Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

October 21, 2016   |   Ithaca, NY


Ithaca College student-athletes address LGBT issues on campus

Junior rower Chris Kelley never felt the need to discuss his sexuality during his first semester with the crew team.

Kelley made the conscious decision not to come out to his teammates during that first semester, because he said doing so would immediately make him the example of the homophobic language he overheard in the boathouse at the time. But that December, he was outed by a member of the women’s squad.

“It was a gathering and some girl came up to me,” Kelley said. “She was on the women’s team and she asked me, ‘Are you gay, or are you dating your friend Chloe?’ I was like, ‘Chloe and I are friends, we’re not dating and yes, I am gay,’ because I didn’t feel the need to hide anything. If someone had asked me if I was gay, I would’ve said yes.”

But Kelley is usually very upfront when discussing LGBT issues. When he saw the #IAmIC campaign on Twitter, circulated by the ICTV show “The Roundtable,” he held no reservations.

“ic spent 5 million dollars to revamp the athletics department, yet homophobia on varsity sports is still rampant and unacknowledged #IAmIC,” Kelley tweeted Feb. 20.

Kelley said most of the homophobia that exists in varsity sports comes in the form of microaggressions when athletes will loosely use jargon around locker room environments.

“The culture of the team and the culture of athletics where people would throw the word gay around or say ‘don’t be a fag’ ‘don’t be a bitch,’ that made me say ‘I’m not going to come out or make a big deal about it,’” Kelley said. “If people throw around this kind of language anyway, there’s no point to kind of subjecting myself to that kind of mindset, so I’m not going to reference that side of me, I’m just going to be there to row.”

For the most part, Ithaca College has been celebrated for its reputation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender inclusivity in athletics, with the college being named as one of the 10 best athletics programs for LGBT inclusion by Campus Pride in 2012. Despite the plaudits and the arrival of the openly gay director of intercollegiate athletics, Susan Bassett, there are no initiatives specific to LGBT inclusivity currently in place within the department. Bassett said, however, she is supportive and open to discussing the issue further.

One of Bassett’s initiatives upon arriving was to establish a more holistic experience for student-athletes by launching the Leadership Academy with Greg Shelley, associate professor of exercise and sport studies, renewing a professional relationship that has lasted for nearly two decades. Bassett brought Shelley in as a consultant to launch similar programs with the two launching similar programs at two previous institutions where Bassett served as athletics director. Shelley said the Leadership Academy intends to use sport as a means to develop leaders both on and off the field.

“A leader is someone who is influential … in a positive direction,” Shelley said. “That has everything to do with how you communicate with people, how you set the tone in terms of leadership by example, how you lead your team and the culture and climate you create around your teammates and your coaches.”

Shelley’s Leadership Academy takes a “blind” approach when discussing interactions between teammates of different minorities or sexual orientations, stressing acceptance for all athletes in general. Though junior swimmer Vincent Dodero is not a captain, he said he has worked to make the sports climate more hospitable to members of the LGBT community by first questioning the heteronormativity that dominated locker rooms and practices. He then taught gay teammates, like classmate James Bowe, to do the same. Bowe said he would inject some humor into the situation when pointing out the words and phrases used by teammates that he found offensive.

“I was just messing around, but I wanted them to realize that the words they say can really affect the way people think about others, and it translates into sexism — and homophobia is misplaced misogyny,” Bowe said.

Kelley witnessed an example of this language when he was walking by the football team’s locker room March 16. He said he overheard players in the locker room say “cocksuckers” and “faggots” cannot lift as much as them, and that they should “quit sports all together.” When football head coach Mike Welch learned about the comments his players had allegedly made, he said homophobic language is not tolerated in the football team’s spaces.

“No such language is tolerated within our football team in that regard or whether it be race, religion, sexual orientation,” Welch said. “That’s something that’s addressed very early in the season in our first meeting, and there’s an expectation that that’s followed.”

Kelley, who is involved with the Leadership Academy, said while he sees the academy as a positive establishment, it does not adequately teach future team captains how to handle LGBT interactions.

“I would challenge Greg Shelley any day of the week to start incorporating the LGBTQ community conversation into his Leadership Academy,” Kelley said. “It’s completely absent, and it’s kind of offensive that it’s not in the bounds of leadership.”

Bassett said she and Shelley are planning to solicit feedback on the Academy from students but do not believe LGBT-specific interactions fit the Leadership Academy’s unique curriculum.

“I think that those are programs that need to happen within each team, or as a separate program that could come up as a discussion in the Leadership Academy,” Bassett said. “The Leadership Academy is really more of a framework on how to take all of the information around your life and make good decisions. We’re not actually dealing with that kind of specific content. I think people have a misunderstanding of programming content and where everything will live. It’s a matter of what I’ve had time to get to.”

Sophomore hurdler Sam Piraneo, also a participant in the Leadership Academy who identifies as gay, did not share Kelley’s feelings of frustration with the academy. He said he trusts Shelley’s experience in teaching leadership skills to student-athletes and believes LGBT issues might not come up in the academy because of how few LGBT athletes there are on campus.

“It’s not something that’s been touched on, how to interact with LGBT athletes in those environments, but I think that’s because it’s so underrepresented,” Pirenao said. “Personally, I never thought there had to be special training. You just treat your teammates how you’d treat teammates. Sexuality has nothing to do with who you are on the track, court or field.”

Senior Emily Smith, a former member of the women’s track and field team, said she is still in the process of coming out to family members. Smith said she was reluctant to come out to teammates at first, fearing the impacts it could have on developing relationships. When she came out to all her teammates, she said she was pleasantly surprised by the displays of support they showed for her. She said the lack of LGBT athletes in track is a reason why athletics needs to implement a program for LGBT inclusivity.

“There’s some people that come to college and they have never had any exposure to any of those kind of topics because of where they come from,” Smith said. “It’s something so new to someone and even if they don’t identify in that community themselves, just saying that there needs to be a space for that kind of conversation is something that somebody outside of the community needs to be aware of as well.”

Junior Kyle James is a founding member of the college’s Athlete Ally chapter. Athlete Ally is an advocacy group that provides education and resources to create more inclusive environments in athletics. James said he feels Bassett has not made enough of an effort to prioritize LGBT inclusivity in athletics after pledging to do so when meeting with Athlete Ally shortly after being hired.

“It’s been really disappointing because it seemed very much like she was on board, and I think she still is,” James said. “I think there are other things going which have taken precedence, which is sad.”

Luca Maurer, LGBT Education, Outreach and Services program director, said he had been working with Mike Lindberg, former associate director for athletics, and Brad Buchanan, assistant director of intercollegiate athletics and recreational sports, on the current policies and procedures for locker rooms and other athlete spaces as recently as last October before Lindberg took the athletics director job at Wells College. Maurer said he has interacted with Shelley and said LGBT-specific training for captains is vital for a team’s chances of success.

“If people feel safe to bring their whole selves to practice and their whole selves to the field, then they’re able to give their best effort,” Maurer said. “I know that Mike Lindberg was really active in the Leadership Academy, and so I’m not sure what might not be different, or expanded or not expanded since he left a few months ago. We talked extensively about making sure that that was part of the Leadership Academy.”

Shelley said he is well-connected to the Captain’s Council, an organization in which the captains of the college’s athletic teams meet confidentially to discuss issues that arise within their respective teams.

One of the swim team’s captains, senior Clement Towner, said he first thought Bowe was being too sensitive about the team’s language but came around during a private meeting with Bowe. Towner said he did not discuss the specific issue or general LGBT issues with captains of other teams, but he and Bowe agreed that whenever a swimmer would use an inappropriate word, they would confront them and point out the misuse of the word and its effects.

“We’re a caring team,” Towner said. “We try to help out everybody. This was a big concern of James’, and we worked as a team to try to avoid doing it. With any phrasing, some old habits die hard, but it’s a process … but it can’t just be changed in a matter of weeks.”

Like Towner, senior rower Dan Brauchli said he developed a stronger sense of awareness for the importance of politically correct language when around his teammates. Brauchli said he sees it as a matter of mutual respect — something he sees as fundamental to the idea of team building. It is in that concept of mutual respect that Brauchli sees a need for LGBT-specific training for teams on campus.

“One of the things I’ve always interpreted is to treat others the way you want to be treated, and do unto others as you would have done unto you,” Brauchli said. “I think regardless of who that person is that I’m trying to lead is, regardless of who that leader is that I’m trying to follow, I want to make sure that we are on a level playing field.”

Bassett pointed to time constraints as a reason there has not been an initiative specific to LGBT issues. She said she is just getting started with her plans for creating programs to enrich the student-athlete experience. Maurer said while the Athletics program was named as one of the top-10 programs for LGBT inclusivity two years ago, the program cannot become complacent when addressing this issue.

“I think it’s easy for everyone to say ‘haha, that’s terrific’ and rest on our laurels,” Maurer said. “I’m certainly interested in taking this to the next level and we need to have some consensus as to what that is.”