn’t allow for a whole lot of learning,” Bailar said.
In September, Lehman learned that Harvard Athletics would be hiring a new staff member dedicated to promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion in the department.
“[West] told me that this new position was being created and that they would be our point of contact and I was like, ‘Okay, great. When you know the person I would love to have a conversation with them, a sit-down meeting, check-in, and talk about Athlete Ally priorities, their priorities,’” Lehman said. “I basically haven’t heard anything since.”
“To be fair, I don’t know if it’s just that the administration has just not hired someone yet, she added.
Palumbo, the Harvard spokesperson, declined to comment on the status of filling the new position.
West is currently the point of contact for Harvard Athlete Ally, but DEI work is not her sole focus. A full-time role focused on inclusion, Lehman said, is a “needed position” that “deserves someone’s undivided attention.”
“It’s a pressing issue for Athletics, a pressing issue for the University, and I don’t think it should be someone splitting their time between their other responsibilities and this as kind of a side job,” Lehman said.
At the beginning of the semester, DelPico said Athletics “mentioned that they were hiring someone and they were in the process and then never really got to us with that person.”
“Erin was supposed to be not even the person we were going through this entire semester, but she’s still the person that we're working with right now,” DelPico said.
Tolson said Athlete Ally has continued working with West because the new position is not “fully established.”
“We haven’t been able to be in contact with whoever’s filled this role or even know if this role has been filled,” Tolson said.
Athlete Ally has continued to push for increased visibility of queer athletes on campus, including hosting study breaks and funding Trans+ programming. One of the group’s major initiatives is organizing an increasing number of “pride games.”
Harvard varsity teams occasionally host pride games: annual events that often feature warm-up shirts with a pride-themed Harvard logo, rainbow flags, and food from LGTBQ+-owned businesses.
But the organization of these games is typically driven by athletes, not administrators, students said.
“Right now, it’s pretty much completely initiated by the athletes themselves,” DelPico said.
Harvard Men’s Tennis hosted one pride match in April 2022, but every other Harvard pride game has been sponsored by a women’s team.
“A lot of female sports teams have pride games, and I’ve never seen a male sports team have one,” Lehman said.
McDermott said in the interview last month that the process of initiating pride games is “really more team-led.”
“We certainly say, ‘Anyone who wants to do it, we’ll do what we can to support it.’ But it comes forward from the athletes and the coaches,” she said.
Lehman called for increased departmental engagement to encourage a broader spectrum of teams to host pride games by “pushing conversations in men’s teams’ locker rooms and their administration.”
“Even if they say ‘No, I don’t want a pride game,’ at least thinking about it and having that conversation,” she said.
Lehman also said she hopes Harvard Athletics provides more funding and institutional support for pride games, especially among sports that are “really big in this area,” like football, basketball, and hockey.
“Why is it just three teams on campus that have pride games, and that’s it?” Lehman asked.
Julia F. Wilkinson ’24, the outreach chair of the Harvard Athlete Ally board, said she generally feels “supported” by Harvard Athletics “in terms of resources and funding,” but she believes there is still progress to be made.
“I think they’ve done a good job over the past couple of years of doing things like including personal pronouns in our athletic bios — that’s been something that’s important,” said Wilkinson, a member of the softball team.
“Going down the road, I hope we can see more pride games for all teams,” she added.
Correction: November 14, 2023
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Kris B. King ’24 was the former president of Harvard Athlete Ally. In fact, King was the group’s former policy chair.
—Staff writer Paton D. Roberts contributed reporting.