Sean Coyne’s story: hurdling against the odds to fight homophobia in sports

My story began when I was five years old, although I didn’t realize that until my mom reminded me of it many years later. One night when driving home, my mom noticed I was upset and asked me what was wrong. I told her that I didn’t like feeling different from the other boys and that I didn’t understand why they all wanted to watch Batman and Transformers but I wanted to watch The Little Mermaid and My Little Ponies.  She told me there was nothing wrong with being different and that I should watch whatever show I liked, and play with whatever toys made me happy.
Even though I was told being different was fine, it didn’t feel alright. I continued to feel isolated without really understanding why. However, I started playing sports around the same time. I loved being part of sports teams. I played tee ball and soccer as my first team sports which continued for many years. However, since my mom and sister were runners I also started participating in local races as I got older. Finally when I was old enough to join the track and cross country teams at my school, I found my true calling: I was a natural runner.


In high school, I was encouraged to try hurdles and it turned out that, while I was a good distance runner, sprints and hurdles was where I was meant to compete.  While in high school, I was able to more accurately define why I had always felt different, but I wasn’t ready to accept being gay. I tried to ignore that part of my life by instead investing all my time in anything else.  To forget how I felt about being gay, I began working a part time job while competing as a three-season athlete, and being at the top of my class academically. Luckily, my efforts to focus on school and track did not go unnoticed: I was heavily recruited by many competitive track and field programs. When I visited Bucknell’s campus, however, I knew immediately it’s where I wanted to go. I applied early decision and was admitted.
Being part of the Bucknell Track and Field team was the happiest part of my life. I met a group of amazing friends and I finally stopped feeling isolated.  However, two things were simultaneously starting to occur that did not mesh well together. I had started to accept being gay for myself.  The problem was that the team culture was very homophobic.  Since nobody on the team was openly gay nobody thought twice about throwing around terms like fag, homo, or gay as a “harmless” joke with teammates.  When I finally had the courage to tell my closest friends on the team and my coach, we were all caught between a rock and a hard place. I didn’t want to tell everyone on the team about me, because frankly with over 130 men and women on our roster I didn’t know everyone very well nor did I think everyone needed to know my personal business. Therefore, my friends often felt at a loss for how to stand up against homophobia without potentially outing me.
It wasn’t until my junior year when I felt more comfortable about my identity and was open to everyone about my sexual orientation that I realized what the problem with my team was. There was no one visible to remind everyone how powerful words can be. There were guys on the team younger than me who were gay, but still at various points of the coming out process who were being affected by the negative team culture. I also knew that when I was a freshman there were guys on the team older than me who were gay, but weren’t out which made it harder for me. I then realized that just being out, while helpful, was not enough. I became a very visible voice insisting that hurtful and discriminatory language was no longer going to be acceptable on our team. I talked with the captains about setting an example because they had the most influence over the team culture.  They were very receptive to what I had to say, and started correcting guys for any hurtful language at practice, in the locker room, or wherever. It was amazing how quickly the team changed, and how supportive everyone was. Nobody was intentionally trying to be discriminatory to one another, we were all teammates trying to accomplish the same goal of winning; it was only that they lacked the visible reminder that words can be very powerful weapons when used carelessly.

 


I felt so elated about helping my team change, I wanted to try and reach the whole university. With the help of the director of our Office of LGBT Awareness and the administration of the Athletics Department, I adapted our school’s existing Safe Space program for Greek Life and made it more team oriented. By the time I graduated, I was able to work with four men’s teams and six women’s teams accounting for approximately one-third of all athletes on campus. What’s better, I know the younger athletes I worked with continued after I left and reached even more teams.
One seemingly little gesture of standing up and standing out has changed the culture of athletics at my Alma Mater indefinitely, and for that I could not be happier. My mother taught me it is important not to get angry with people who discriminate but that it is our duty to instruct the ignorant. My teammates are all amazingly supportive people, they just needed a reminder that you should think before you speak. And so I would encourage anyone who thinks that they aren’t able to make a difference, one small little gesture can change a great deal… it just requires courage to take that first step. Things are getting better for LGBT athletes, but we still have a long way to go, and every little bit can help.

2 thoughts on “Sean Coyne’s story: hurdling against the odds to fight homophobia in sports

  1. Thanks for sharing!

    As a former xc/track athlete and current high school xc/track coach who happens to be gay, the Safe Space program was something i shared with my captains last year. The program wasn’t something I wanted to force upon them or the team, and I left it to them how to handle the issue of bullying, gay slurs, etc. They elected not to participate but did ask that I review what the program represents with the whole team; a couple of them made minor contributions. I’m proud to say that except for a couple ‘that’s so gay’ comments later in the year from kids that weren’t there when I made that presentation, we didn’t have any problems.

    Keep making the world a better place,
    Jeff

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