It took a while for Jenny Thompson to come out to herself.
Finally, at the start of this school year, the Penn sophomore jumper was able to bring herself to accept that she was gay.
“I was in denial about the whole thing,” she said .
The next step — coming out to everyone else — was one that very few current athletes at Penn have taken.
But Thompson took the plunge into the unknown, coming out to the track team in a hotel last month just before the Heptagonal Championships in Cambridge, Mass.
“I made a little speech to the team asking them to wear rainbow pins on their uniforms and announced I was gay,” she said.
Although Thompson had already come out to the teammates she lived with (“It’s pretty hard to live in a house with girls and bring home girls and have them not notice,” she said), Heps was her true moment of revelation as a gay athlete.
She couldn’t have done it alone.
“[Freshman hurdler] Eliana [Yankelev] being out made it so much easier because I saw how the track team reacted to her and it was fine,” Thompson said. “She came into the team openly out as a freshman, which is pretty scary in my opinion. So I knew that if I came out too, no one would reject me.”
Thompson approached Yankelev first, and the latter helped Thompson through every step of her coming out process.
“Nobody said anything [after Thompson came out], nobody changed the way they treated anyone,” Yankelev said.
But only the presence of another out gay athlete on the team gave Thompson the courage to open up, and such a backup is a rarity throughout Penn Athletics.
Although the Quakers boast 33 men’s and women’s varsity teams which together consist of over 850 student-athletes, there are roughly just a dozen out LGBT athletes at Penn. That means that just over 1 percent of Penn athletes are out.
But since the Williams Institute, a sexual orientation public policy think tank, estimated in 2011 that 3.8 percent of Americans identify as LGBT (and popular culture’s ‘one in 10’ LGBT ratio is still widely believed), the number of out Penn athletes is statistically far lower than the national average.
And considering Penn routinely tops Newsweek rankings of the most gay-friendly colleges in the United States, that number would appear especially anomalous.
Which is why athletes like Yankelev who were out from the start of their Penn career are so rare.
Yankelev came to Penn wanting to avoid the marginalization that she felt as a closeted high school athlete. At the Pennsylvania PIAA Outdoor State Championships in Shippensburg, Pa., Yankelev felt uncomfortable rooming with her fellow competitors in the college’s co-ed dorms.
“There was a lot of, ‘Oh my god, I snuck out of my room and hooked up with this kid!’ among the girls,” she said. “That pressure was always there.”
PATH to Inclusion
So Yankelev quickly got involved with Penn Athletes and Allies Tackling Homophobia (PATH), one of the longest-running (since 2003) collegiate gay athlete support groups in the nation.
By definition, PATH is a niche student group and has struggled to expand beyond a handful of members in its existence.
“It’s not like we can have a GBM or make a Facebook event for people to come out,” Yankelev said. “Because the reality is that won’t happen.”
But as PATH’s advocacy chair, Yankelev researches NCAA and Penn Athletics policy on LGBT issues, and she’s found something to be excited about.
Earlier this month, the NCAA released a document entitled ‘Champions of Respect’ which gives guidelines for how players and coaches can start student-athlete ally advocacy groups, as well as how coaches should use terminology around uncomfortable closeted athletes.
What Yankelev wants to see now is an official statement of support from Penn Athletics toward LGBT athletes.
“Any real statement of cooperation between PATH and Penn Athletics and then making a real recognition of what we’re trying to do,” she said. “For them to say ‘We are a department of athletics that is all about inclusion for anybody who can play.’”
Enter Penn Deputy Director of Athletics Alanna Shanahan, who started building a relationship between Penn Athletics and the Penn LGBT Center last spring. Shanahan sat in on the LGBT Center’s SafeZone training sessions, which aim to address how one can best help their LGBT peers.
“I sat through a couple of [SafeZone] Hillel trainings and was really impressed by how they make it area-specific,” Shanahan said. “So that gave me a lot of confidence they’d be able to make it athletic-specific.”
And by October, the LGBT Center had done just that, setting up separate mandatory SafeZone trainings that extended into November for all head coaches, assistant coaches and administrators, respectively.
“You always have a hesitancy about whether there’s going to be a high level of engagement and if people are actually going to get something out of it,” Shanahan said. “And I thought it was really compelling. People asked great questions and were engaged.”
Coaches and administrators were presented with scenarios such as handling recruitment of an openly gay athlete, responding to recruits who asked if there were any gay athletes on their team and handling an athlete that wished to come out.
“I think what we learned is that there isn’t any one right answer,” Shanahan said. “And I think this is a situation where the LGBT Center was great about saying, ‘Don’t be afraid to come to us.’”
Indeed, Shanahan encourages direct contact to the LGBT Center for coaches or players with issues, and she meets with the Center’s Associate Director Erin Cross every quarter to discuss complaints that have gone her way.
“I’ll hear lack of sensitivity concerns, inappropriate behavior, student-athletes calling each other inappropriate names,” Shanahan said.
Penn tennis senior Jason Magnes has been PATH chair since his freshman year and inherited “a bit of a defensive stance on the part of Athletics” toward PATH, but he’s pleased with how the fall SafeZone trainings went and believes the PATH-Penn Athletics relationship has gotten better. Magnes wants to see the trainings extended to team captains now to prevent the insensitive terminology Shanahan hears about.
But it was inappropriate language that forever changed Magnes’ Penn tennis career for the better.
After his parents talked him out of coming out in high school, Magnes changed his Facebook sexual orientation status to ‘Interested in Men’ during winter break of his freshman year.
“Then when we came back to Penn, I knew everyone on the team knew, but no one was really talking about it,” he said.
What Magnes calls “the big gay elephant in the room” only grew, causing him to wonder whether he should make a joke about it to break the ice.
During a practice match before the season began, then-senior Adam Schwartz ended the silence for good.
“Someone hit a drop shot on my side of the court and he decided to just scream, ‘Run, faggot, run!’” Magnes said. “It’s obviously not a very nice word to use, but it must have been his delivery because when he said it, I started laughing so hard.”
Magnes’ mom had been friends with Schwartz’s parents, so the former knew the latter intended no malice with his remark.
“Seeing my reaction to Adam doing that made them feel a little bit less like they were walking through a minefield,” Magnes said. “Knowing that Adam was comfortable doing that made me feel more comfortable.”
And Magnes has been okay with his teammates ever since. One spring break, his teammates wanted him to “rate” them and even told him they wanted to go to a gay club.
“All of that communicated to me that [my sexuality] is not only a non-issue but a novelty that they can play around with because it’s something they’re not used to, because they’ve never had the opportunity to do so,” he said.
Going forward, what Magnes wants to see at Penn and beyond is an environment in which it’s not enough to just guard against homophobia.
“Being explicitly and overwhelmingly inclusive is what would need to happen to encourage those athletes to come out,” he said.
While Magnes is still officially PATH chair, senior Daniel Gutnayer (formerly of Penn swimming) has unofficially assumed the role this semester.
“I’m really happy with the direction Penn Athletics is moving right now,” Gutnayer said. “The athletic department is helping change the culture.”
Gutnayer, who as a freshman felt uncomfortable while people commented and stared as he walked down the street holding his boyfriend’s hand, is just one of many LGBT activists at Penn who look up to Anna Aagenes.
A 2010 Penn grad, Aagenes founded the Pride Games and still serves as a mentor for current PATH members.
“Any athletic department can start by naming the dangerous language, and that can empower coaches to feel like allies,” Aagenes said. “Because they know their superior doesn’t tolerate that kind of language.
“Your team is your family, so the stakes are really high. Do you choose between the person you are dating or coming out to your team?”
Thompson still hasn’t come out to her parents, and her dad is “very homophobic.”
“I’m gonna come out to them this summer, that’s the plan,” she said. “So I have to, you know … work on that. That’s gonna be interesting.”
Yankelev still hasn’t come out to her 24-year-old brother Nathaniel, an Orthodox Jew.
“I always felt a big barrier with the Orthodox ideology of Judaism, and how in the Bible it says, ‘Thou shalt not lay with a man as you would lay with a woman, the penalty is death,’” she said.
For those who find their second families within Penn Athletics, then, coming out can be as liberating as it is harrowing, at least compared to their lives outside of Penn.
“If people are uncomfortable and don’t know how to talk about it, your team will step up if you are brave enough to do so,” Aagenes said. “A lot of people stay in the closet because it’s difficult to be the first one.”
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