Vassar College is recognized as being a progressive institution, openly discussing topics seen as taboo by other areas of the nation. On Wednesday, Feb. 12, one such discussion took place in conjunction with Vassar athletic teams and the LGBTQ community. In a talk entitled “LGBTQ Athlete: An Oxymoron or Invisible Minority?” many Vassar Students listened to a panel of five athletes who identify as being part of the LGBTQ community discuss stigmas that come with being an athlete on Vassar’s campus and a member of a marginalized identity-based group.
The idea for the panel came about through a few members of the men’s soccer team, mainly through junior Justin Mitchell and sophomore Benjamin Glasner. Glasner explained the concept behind the creation of the panel. “What had happened was Justin was talking to a bunch of the players on the team, and everyone on the team felt like we should be more involved on campus and not just be constrained to our athletic circles,” Glasner said. “From there, it turned into what did we really want to do, and it transformed into us contacting Judy [Jarvis], who was really excited about working with us. After talking with Judy and amongst ourselves, the panel idea started to form. It was just the notion of getting athletics a little bit more involved about issues on campus.”
Judy Jarvis ’07, currently serves as the Director for the Campus Life LGBTQ Center and Women’s Center. Jarvis agreed that this panel was an important way to bring issues rarely spoken about to the surface. “Members of the men’s soccer team reached out to me because they felt like there needed to be more discussions about LGBTQ issues in athletics here at Vassar,” Jarvis wrote in an emailed statement. “In their experience, LGBTQ topics were taboo in the locker room and they wanted that to change. They then got together a coalition of VC athletes from a few other teams, and the coalition worked with myself and LGBTQ Center intern Samhar Khalfani to craft an event that would meet all of our goals. Our central goals for the event were to: provide a forum for LGBTQ athletes at Vassar to talk about their experiences; educate non-LGBTQ athletes on some of the challenges their LGBTQ teammates might face; and open up dialogue about how we can make athletic teams at Vassar inclusive to people of all sexualities.”
The panel took place over the course of two hours and featured a five-person panel as well as a small group discussion time, where panelists and audience members alike, many of whom were Vassar athletes, talked about the intersection of LGBTQ and athletic teams. Jarvis explained an important distinction between heteronormativity and homophobia within athletic groups. “To me the best things about the event were providing an opportunity for the five LGBTQ athletes on our panel to speak honestly about the joys and challenges of being an athlete at Vassar, and I think we also got people to think about the difference between homophobia and heteronormativity and heterosexism. While few LGBTQ athletes shared that they had experienced outright homophobia, many talked about heteronormativity and heterosexism on their teams—such as some teammates assuming that everyone on the team was straight and creating a culture that privileges straightness.”
The panel had a variety of athletes from many Vassar teams. Sophomore Mallory Tyler is a member of the women’s lacrosse team. After being approached by the facilitators to be a part of the event, Tyler was quick to volunteer. Tyler explained, “I chose to participate in the panel because recently I have been hearing an unusual amount of problematic remarks from other athletes and I wanted to be a part of a forum where I could let other athletes know that they should call out this kind of behavior when they see it or hear it. I want every space on our campus to feel and be safe for LGBTQ+ individuals, not just the LGBTQ Center.”
Tyler was pleased with the turnout for the event. “I think the best thing that came out of the panel was seeing so many people attend and ask genuinely productive questions,” Tyler described. “It was great to see that so many athletes care, and even better to know that a dialogue has been started about these issues.”
Tyler continued, “I think this panel will make people realize that you can be queer and an athlete at the same time. It seems obvious, but to a lot of queer athletes, it can seem like a tricky thing to navigate. Hopefully, it’ll make athletics feel more inclusive for LGBTQ+ individuals, encourage people to be aware of the language they use (not assuming heterosexuality, for example), and help teams better take care of their teammates.”
Senior diver John Nguyen expressed his happiness with a panel such as this being created, and hopes it sparks a new type of identity-based discussion. “I hope that this event will result in similar initiatives in the years to come,” Nguyen wrote in an emailed statement. “As of yet, there does not exist any community among queer athletes, and our visibility at Vassar remains quite low, and this must change if the special challenges which LGBTQ individuals face in athletics.”
Jarvis, who also was the moderator for the panel part of the discussion, expressed her feelings about the success of the panel. “I was really heartened that over 50 people came to the event, many of whom had never attended an LGBTQ Center event since I’ve been here,” Jarvis explained. “I think it goes to show that many straight athletes at Vassar truly want to be strong allies to their LGBTQ teammates, and it’s just a matter of them becoming more aware of the challenges their LGBTQ teammates may experience. I think this panel was a great start, and I welcome any teams to reach out to me if they are interested in having further conversations with the LGBTQ Center or doing any team-specific trainings.”
Some of the audience members expressed a lot of surprise and delight about how eye opening the panel was regarding LGBTQ issues among athletes. Sophomore field hockey player Bianca Zarrella stated that she was really enlightened by listening to the panel.
“When Judy asked the question, ‘What is it like being on an athletic team and part of the LGBTQ community?’ I was surprised at how some of the panelists said that it could be hard to be on a team where you are initially assumed straight,” Zarrella explained.
However, she also wished the panel featured a more diverse group of panelists. “I think it would have been interesting if there was a member of a team like baseball or soccer where they talked about their stance on LGBTQ athletes,” Zarrella expressed. “I think it would have made for a more diverse panel, with a more realistic view of this issue.”
Sophomore Josh Pratt also was surprised by a lot of what was said at the panel. “It was new to me when they said that being at an athlete party was hard because they talked about how there is a large expectation that you are going to hook up with someone of the opposite sex at the party,” Pratt said. “I really never understood how complicated it could be to be an LGBTQ athlete in a predominantly straight section of Vassar’s population. I just thought they felt as included as everyone else on the team, but that is not always the case I guess. The panel really did open up my eyes to some bigger issues on campus.”