In 2003, Penn Athletes and Allies Tackling Homophobia was established as the first LGBTQ student-athlete organization in the country. Now, 13 years later, PATH is trying to expand by engaging freshmen, to cultivate a more accepting sporting community on Penn’s campus.
For several semesters, PATH has struggled to retain its members. Their core organizing team has predominantly been staffed by upperclassmen who can only stay with the club for a semester or two. Freshmen athletes have been supportive of PATH events but stop short from taking on active roles in fear of being treated differently on their new sporting teams. Earlier this year, over 70 people attended Pride Games, an annual celebration of LGBTQ athletes organized by PATH. In contrast, only six students were part of the executive board that worked to organize this event. Of these six students, four graduated in the spring, leaving College juniors Sean Collins and Kendall Covington as the only returning members of PATH.
Because the club has primarily focused on advocacy in previous years, it has been difficult to include students who are not interested in, or cannot afford the time to, take on a high-commitment position in the organizing team. This is exacerbated by the overloaded schedules of student athletes who often spend up to three hours a day in practice.
“It’s tough,” said Collins, who served as chair for PATH last semester. “But I know that having groups like PATH exist at the University level makes a difference to the thousands of high school kids nationwide who are struggling to come out.”
Collins himself learned about PATH when he was still in high school, unsure of how to navigate the responsibilities of being a gay athlete as well as the captain of his school’s cross country team. Coming into Penn, he knew that he wanted to dedicate his time here to PATH.
“Even if I have to spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week [on PATH] just to help one person deal with coming out... that’s a difference, and I know it.”
To that end, Collins, who is currently the team manager of the track and field team, and Covington, who is on the women’s volleyball team, have three main plans for PATH this fall semester.
First, they hope to expand the club by reaching out not just to LGBTQ athletes, but also to LGBTQ sports fans and athletes identifying as straight allies.
“Athletics would not be what it is if not for the people watching,” said Collins. The club plans to host a series of Pride Nights, inviting fans to meet before a sporting event and proceed together onto the event as a pro-LGBTQ cheering crew. In creating a visible queer presence at sporting events, PATH hopes to cultivate greater acceptance not just on the field, but in the stands.
Second, Collins and Covington hope for PATH to invest more towards community building instead of focusing solely on advocacy. By hosting more social events, they hope to attract more students to engage with PATH and its cause in a more informal way, thereby expanding the club’s engagement with the student body.
Finally, PATH hopes to shift the focus of advocacy efforts away from external institutions such as the National Collegiate Athletic Association and towards Penn’s own campus. In particular, they hope to look into what can be done to make the varsity and club teams on campus more accepting.
Citing role models like football defensive Michael Sam, who became the first openly gay player to be drafted into the National Football League in 2014, Collins said that major strides have been made for LGTBQ athletes in recent years. However, that is not to say that there is not still an urgent need for PATH to exist.
“Nationally, and at Penn,” said Collins, “there continues to be a problem of internalized homophobia in structured sports.”
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