It was freezing, mind-numbingly cold when Denver-born Olympian John Fennell sat atop two concrete pillars, staring down a 45-foot drop that would send him careening through nearly a full mile track of pure ice, twisting and turning into a Latvian mountain at speeds up to 76 miles per hour.
“I thought to myself, ‘How the hell am I brave enough to go down this hill if I can’t be brave enough to be who I am?’”
Fennell is one of dozens of LGBTQ Olympians, one of thousands of LGBTQ athletes, finding the courage to come out of the closet in order to step fully into their sport.
This month he is training in Colorado Springs as he prepares to try out for the U.S. Olympic Luge team. As a dual citizen, he competed for Canada in Sochi. Ironically, it was the fear instilled in him about Russia’s laws against LGBTQ activities that helped push him into coming out shortly after the games.
“I think that coming out eliminates distractions. A lot of athletes get in their own head about having to keep up personal appearances. At the end of the day,” Fennell said “everyone wants to focus on their sport.”
This is one reason Outsports is holding its national reunion this year during Pride weekend in Denver. High school, college, and professional athletes will gather for a variety of events, including Pride Night at the Rockies in a game against the San Francisco Giants.
“For so long, we’ve been told the sports world is not a welcoming place for LGBT people. Yet over and over, we’ve found LGBT people totally accepted by their coaches and teammates when they come out,” said Cyd Zeigler, cofounder of Outsports. The Pride weekend events are cosponsored by Nike’s Be True, a line released every Pride month featuring rainbow colored shoes, shirts, and other apparel. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to One Colorado.
Denver educator Jen Lueck was one of the very first woman quarterbacks to play professional football. After the team she was on in Denver folded, she went on to quarterback in New York with the WPFL, the original and longest-running women’s professional American football league. Lueck said playing sports at a young age helped her feel accepted by her peers in high school, “Where my tomboyish appearance might have otherwise made me an outcast. Teammates are virtually family, and it’s a wonderful feeling of inclusion and acceptance,” she said.
Fennell agrees. “One of the pillars of sports is respect for your teammates and fellow athletes, as long as that’s upheld.”
Northfield High School Athletic Director Micah Porter is determined to make sure those values are upheld. Following his very difficult experience coming out after 20 years of coaching, he’s put together a handbook used by all Colorado schools as well as districts throughout the country to help make and keep athletics inclusive.
“The playbook focuses on all aspects — parents, students, leaders — so they can approach their season and allow all their teammates to really thrive,” Porter said.
What can be done? He says little things make a big difference. It doesn’t have to be overt. Something as small as a rainbow flag in a coach’s pencil holder sends a big message about acceptance and inclusivity. Porter also talks a lot about casual homophobia — the “locker room talk” that may not be meant as hurtful or discriminatory, but is. Not only does it impact the player, it impacts the game.
“As an experienced closeted athlete, I can say when you hear and see people you respect [being inclusive], there’s a level of comfort that allows you to be a better athlete,” Porter said.
When he came out six years ago at a conservative high school in Jefferson County, he says he was told he was no longer allowed in the boys locker room, despite having coached for many years and having led his teams to several state championships. While some students, parents, and teachers were welcoming, he says many were not. He even felt unwelcome in the coaches’ changing room.
“What that did for me is it inspired me to be an advocate for other coaches and students who are LGBTQ and who want to be who they are in their sexuality but also want to be a coach or play football and participate as any other student would,” he said.
Now in a more diverse high school in Denver, Porter has been promoted. He says students, teachers, coaches, and parents are all very accepting. These days he says the only mention students make of his sexuality are jokes about him making sure they have the nicest dressed players.
“It’s still a stereotype, but it’s one I can laugh at,” he said.
All agree there is more to be done around athletics and homophobia.
Twenty-one-year-old Fennell comes from a football family. His father played pro-football in Canada, and his brother played at Michigan State. After trying his hand at a number of sports, Fennell settled on what is considered one of the most dangerous – luge. There’s nothing but 45 pounds of fiberglass, a helmet, and what he refers to as “the thinnest layer of spandex” separating him from a slick, icy track full of hairpin curves.
He’s not joking when he says he needs to be alert at all times. Every second. In luge, by the time you realize you’ve made a wrong move, it’s usually too late.
“It’s become normal for me, but it’s very fast-paced; you need to think very quickly. The track is coming at you at 80 miles an hour, and you need to be on your toes ready for each turn to come,” he said.
Staying on their toes is something LGBTQ athletes are used to. Like many before them, these are sporting pioneers. Sports have historically been a conduit for change because so many diverse people come together to enjoy the games. Major League Baseball pushed desegregation by putting Jackie Robinson on the field. Tennis star Billie Jean King helped swing the doors wide open – not only in sports, but in women’s professional and personal lives.
“It’s had a huge impact on women’s rights, minority rights, and I think the next step is for LGBTQ rights,” Porter said.