Jace Anderson was sitting in chemistry class at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln when his phone first started to blow up.
The former Husker track and field athlete had posted a video on Youtube titled “Coming Out as a Gay Athlete” just a week before. Quickly, articles came out about the video, revealing Anderson’s sexual identity to the world.
He doesn’t remember the exact details of what happened after that. He scrolled through an article, called friends and his mom. He said he was terrified. There was some time before practice, so he went back home after class and looked through the outpour of support for his story.
But years later, Anderson’s story represents the still-existing challenges that come with being an athlete and being LGBTQ.
Estimates given for what proportion of Americans are LGBTQ vary significantly, but the number generally falls around 3.5%, per the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law on the low end, and 10% on the high end, according to psychologist Alfred Kinsey.
There’s little information present for what percentage of athletes in collegiate athletics are LGBTQ. One study done by Campus Pride, a national nonprofit organization for LGBTQ-friendly college campuses, indicated that out of a sample of 8,481 athletes, 5% identified as something other than heterosexual. For men, this number was lower at 3%.
The reasons for this are complex, and they have to do just as much with the personal situation of the athlete as they have to do with the societal situation.
“When it comes to how you think your family is going to react, the kind of community you grew up in, the friend group you’re a part of, your religious beliefs, there’s just so many different things at play into being able to be out,” Husker guard Hannah Whitish, who is openly lesbian, said.
According to Anderson, one reason may be an unwillingness to become a spokesperson for the cause of LGBTQ rights. Or, in other words, to be considered a gay athlete. This distinction is only made unique by the lack of openly gay athletes in sport.
“I feel like [coming out] gives you a lot more responsibility,” Anderson said. “Just in my little bit of publicity I got, I automatically felt like a spokesperson, an advocate for LGBTQ rights in athletics, whether I asked for it or not. So, there’s automatically a responsibility thrown on you.”
Another reason may be a macho culture in male athletics, according to Anderson. If this is true, male athletes continue to be venerated as symbols of traditional male power, Anderson said, and this extends to a heteronormative culture in male athletics.
“Now, being out of that world over a year now, I feel like even though it was so accepting, it was still very much a macho man’s world,” Anderson said. “Not that being gay doesn’t make you macho. Nobody was trying to make it an unsupporting gay atmosphere, but that’s what the culture created.”
Whitish and Husker LGBTQ Experience
Whitish came out as lesbian in her senior year of high school in Wisconsin. She stated that coming out to her teammates was never a big deal at Nebraska. At the time, she had a girlfriend and some other athletes on the Nebraska basketball team were also members of the LGBTQ community.
“You have people who are openly gay like Sue Bird, some professional athletes who are able to share their sexuality through social media, and I think that definitely helps people,” Whitish said. “When you see people like them who can share it and be comfortable with it, it just makes it more comfortable for yourself.”
Women’s athletics appears to be generally more accepting of female LGBTQ athletes. According to the same Campus Pride study, 8% of female athletes in the study identified as something other than heterosexual.
“Clearly, there’s a much greater support system for women supporting lesbian women’s athletes than men supporting male gay athletes,” he said. “I don’t think women are stigmatized by their sexuality [in sport] like male athletes.”
However, this openness can have a negative effect on lesbian athletes who are struggling to come out of the closet due to pressures unrelated to sports.
However, women’s athletics can be a positive one for those looking to improve the state of LGBTQ representation in male athletics. About 40 women who competed in the 2019 Women’s World Cup identify as something other than heterosexual, according to Outsports, while only three Major League Soccer players are openly gay.
UNL has a solid track record of being an ally to LGBTQ causes. In 2016, the university joined LGBT SportSafe, an organization dedicated to the betterment of conditions for LGBT athletes, as one of only two Big Ten schools to do so, and one of only three universities total. The organization was founded by Eric Lueshen, a former Husker kicker who was one of the first openly LGBTQ athletes in collegiate athletics.
“[The university] definitely has plenty of support groups,” Whitish said. “You can go to different groups where not everybody is out and you’re around people that are very accepting of it and you don’t have to worry about anything else.”
However, UNL came under fire for hiring football coach Ron Brown to the director of player development position. Brown once stood in front of the Omaha City Council and denounced a bill that would’ve protected LGBTQ individuals from discrimination in the workplace.
“I brought up, as it says in scripture, that homosexuality is a sin,” Brown said in 2012, referring to a high school Baccalaureate he was a part of.
Brown has stayed quiet on the issue since his hiring in 2018 and hasn’t issued a public apology. While this issue doesn’t indicate homophobia from the university, it was viewed as a severe violation of trust that was built up in the LGBTQ community.
“My interactions with [Brown] were very few, smiles and ‘Hi’s,’” Anderson said. “I never got any immediate negative energy from him. I don’t know what goes into their hiring decisions. I definitely do think it looks poor for the university to hire someone like that.”
Despite the pressures involved, the decision to come out has helped Anderson form his best life.
“I was so tired of living behind a mask, a facade. Coming out, for me, was one of the best things I could do for myself,” Anderson said. “I love gay culture. It allowed me to step into my body, take over my body, to be who I wanted to be beyond my sexuality. It became so much more than just being gay for me.”
This article is part of a series on diversity. For the complete list, read the introduction.