Running Queer: Coming Out in the Track and Field World


(photo courtesy of Jeff Sheng and the Fearless Project) 
 


Eliana Yankelev
University of Pennsylvania, '16
Varsity Women's Track and Field

The red water bottle. At Penn, it’s the universal sign for “I’m an athlete.” In my opinion, it’s also the universal sign for “I’m straight.” Statistically speaking, if one out of every ten individuals in a given population identified as LGBT, then between fifty to seventy people within the Penn Varsity Athletic community should self-identify as such. But as you read this article and struggle to think of even two or three athletes who fit the bill, you will understand my sentiment exactly. A group on campus, Penn Athletes and Allies Tackling Homophobia, commonly known as PATH, exists and is dedicated to the advancement and support of the status of gay athletes and to the fight against homophobia in athletics. However, the group is incredibly small and there are only a handful of varsity athletes actually in the group. There is no strong network of LGBTQ athletes at Penn even though many efforts have been made to get the word out.

I started school knowing that I wanted to be out. Out to my hall, to new friends – to feel the freedom to put posters on my wall, stickers on my computer, and pins on my backpack that represent who I am and what I believe in. I felt no hesitation at all coming out to new people and introducing myself to members of the LGBT community here but unfortunately, I didn’t feel the same way about coming out to my team. During our first practice of the semester, the same fear that kept me from coming out to the high school track and field community hit me. Hard. High school track, to me, was a culture that suffocated chances for athletes to have personalities and an environment that easily targeted kids that didn’t fit in. I wasn’t sure how different college track would be.

 

Lucky for me, two weeks before the start of the semester, I had done a photo shoot with Jeff Sheng, the creator and producer of Fearless, a photo-documentary project of out LGBTQ high school and collegiate athletes. Sheng publicly posted the photos from my shoot on his Facebook page, tagging me in the post, officially making my status as a gay athlete public. It was overwhelming to see my picture attached to an ESPN article discussing the Fearless project, in which “more than 150 openly gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) student-athletes” were photographed- when only a few days before, I hadn’t decided when or how I would come out to my team. I sat in my dorm room, with my computer in front of me, and without really thinking, reposted his picture and simply thanked him for letting me be a part of the project.

So there it was- my coming out: but it was not just to only the track team and my Facebook friends. I received nothing but positive feedback and love from those who saw the post; that one picture reinforced my confidence in my sexuality and encouraged me to completely trust my teammates and community to support me. So yes, in a sense, I feel that I had come out again to myself..  

All sports at an elite level have gendered expectations of “strength, competitiveness, courage and muscularity” which negatively impact perceptions of both male and female athletes. Homophobia and athletics have unfortunately walked hand in hand for decades. But in the past year alone, athletes from the MLS, MLB, NHL, and NFL have spoken out in support of teammates “who might be gay.” For example, Robbie Roger’s coming out and subsequent retirement last month was answered with a video of support from the entire Seattle Sounders Soccer Club.

Last month at the Ivy League Indoor Track and Field Championships, members of my team pinned Pride ribbons to their warmups, backpacks, and even uniforms to join the movement to end homophobia in athletics. The night before the meet, the entire women’s team crammed into one hotel room to get ourselves ready for two days of the physical, mental, and emotional overhaul that is Heps. At the end of the meeting, I thanked my team: for supporting me as an athlete, teammate, friend, and person, and for creating an environment in which I don’t have to worry about hiding my sexuality, and in reality, my identity.

Athletics can be an uninviting and threatening place for any member of the LGBTQ community. But its reputations of homophobia, rejection, and closed-mindedness are dissipating. As a gay athlete I have found amazing support through PATH, my friends, and my team - and the movement for LGBTQ athlete acceptance grows every day.  So to the thousands of athletes who aren’t fortunate enough to belong to an athletic community in which they can find support and in Penn’s case, solidarity, from their teammates- things are changing.

Eliana Yankelev is a member of the GO! Network.  Email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to become a member and share your story!