Not all of the members of Kent State’s women’s rugby team are gay. And they’re not the only ones coming out in support of open and proud student athletes. So why does the idea of LGBT students in the locker room still make so many uncomfortable?
By Kristine Gill
There they are. Gathered to the side of a wet rugby pitch stand a few dozen women in sweatpants and T-shirts — far from the helmets and shoulder pads I’d been expecting. They don’t seem to mind the pitch, the muddy field. My shoes squish as I approach. I wasn’t prepared for mud. And I wasn’t prepared for how open they’d be with me about what it’s like to be a gay athlete at Kent State.
Once I introduce myself, a few women volunteer to be interviewed. We stand off to the side of the pitch while the rest practice. As the women form a semicircle in front of me, and I tell them more about my story, Kayla Maroney tells me she’s gay.
“I didn’t know you were gay,” senior costume design major Tasha Walls says, surprised not by the confession, but rather by the fact that she didn’t already know.
“Yep,” Maroney says. And conversation continues as if Maroney, a junior psychology major, had been commenting about the muddy state of the pitch that afternoon.
That’s how this team is. No one assumes anyone is gay, but if you come out, it’s not a big deal.
“As I started meeting people, I was like, ‘Oh, my God, that person’s gay, that person’s gay,’” Walls says. “It was like they kept popping up out of nowhere. I didn’t really know who was and who wasn’t.”
Some girls joined the club knowing there were lesbians on the team. Others had no idea.
“I don’t think that was their deciding factor,” says Abby Miller, a sophomore history, political science and secondary education major. “I think it might have helped a few people, but I think that they came to play rugby because they love the sport, and they want to learn more about it.”
Sophomore photojournalism major Liz Miller was shocked after her first official rugby game. She’s straight, but the women on the other team were hardcore butch: “Short hair, non-shaved arm pits,” Abby says.
“I’d only been to two practices before that, and I was standing back, like, ‘Do I really want to do this?’” Liz says. “I was creeped out, to say the least.”
Liz stuck with it and says she’s a better person because of it. Being surrounded by women who are open about their sexuality has made her more open about everything.
All the women love the sport. Tackling people, be it guys or other women, is therapeutic, they say. The gay women on the team don’t play because they like playing a contact sport against other girls. “I’m not like, ‘Oh, I want to tackle that girl; she’s hot,’ because I’m going to get her cleat in my face, not a kiss,” Maroney says.
It’s a love of the sport, not other women, that binds this group. But that doesn’t mean they don’t date each other.
“People would be making out on the way to our game in the backseat of the van,” Walls says. And the coaches have had to tell players to leave their relationships off the field. Things can get messy when a couple fights moments before the start of a game. They’ve managed to deal with those situations as they come.
Laing Kennedy, Kent State athletic director, has worked here 16 years. He says his administration prides itself on its mission of inclusion, and Kennedy teaches that in one of his graduate-level courses, Sports Management.
But in his 16 years as director, Kennedy has never had a conversation with an athlete about coming out.
“At the same time, I’m sure we have gay athletes in our program by definition of the population,” he says. And that’s a good thing, because Kennedy says his sports administration is all-inclusive. It’s reflected in the staff and the players.
So where are the gay male athletes in this equation? If the population patterns hold true, Kent State must have gay athletes on the football team, basketball team and hockey team. What about the cross country team or men’s rugby team?
“More women (athletes) are comfortable in (coming out) than men,” Kennedy says. “If a male, who happens to be an athlete, says he’s gay, I think there’s more peer pressure against it. I think that’s unfortunate.”
It wasn’t for lack of trying that no gay male athletes from the university are featured in this article: Kennedy may be right. But regardless of the reasons, his administration maintains its attitude of inclusion.
“It’s just not an issue,” he says. “We don’t know (who is gay), and we don’t need to know.”
That mentality is perhaps far different from that of a professional sports administration. Pro athletes have taken flack for coming out years after their careers ended.
“It’s more accepted at the collegiate level because colleges are more accepting,” Kennedy says. “You can chalk that up to enlightenment. You can chalk that up to education. Whatever you want. It’s an interesting and challenging topic we deal with.”
Rachel Bennett, senior organizational communication major, has a theory on the difference between collegiate and professional acceptance.
“Professional sports are always in the media, and so image is a big deal to them,” says Bennett, starting guard for Kent State’s women’s basketball team. “But here it’s not.”
In her fifth year at Kent State, Bennett says three of her teammates are gay, but it’s not a big deal. The team is a tight-knit group. It was easy for three of the them to come out to fellow teammates, and it made their bond stronger.
“When we get on the court, there’s certain little fundamental things like, ‘Oh, I trust she’s got my help on defense, or I trust she’s going to make one more pass to a person to get open. She’s not going to be selfish,’” Bennett says. “So when we have that closeness and chemistry off the court, it does translate to the court.”
Bennett is straight, but she says finding out three of her teammates are gay didn’t unnerve her. She says the women came to Kent State and already had girlfriends and didn’t hesitate to share that with their teammates.
“It’s not like I walk in, and my teammates are hitting on me. They don’t bring it into the locker room that way. They aren’t gonna try to date the team,” Bennett says. “That’s like dating in the workplace.”
Bennett thinks society is transitioning, and soon sexual preference won’t matter. “We don’t treat anybody (on our team) differently,” she says. “Yeah, it would have been a huge problem 10 years ago because it wasn’t accepted. I think we’re getting to the flip.”
If you hear a coach call out “scissors” or “rainbow” in the middle of a game, you’re allowed to laugh.
The rugby players do.
“Scissors is a play. We didn’t name that,” says one coach, who asked her name not be used. “Rainbow — someone named it that. We kick the ball in an arc to get it over the other team, and (the girls) thought it was hilarious to call it rainbow.”
If they aren’t making suggestive associations with their plays, they’re probably making other playfully coarse comments. “There’s a lot of dirty references here,” Abby Miller says. “But I think that comes with the sport in general.”
“We call each other homos, and it’s not necessarily in a derogatory way,” Maroney says.
“We’re dirty people.”
Kristine Gill is a senior newspaper journalism major.
(This article originally appeared in the Winter 2009-10 print edition.)