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Out on the field: Life as an LGBTQ student-athlete at Brown

Visibility, community, social performance in Brown’s varsity athletics

When a high school student decides to play a sport at the collegiate level, signing a letter of intent means more than just new opportunities. In the world of varsity athletics, teammates train side-by-side in practices and spend hours packed together in buses for travel games. Committing to a team means committing to its community — and the social dynamics that shape it.

During his high school recruiting visit with Brown track and field, Philip Batler ’20 came to campus bearing in mind the question of how his identity as a queer athlete would fit into the team culture. He first became interested in running competitively in middle school, and throughout high school his growing passion pointed him toward a collegiate athletic career. But Batler knew that there was more to athletics than just competing. As he met potential teammates and coaches on College Hill, he also paid close attention to the social atmosphere.

Navigating interpersonal relationships as a queer student-athlete can be complicated by identifying outside of a presumed heterosexuality still predominant in the American mainstream. Within this environment where individuals are expected to be cisgender and heterosexual, every relationship requires deciding whether or not to voice one’s identity and brace for the ensuing response.

But when Batler visited the team, something surprising happened: he met another gay track athlete for the first time. Although the two were never on the team simultaneously — he was a senior on the team when Batler was visiting as a senior in high school — they stayed in touch, and Batler came to view him as a mentor.

“It’s just been amazing because he essentially lived my experience, just four years earlier than I did, and so I would always go to him for advice,” Batler said.

Similarly, Gus Hirschfeld ’21, who was a part of the men’s crew team until his graduation this past May, found that the presence of other queer rowers shaped his experience on his team and made him feel more comfortable eventually coming out.

“Every single year I was on our team there was always an out athlete, so it wasn’t like I was going at it alone. There were always people on the team before me and after me who were also identifying as queer,” he said. “I felt very fortunate to be on a team that had a culture where I didn’t really have to think twice about how I was presenting.”

 

Visibility and embracing identity

For Batler and Hirschfeld alike, there was always someone to turn to on their team to talk about queer issues. The visibility of other queer athletes helped them embrace their queerness, as teammates’ coming out brought to light an often unseen diversity that challenged heteronormativity.

“That mentorship of somebody who lived that experience as a queer athlete is really just a priceless friendship and mentorship that I’m just so grateful for,” Batler said. “He really did teach me a lot about how to be myself.”

But while, for some, queer visibility in athletics came to serve as a bridge between their individual identity and team culture, for others, the absence of openly queer athletes on their varsity team reinforced a culture of heteronormativity, making them worried by the thought of being the only “out” person on their team.

“Coming into school, I was almost banking on the fact that there would be another girl on my team that would be queer — especially playing field hockey, traditionally a pretty queer sport,” Calista Manuzza ’23 said.

For Manuzza, who grew up in New Jersey playing a variety of sports with her older sister, athletics had always been tied to her social life. Most of her friends in high school played field hockey. But in her first semester at Brown, she found no openly queer athletes on her team: something she found alienating.

“I was really hoping that when I got to school that one of (my teammates) would be obviously queer and I could just bond with that person,” she said. “When I didn’t have that right off the bat, I was devastated. I was like, ‘How am I going to reach out to anyone?’ I felt like that was my easy in, if I could find another person.”

When queer athletes are faced with the possibility of being the only queer-identifying person on their team, it can be isolating and make embracing identity all the more challenging, she explained.

“I realized it was really easy eventually to come out, because no one had a problem with it,” Manuzza said. But knowing there were other queer athletes on the team “definitely would have made it a much easier experience and a much less anxious experience.”

 

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Performing on and off the field

For many queer athletes, heteronormativity is often embedded in the culture of their sports.

“Athletics in general are very competitive,” Hirschfeld said. For male athletes, “tied to competition a lot of the time is being alpha about things and obviously just like ‘beating up’ on your opponent or things like that.” According to Hirschfeld, even phrases like “beating up” used to describe competition in male athletics are rooted in a performance of a certain ‘macho’ form of masculinity.

According to Batler, sports often fall within a gender binary, where contact sports like football, basketball and hockey are perceived as more masculine. This can reproduce the desire for athletes in non-contact sports to perform masculinity and heterosexuality in a way that can be alienating for queer athletes.

“Whether it was middle school, high school or college … (in other athletes’ perception) track definitely falls more on the feminine side, because it’s a non-contact sport, a lot of us wear either short shorts or Spandex (and) it’s not one of the big four (hockey, basketball, baseball and football) that you have on primetime TV,” he explained.

As a result, many athletes feel the need to overcompensate for the feminine perception of their sport, Batler said, by exceedingly putting masculinity on display. 

While Batler noted that, for him, this issue was less prevalent at Brown, it still created pressure to present in a way that did not align with how he personally identified.

“I was very much into this concept of, ‘I’m gay, but I’m not like other gay people,’” he said. “I was really yearning to be liked and to fit in with straight men, and my teammates.”

But, for Hirschfeld, playing a non-contact sport was freeing. Because the perception of crew landed outside of traditional notions of masculinity, he felt more comfortable expressing himself. “It really didn’t matter who I was with,” he said. “It really was the epitome of a team sport.”

This performance of gender also extends into social life, Claire Pisani ’23 MD ’27, a member of the women’s water polo team, explained. Varsity teams often socialize with other teams, hosting parties and mixers together. For Pisani, this social scene can be a highly heteronormative one in which women are expected to present in a traditionally feminine way and be desirable to straight men.

This social environment, paired with water polo’s perception as an aggressive, more masculine sport implicitly pressures female athletes to “dress a certain way and act a certain way with other men’s teams,” she said. 

Pisani doesn’t fault her teammates for the alienation she felt, but rather the reality of the lack of queer representation on her team. 

Before she came out, conversations on Pisani’s team were often centered upon relationships but were rarely inclusive to queer student-athletes. “The norm was very, ‘Oh, what guys have you been hooking up with?’ and ‘Oh, what men’s team are we mixing with?’ and ‘How do we get this men’s team to want to mix with us?’” she explained. 

Manuzza agreed, adding that “mixing with teams is so heteronormative.”

“My team has mixed with tons of teams, and it’s always our team and a male team,” she said. “Because a lot of girls on my team will complain that they don’t have any friends that are girls outside of the team, I’m like, ‘Why don’t we mix with another female team?’” But the response from her teammates was lukewarm, she said.

Manuzza also noted the issue of male athletes crossing boundaries with her in social settings, disregarding her sexual orientation. “I’ve talked to some of them and been like, ‘Hey, would you ever do that to another guy who likes women?’ and they’re like, ‘No, of course not,’” she said. “Well, I should be comparable to that because I’m not interested in men, and I don’t want you to grab me.”

Even in drinking games at parties, Manuzza found that she was expected to fit into a heteronormative ideal — one that was not easy to break free from.

Many drinking games with other teams put her in provocative situations oriented toward heterosexual students. She felt that, despite being queer, if she were to opt out of the demands of the game, it would be “a little taboo.” 

When she pushed her teammates to make these games more inclusive, they saw little value in altering the rules for just one person. 

‘Well, why are we going to change it just for you?,” she recalled them saying. “You’re the only one.’”

“It’s easy to forget that there could be other queer people if there’s nobody who’s actively out,” Pisani said. “Sometimes things are said when they forget there are queer women or gay women who aren’t as feminine.”

“There’s only a few of use who are willing to stand up and say, ‘Yes, I’m queer,’” Manuzza said. “It’s definitely an uphill battle.”

 

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Challenging the student-athlete stereotype

Despite the challenges of being a queer person in a heternormative space, many queer student-athletes find that their teams are supportive and help them feel more comfortable expressing themselves. For Pisani, the women’s water polo team has been a support system as she navigates Brown as a queer person.

But perceptions of athletes as close-minded or homophobic from those outside the athletic community can make queer student-athletes feel sidelined, discouraging them from calling attention to negative experiences out of fear of reinforcing stereotypes. 

Stereotypes deeming athletes close-minded can also make it harder for athletes to feel accepted and socially integrated within the University as a whole, Pisani explained.

“A lot of my teammates have expressed feeling very isolated and looked down upon by even regular students who think that they just got in because they’re good at sports,” she said. “I think there’s a big impostor syndrome, a collective impostor syndrome, among a lot of my teammates and other athletes I’ve talked to.”

Batler added that while, on one hand, the only time he heard homophobic slurs used on campus was in the locker room, outside of the athlete community he felt athletes were stigmatized as homophobic or close-minded in a way that did not fully encapsulate his personal experience.  “It was really frustrating to have this community that I was actually really proud to be a part of … be painted as homophobic when I had teammates that loved me. They accepted me,” he said.

At times, the stigma of athletes as homophobic can even contribute to the erasure of queer athletes. When all athletes are presented as homophobic or close-minded, Batler said, it reinforces a heteronormative perception of athletes that can make it harder for queer student-athletes to express themselves and overlooks their contributions to the athlete community.

“Sometimes people just generalize athletes as this monolithic community,” Batler added. “There’s a lot of complexity to us and we contribute a lot more than just being the jocks in the room.”

For Manuzza, despite being queer herself, these stereotypes made it challenging for her to feel welcomed in queer spaces at the University or get to know students outside of athletics.

“There is definitely a little bit of a boundary between the athletes and the non-athletes at Brown,” she said. “I found it hard to make friends with people, because as soon as I say I’m an athlete they kind of detach from the conversation … so I found it really hard to make other queer friends in that setting.” 

 

Creating community

For many, spaces created by and for those understand what it means to be a queer student-athlete are needed.

In the fall of his junior year, Batler reached out to faculty within the athletic department with the idea for a new club: the Student-Athlete Gay Alliance. While it was hard to get people to come at first, over time the organization provided a meaningful space for queer athletes to talk about their experiences and be themselves.

“Being surrounded by people who knew exactly what you were going through was really incomparable, a phenomenal experience and just something I really valued. Not to be arrogant, but I’m really proud of how we built it,” he said. “I really feel like it was a community and group of people I was so fortunate to have gotten to meet and share that space and time with.”

Today, SAGA still faces challenges in maintaining membership — Pisani and Manuzza noted that few male athletes come to events — but it continues to offer queer student-athletes a space they may otherwise lack.

“Having someone who understands the intersection of (the queer student-athlete identity) when there’s not that many people in that space has been such an amazing experience,” Manuzza said. 

Moving forward, there is still room to for the University to improve the queer student-athlete experience, including from an administrative level. In March, Athlete Ally released its Athletic Equality Index, which considers “nondiscrimination policy, trans inclusion policy, sexual harassment policy, fan code of conduct, collaboration with activist groups, LGBTQ+ educational resources and pro-LGBTQ+ training for staff and athletes” in collegiate athletic programs. Brown received a score of 45 out of 100 — the third-lowest in the Ivy League.

“We want to make sure that LGBTQ-identified student-athletes, like all LGBTQ-identified students, are supported by the wide range of resources in the Division of Campus Life,” Eric Estes, vice president for campus life, wrote in an email to the Herald. “It’s important that our LGBTQ-identified students see themselves as represented and affirmed across the staff that support their experience outside the classroom.”

Estes emphasized that the University has taken measures to increase support and representation for the LGBTQ community at an administrative level. This has been reflected in an increase in the staffing and budget of the LGBTQ Center, including an annual budget increase of 276 percent for the LGBTQ Center since Fiscal Year 2016, and a focus on “compositional diversity in our hiring in Campus Life over the past five years,” he explained.

“These and other important commitments of resources and support … lift up and benefit the entire LGBTQ community, including student-athletes,” he added.

Meanwhile, the intergenerational work of queer student-athletes building support in their community one person at a time is changing the way queer athletes experience Brown.

“I’m hoping that when they get to Brown, there’s more of a greeting for queer athletes right up front. I felt like I had to wait a few months of being at Brown before I was even exposed to the fact that we had a queer group for athletes,” Manuzza said. “I’m just hoping that it will be something people will be proud to say they’re a part of.”

Batler hopes that future queer athletes and their intersectional identities will be welcomed wholeheartedly.

“It’s not that it’s brushed under the rug, it’s that you’re celebrated for it. Like, yes, we love that you bring this to the table, not just as an athlete, but we love that you contribute this other voice to the community that we build as a team,” Batler said. “What I hope for is just a level of openness that has never been seen before.”

And, for Batler, seeing his younger teammate kiss another boy at a track team party gave him the sense that, one way or another, progress was being made.

“I was like, wow, I don’t think I would have been that confident to do that” as an underclassman, he said. “That just made me feel excited. I hope — no, I don’t hope, I know that it’ll just keep getting better for each incoming class.”



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