When Ana Juarez was a teenager, she played as many sports as her studies at a New Mexico secondary school would allow. In the winter, she played soccer as a center forward, and in the spring she ran at track and field meets. Later on she joined the softball team.
“I’ll never forget hitting my first home run my senior year,” she said. “It was the greatest feeling in the world.”
But through much of her education, Juarez had a secret. While her teammates would gossip about boyfriends on the field and in the locker room, Juarez had nothing to add. “What was I going to do?” she said. “It’s not like I could talk about my girlfriend.”
In her junior year, Juarez “came out” as a lesbian to her friends and teammates. By her senior year, she felt comfortable enough with her sexuality to look the way she wanted to, with short-cropped hair and less-girly clothes. But while her coaches, closest friends and family all supported her, Juarez still counts herself among the many young Americans who struggle to reconcile a talent for sports with their teammates’ — and society’s — insensitivities toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) athletes.
“When I told my friends, they wanted to know why I hadn’t told them earlier,” Juarez said. “I was afraid.”
That is a common experience for young athletes, said Sam Marchiano, former outreach director with Athlete Ally, a nonprofit group that works to end homophobia in the athletic community. It empowers “allies,” or LGBTI-friendly athletes who aren’t gay, to stand up for LGBTI rights in sports. The founder of the group, Hudson Taylor, was a straight secondary-school wrestler who grew tired of his teammates’ homophobic language. To show solidarity with those his teammates belittled, he stuck a symbol of LGBT equality — a sticker with a yellow equal sign on a blue background — to his headgear. Though his fellow wrestlers criticized him for it, Taylor’s stance endeared him to thousands of parents, athletes and coaches, who rallied behind him.
“Ending discrimination is all about respect, no matter your sexual orientation, your race, your gender or where you’re from,” Marchiano said. “For an LGBT athlete, the question isn’t just, ‘Will my teammates accept me?’ but ‘Will my coach still let me play and keep me on the team?’”
Time is on their side. Many signs indicate the United States is becoming a fairer place for LGBTI athletes. A survey by the Pew Research Center shows that an overwhelming majority of LGBTI adults — 92 percent — say society has become more accepting of them in the past 10 years. An equal percentage of the nearly 1,200 adults surveyed believe the next 10 years will bring even more acceptance.
“People in the 18- to 24-year-old range are by far the most inclusive, equality-minded generation,” said Ellen Kahn, director of the Family Project at the Human Rights Campaign, a group that works to achieve equality for the LGBTI community. “They are the generation that won’t even understand why something like same-sex marriage was ever an issue. That attitude shift would translate to the soccer team and swim team and other sports, and mean less shock and drama when someone does come out.” The shift is already starting. Athletes at all levels of sports have recently come out with little detriment to their careers.
Avery Stone, in her early 20s, is a lesbian who played ice hockey at Amherst College until graduating last year. “As a student, when I was struggling with being in the closet, I searched for LGBT narratives with which I could identify. Knowing that I wasn’t alone was a big deal,” she said. “Role models tell kids they belong somewhere and are not ‘other.’”
“My coming-out process was like dominos. I came out to my closest friends, one by one, and word simply started to spread that I am gay.” Although nervous, Stone said, “I didn’t lose any friends. Being honest strengthened my bonds with my classmates and teammates.”
In May 2013, Jason Collins, a professional basketball player, publicly announced he was gay in a Sports Illustrated article. In March 2014, a University of Notre Dame tennis player, Matt Dooley, did the same.
In one of the more sensational cases, Michael Sam, a university football player, made sure that recruiters and coaches in the National Football League (NFL) knew he was gay before drafting him. Some NFL executives and coaches believed the announcement would hurt his chances of becoming a professional athlete because, as one commentator said, a gay player would not be welcome in an NFL locker room. But in 2014, Sam was invited to join the St. Louis Rams. In the end, he didn’t make the team. He has since played briefly for the Dallas Cowboys and for a Montreal team in the Canadian Football League.
As for Juarez — now 24 — she works two jobs and plays soccer with the Hot Shots of Santa Fe, New Mexico, a city-league team that won the championship in 2013. One of her jobs is to help kids make positive choices in their lives. When she meets someone struggling to accept his or her sexuality, she has a few words of advice.
“I tell them things are going to be okay and to reach out to their closest friends,” she said. “In 10 years, I hope I won’t have to have that conversation at all.”
This article is by freelance writer Tim Neville. Staff writer Kathryn McConnell contributed.