Out on the Field
Some of the teammates on Kent State’s women’s rugby team are gay, but for the team, it’s a non issue. So why does the idea of LGBT students in the locker room still make so many uncomfortable?
There they are. Kent State's rugby team is gathered at the side of a wet pitch stand, a few dozen women in sweatpants and T-shirts—far from the helmets and shoulder pads I’d been expecting. They don’t seem to mind the muddy field. My shoes squish as I approach. I wasn’t prepared for mud. Nor was I prepared for how open they’d be with me about what it’s like to be a gay athlete at Kent State.
Once I introduce myself, a few women volunteer to be interviewed. We stand off to the side of the pitch while the rest practice. As the women form a semicircle in front of me and I tell them more about the story I’m working on, Kayla Maroney tells me she’s gay.
“I didn’t know you were gay,” senior costume design major Tasha Walls says, surprised not by the confession, but rather by the fact that she didn’t already know.
“Yep,” Maroney says. The conversation continues as if Maroney, a junior psychology major, had been commenting about the muddy state of the pitch that afternoon.
That’s how this team is. No one assumes anyone is gay, but if you come out, it’s not a big deal.
“As I started meeting people, I was like, ‘Oh, my God, that person’s gay, that person’s gay,’” Walls says. “It was like they kept popping up out of nowhere. I didn’t really know who was and who wasn’t.”
Some girls joined the club knowing there were lesbians on the team. Others had no idea.
“I don’t think that was their deciding factor,” says Abby Miller, a sophomore history, political science, and secondary education major. “I think it might have helped a few people, but I think that they came to play rugby because they love the sport, and they want to learn more about it.”
Sophomore photojournalism major Liz Miller (no relation) was shocked after her first official rugby game. She’s straight, and was taken aback by the women on the other team who were hardcore butch. “Short hair, non-shaved arm pits,” Abby says.
“I’d only been to two practices before that, and I was standing back, like, ‘Do I really want to do this?’” Liz says. “I was creeped out, to say the least.”
Liz stuck with it and says she’s a better person because of it. Being surrounded by women who are open about their sexuality has made her more open about everything.
All the women love the sport. Tackling people, whether it's guys or other women, is therapeutic, they say. The gay women on the team don’t play because they like playing a contact sport against other girls. “I’m not like, ‘Oh, I want to tackle that girl; she’s hot,’ because I’m going to get her cleat in my face, not a kiss,” Maroney says.
It’s a love of the sport—not other women—that binds this group. But that doesn’t mean they don’t date each other.
“People would be making out on the way to our game in the backseat of the van,” Walls says. And the coaches have had to tell players to leave their relationships off the field. Things can get messy when a couple fights moments before the start of a game, but they’ve managed to deal with those situations as they come.
Laing Kennedy, Kent State athletic director, has worked here 16 years. He says his administration prides itself on its mission of inclusion, and Kennedy teaches that in one of his graduate-level sports management courses. Nevertheless, in his 16 years as director, Kennedy has never had a conversation with an athlete about coming out.
“At the same time, I’m sure we have gay athletes in our program by definition of the population,” he says. And that’s a good thing, because Kennedy says his sports administration is all-inclusive.
So where are the gay male athletes in this equation? If the population patterns hold true, Kent State must have gay athletes on the football team, basketball team, and hockey team. And what about the cross country and men’s rugby teams?
“More women are comfortable in [coming out] than men,” Kennedy says. “If a male, who happens to be an athlete, says he’s gay, I think there’s more peer pressure against it. I think that’s unfortunate.”
Kennedy may be right. It wasn’t for lack of trying that no gay male athletes from the university are featured in this article. But regardless of the reasons, Kennedy’s administration maintains its attitude of inclusion.
“It’s just not an issue,” he says. “We don’t know [who is gay], and we don’t need to know.”
That mentality is perhaps far different from that of a professional sports administration. Pro athletes have taken flack for coming out years after their careers ended.
“It’s more accepted at the collegiate level because colleges are more accepting,” Kennedy says. “You can chalk that up to enlightenment. You can chalk that up to education. Whatever you want. It’s an interesting and challenging topic we deal with.”
Rachel Bennett, senior organizational communication major, has a theory on the difference between collegiate and professional acceptance.
“Professional sports are always in the media, and so image is a big deal to them,” says Bennett, starting guard for Kent State’s women’s basketball team. “But here it’s not.”
Bennett, who is straight and in her fifth year, says three of her teammates have come out. But she says finding that out didn’t unnerve her; it actually made the team’s bond stronger.
“When we get on the court, there’s certain little fundamental things like, ‘Oh, I trust she’s got my help on defense, or I trust she’s going to make one more pass to a person to get open. She’s not going to be selfish,’” Bennett says. “So when we have that closeness and chemistry off the court, it does translate to the court.”
She says her lesbian teammates came to Kent State and already had girlfriends, and that they didn’t hesitate to share that with their teammates.
“It’s not like I walk in, and my teammates are hitting on me. They don’t bring it into the locker room that way. They aren’t gonna try to date the team,” Bennett says. “That’s like dating in the workplace.”
Bennett thinks society is transitioning, and soon sexual preference won’t matter. “We don’t treat anybody (on our team) differently,” she says. “Yeah, it would have been a huge problem ten years ago because it wasn’t accepted. I think we’re getting to the flip.”
If you hear a coach call out “scissors” or “rainbow” in the middle of a game, you’re allowed to laugh.
The rugby players do.
“Scissors is a play. We didn’t name that,” says one coach, who asked her name not be used. “Rainbow — someone named it that. We kick the ball in an arc to get it over the other team, and [the girls on the team] thought it was hilarious to call it rainbow.”
If they aren’t making suggestive associations with their plays, they’re probably making other playfully coarse comments. “There’s a lot of dirty references here,” Abby Miller says. “But I think that comes with the sport in general.”
“We call each other homos, and it’s not necessarily in a derogatory way,” Maroney says.
“We’re dirty people.”
Kristine Gill is a senior newspaper journalism major at Kent State. This article originally appeared in the Winter 2009-10 edition of Fusion Magazine, part of the Campus Progress Journalism Network.