Carolyn Levett/THE VARSITY

On Friday June 19, Hart House hosted a speaker panel entitled Transforming Sport: LGBTQ Athletes in Conversation, which kicked off the start of Pride Week in Toronto, as well as Hart House’s annual Pride Pub celebration.

The panel played host to multiple athletes and leaders within the Toronto community. The panel’s purpose was to aid in the progress of eradicating homophobia in sport, and, to provide a platform for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer athletes to speak.

The strides we’ve made

Recent improvements and policy changes made by sports governing bodies —which aim to reduce the stigma for LGBTQ athletes to be “out” in their sport — were highlighted by Catherine Meade of OutSport Toronto. Meade, in her several years of raising awareness about LGBTQ athletes, has recently had to modify her presentation. It used to involve offering fifty dollars to any audience member who could name one openly gay professional athlete, and has had to be altered. “My money [used to be] safe, because no one could ever come up with [a] name” she said, adding that, “now I’m not even pulling out a loonie because we’ve got [athletes] coming out left, right, and center.”

This seems to attest to the diminishing stigma, and courage, of LGBTQ athletes. Meade noted that this movement towards equality has happened, seemingly, overnight and is aided by the number of athletes who are willing to speak out and to be honest about their sexuality. “Things have changed quite dramatically,” said Meade, citing Jason Collins, Michael Sam, and Abby Wambach as athletes who are paving the way for LGBTQ advocacy in sport, adding that “without question, we really truly have come a long way… but we still have a long way to go.”

The courage of conversation

Paving the way for even more progress in the fight against homophobia in sport, were the afternoon’s next two speakers — retired rhythmic gymnast Rose Cossar and former division one basketball player Kye Allums — who shared their personal experiences with coming out in sport.

“I was very, very nervous to come out in my sport,” said Cossar, who represented Canada at the London 2012 Olympic games as a member of the first women’s rhythmic gymnastics team to ever qualify for the Olympics.

“I had heard a lot of homophobic language in my sport” explained Cossar. She spent time living in Russia, a country notorious for it’s anti-gay sentiment which didn’t make things any easier. Cossar explained: “I did live in Moscow for many years and it was very known that gay people are not accepted.”

On top of the fear of coming out in a country which still openly discriminates against people who identify as LGBTQ, Cossar was also warned that, due to the physicality of rhythmic gymnastics, coming out as a lesbian could result in people questioning her motives as team captain, which could then result in accusations claiming she was taking physical advantage of her teammates. “The nature of my sport is very physical… and because [rhythmic gymnastics] is a female only sport… I thought that people [were] going to think [I was] trying to molest my teammates,” she said.

The emotional effort of hiding her identity began to weigh heavily on Cossar, who was well known in the world of rhythmic gymnastics for her ability to deliver emotional routines. “I was not representing myself as a person. I felt that there was a part of me that was not on the carpet,” said Cossar, adding that, “some of me was giving everything, and some of me was not even a part of [the] journey and that all of a sudden really, really bothered me.”

After a three-year long process, and bit of reluctance by coaches and team members, Cossar noted that coming out in her sport was not only a huge weight off her shoulders, but also influenced how she competed: “not only did my performance and results improve, but I started to love competing and performing.”

Advocating for equity         

Discovering and accepting both sexual and gender identity took a different route for the former division one basketball player Kye Allums.

Allums, the first openly transgender division one athlete in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), wasn’t introduced to organized sports until high school and was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness.

As a freshman on his high school’s varsity team, Allums, who already identified as gay, was reluctant to come out to friends and teammates out of fear of rejection. “I didn’t want to lose any of my friends,” he said, adding, “I didn’t want to have anyone not treat me how they were treating me, so I hid it.”

After being recruited out of high school by George Washington College, Allums made an important self-discovery that he was a trans man, and began weighing the consequences that being transgendered would have on his basketball career, “I’m on scholarship,” explained Allums “[a] division one basketball player… I can’t really say to my coach, can I take three months off so I can physically transition.”

After coming out to his teammates and coaches, and through the struggle of explaining, then training, his team to use male pronouns when referring to him, Allums was faced with the decision to take his sexuality and gender identity public.

The decision to come out publically for Allums was made all the more pressing after he was advised not to do so because of the negative attention being a trans person would have on the college: “In that moment I was like; I’m coming out.”

1, 500 Facebook messages, a press conference, and multiple questions regarding his athletic integrity later, Allums has since put basketball on the back burner. He is focusing his time not only on sharing his experience as a trans athlete, but as an African American trans man, “I’m still navigating, learning how to be a black guy,” admitted Allums, “how to be a black, trans, queer guy… I’m learning.”

Continuing the fight           

For Cossar and Allums, the progress made within sports’ governing bodies, as well as within locker rooms, demanding the end of homophobia, is impressive and staggering. “Toronto 2015 is making a clear statement, the Olympic committee is making a clear statement, and other organizations as well,” said Cossar, adding, “I love that, and want to continue to see that grow.”

The modernization of organizations like the International Olympic Committee, to openly support and advocate for LGBTQ athletes, is important for competing athletes, and future Olympians. “ Your identity does not dictate how well or how bad[ly] you play sports,” said Allums. “That’s your work-ethic, that’s your heart.”

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