by Dan Woog -
SGN Contributing Writer
Men's lacrosse was the last team Sean Coyne thought he'd see at Bucknell University's Gay dance party.
But that's where they were last spring. They came not to mock the event, but to have a good time. Later, several players thanked Coyne for inviting them.
He was a fellow athlete - a track star - but the gulf between Coyne and the laxmen loomed large just a few months earlier. The atmosphere on the lacrosse team was far from Gay-friendly.
It wasn't much better on the track squad, surprisingly, when Coyne arrived in 2006. A highly recruited runner and hurdler from Freehold, N.J., he picked the prestigious liberal arts school for its stellar academics and gorgeous campus, plus the good vibe he got from fellow track recruits.
Coyne had known he was 'different' since Catholic grammar school (though he did not have a name for it then). At his public high school he realized 'this was real.' But to avoid dealing with the reality of being Gay, he submerged himself in activities. Coyne took AP classes, was active in the National Honor Society, joined the Latin Club and had a part-time job.
'I kept as busy as possible so I wouldn't have to explain why I wasn't seeing someone,' he explains. It was a classic - and literal - case of running away.
When he got to Bucknell, he stayed in the closet. The locker room door seemed firmly shut to Gays. The team environment was crude. There were always Gay 'jokes,' with track athletes putting each other down as 'fags' or 'homos.'
But Coyne was not a quitter. He told himself he was better than the teammates making unsuspecting comments. He stayed, and ran.
That spring he came out to his best friend, a fellow hurdler. It was inadvertent - the teammate had seen an IM on Coyne's computer - but he felt less anxious when his friend supported him fully. Slowly, Coyne came out to more teammates. Yet, the anti-Gay locker room comments continued, and he felt powerless to stop them.
As a junior, he grew more comfortable. He told two captains that their homophobic language perpetuated a negative team culture. They understood. Almost instantly, the slurs stopped.
Emboldened, Coyne joined a club associated with Bucknell's Office of LGBT Awareness. He became a speaker in the 'Safe Space' peer education program, presenting LGBT issues to fraternities and sororities. But he was not part of the Greek system, so when he was offered the chance to work with the athletic department he shifted his focus.
He tailored his presentation to the athletic issues he was so familiar with. For example, he described the difficulty of cooperating on the field while feeling marginalized off it, and discussed the effect anti-Gay comments have on recruits who may be Gay - or have Gay relatives or friends.
Some coaches supported the effort. Others dragged their feet. They were in the middle of their season, they said, or they wanted to wait until the following year, when new freshmen arrived.
The first team Coyne addressed was his own. Both the men's and women's track squads soon voted - unanimously - to make their teams 'safe spaces.'
In the 2009-'10 school year, Coyne presented to 10 teams. Besides the track squads, five others - women's lacrosse, men's and women's swimming and diving, women's field hockey and women's crew - voted unanimously to be safe spaces.
Forty men's lacrosse players favored the idea. Two dissented.
'The idea really hits home,' Coyne says. 'You figure, 'Why shouldn't we be a safe space? Everyone might not agree 100 percent, or be a big ally, but they get it. And it's huge for them that the message comes from a fellow athlete.'
Despite the dissenting votes, men's lacrosse 'got it' more than most other teams. One night last fall, Coyne took guest speaker Brian Sims - an attorney who as an out captain in 2000 led his Bloomsburg University team to the NCAA Division II national championship - to a bar. The lax stars were there. A heartfelt discussion followed - leading soon after to the Gay dance party they attended and enjoyed.
Last spring, Coyne graduated with a degree in animal behavior. He's now at the University of Chicago, working toward his masters in human development. His goal is to earn a Ph.D.
Though he's gone, Bucknell's safe space athletic program is in good hands. Coyne's former roommate - a Gay track athlete - is taking over the program, with two females. One is a Lesbian water polo player. The other is a soccer player - and straight.
Who better to speak to athletes about homophobia than fellow competitors who care about the issue? And who cares if they're Gay or straight? They just have to shoot straight.
Dan Woog is a journalist, educator, soccer coach, Gay activist, and author of the Jocks series of books on Gay male athletes. Visit his website at www.danwoog.com. He can be reached care of this publication or at OutField@qsyndicate.com.
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