Derrick Gordon, a University of Massachusetts starter, became the first openly gay men’s Division I basketball player last week – another positive step for gay student-athletes in what hasn’t always been a welcoming environment.
“I just didn’t want to hide anymore, in any way,” Gordon told ESPN. “I didn’t want to have to lie or sneak. I’ve been waiting and watching for the last few months, wondering when a Division I player would come out, and finally I just said, ‘Why not me?’”
Gordon’s announcement came fewer than two months after former Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, who will likely become the first openly gay NFL player when drafted this April, announced he was gay.
Although Sam and Gordon have received tremendous support for their courage, other gay student-athletes have faced significant adversity, including at University of Richmond.
Former Richmond women’s basketball starter and open lesbian Miah Register left school in the middle of the 2011-2012 season, her freshman season, because of the racism and homophobia that surrounded her, she wrote in a blog post.
“I was absolutely treated differently,” she wrote. “Not only for being a lesbian, (which, by the way, no one ever asked, it was just assumed, and because I was less feminine than the other girls, they assumed a lot about me) but for being black, and I was judged for being from an urban area. I was ostracized for being the former—being Me.”
An unnamed Richmond coach revealed Register’s sexuality to her mother without her permission, according to her blog. Register wondered, “How could my future coach, whom I had never had any personal conversation with, past my music preferences, know I was gay?”
Register feared how she would be treated at Richmond following, what she called, the coach’s “unacceptable behavior.” Her fears became reality.
“My starting spot concealed everything that was going on,” she wrote. “It concealed the homophobia and the racism within the women’s basketball program, and it concealed the deep depression that I experienced.”
Richmond head coach Michael Shafer did not know Register’s sexuality when he recruited her, and she did not speak to him about it, he said. Shafer said he believed Richmond was an inclusive community.
“I don’t feel like there’s homophobia at Richmond at all,” Shafer said. “I think it’s an open environment where honestly it’s not even an issue.”
Register transferred to Farleigh Dickinson University, where she played in 12 games during the 2012-2013 season. She is no longer listed on Farleigh Dickinson’s roster. Neither Register nor the Fairleigh Dickinson athletic department responded to multiple requests for interviews.
Kevin Grayson, a star on Richmond’s 2008 National Championship football team, took an approach different from Register’s. Although now he is an open homosexual, he outwardly denied his sexuality while at Richmond, he said.
“After hearing rumors,” Grayson, Richmond College ’10, said, “I would be like OK, not going to hang out with gay friends this weekend, going to keep them at a distance, which is wrong. I’ve apologized a lot. It was times like that where I felt bad, but it’s either you embrace it, or it looks bad on me.”
Grayson, who had NFL aspirations, said football had been a primary reason that kept him from publicly revealing his sexuality while in school.
“If I wasn’t playing football,” he said, “I probably would’ve been out a long time ago, because I really don’t care what others think about me. … When you’re part of a team, it’s all about the team and the image.”
Grayson also feared the extra attention such an announcement would bring.
“I know if I had come out at Richmond,” Grayson said, “it would’ve been talked about the whole season, I’m pretty sure.”
Gordon, who helped lead the Minutemen to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1998 this past season, saw the offseason as his ideal time to come forward.
“I just thought, ‘Why not now?’” Gordon told ESPN. “Why not do it in the offseason when it’s the perfect time to let my teammates know and everybody know my sexuality?”
Soon after Gordon’s announcement, he encouraged other gay student-athletes in a similar situation to find the courage to come out. On the day of his confession, Gordon tweeted, “I am the first Division 1 male basketball player to come out and not the last. I AM gay. I’m not afraid. I’m not alone.”
Register’s story, however, exemplifies worries that gay student-athletes might have. But thanks to Gordon and Sam, progress has certainly been made. Grayson said he thought the Richmond community had made improvements.
“Freshmen year, you never would’ve seen a gay person at a straight party,” Grayson said. “I thought Richmond was going to stay the way it was forever – private institution, fall by the wayside. … But I was wrong. I’m a proud alum, not just from a football aspect, but student as well.”