Hudson Taylor, who graduated last year from the University of Maryland at College Park, was a dominant force in college wrestling. He is a three-time All-American, tied for fifth in career pins in the all-time National Collegiate Athletic Association record books, and holds the school record for career wins at Maryland. Now assistant wrestling coach at Columbia University, Taylor said that he hopes to become best known not for his wins on the mat, but for taking a stand against homophobia and transphobia in sports.
Taylor, who is straight, founded Athlete Ally a few months ago as “a resource to encourage athletes, coaches, parents, fans and other members of the sports community to respect all individuals in sports, regardless of perceived or actual sexual-orientation or gender identity or expression.” As of Monday, more than 2,000 individuals have signed Hudson’s Athlete Ally pledge, “to lead my athletic community to respecting and welcoming all persons.”
Hudson’s nonprofit organization is one of the few of its type supporting the acceptance of gay and lesbian athletes, particularly those playing at the intercollegiate level. There are few openly gay and lesbian athletes in the NCAA’s high-profile Division I. Last year, however, Kye Allums became the first openly transgender Division I basketball player when he came out as a member of the women’s team at George Washington University.
And though Allums’s coming out was accepted by the George Washington community and created little stir after basketball season began, LGBT athletes and coaches still face significant difficulties. Take the case of Lisa Howe, a women’s soccer coach at Belmont University, who was reportedly pushed out last year after revealing that she is a lesbian and her partner is having a baby. While there are out lesbians in college sports, there are very few out gay men, particularly in Division I teams and others that attract the most attention.
Hudson said he hopes his organization and the pledge can help change attitudes about gays and lesbians in sports — a community he admits has not always been accepting of those who are different — one individual at a time.
“The athletic community is a diverse one and there are many different layers to it,” Hudson said. “This pledge is aimed at anyone that’s involved in sports in any way. Sports have the potential to reach people at an early age about what is and what is not acceptable. For instance, today’s coaches were yesterday’s athletes. Athletics is not one-dimensional. As someone in the wrestling community, I’m just trying to reach as many people as I can and get people to join the discussion on this issue.”
Hudson became a straight advocate for the LGBT community while at Maryland, where he majored in interactive performance arts. He said witnessing many of his classmates in the theater department come out changed him. Getting to know members of the gay and lesbian community personally did not gel with the kind of homophobic language and rhetoric being used by his wrestling teammates in the locker room across campus.
“I felt like I had the ability to do something about it,” said Hudson of the language he heard. “That’s when I started trying to talk to my teammates about their word consciousness and how they speak to each other and other people. That kind of homophobic language has become so normalized for athletes of my generation that most times those slurs are not meant specifically as words of hate. Like saying, ‘That’s so gay’ or something. That’s a huge problem that needs to be overcome. My teammates and friends just weren’t conscious of the effect their language could have on others.”
Hudson became noted for his activism while wrestling at Maryland. He wore a Human Rights Campaign sticker with its trademark equal sign on his headgear during matches to promote the cause of LBGT acceptance in athletics.
Now that Hudson’s career as a college athlete is over, he said he hopes he can make a difference by turning Athlete Ally into a growing resource for gays and lesbians in search of accepting teams and institutions. For example, if athletics administrators or coaches at an institution sign the pledge, Hudson plans to list it in a searchable database on the website.
“Some LGBT athletes are scared to participate in sports because they don’t know if they’re going to have a friend in this fight,” Hudson said. “I think a database like this can help reach out to more athletes and get more people [whether straight or gay] to sign on as Ally Ambassadors.”
There is still plenty of difficulty in coming out for today's college athletes. A gay sophomore on the men’s gymnastics team at a Big Ten Conference institution who spoke on condition of anonymity — because he has yet to come out to his teammates — said he hopes that by signing the pledge he can help create a community in which gay athletes feel comfortable coming out. He explained that, at his institution, many athletes in sports like gymnastics feel the pressure to express straight qualities to avoid being stereotyped as gay.
“It’s a very simple thing,” the gymnast said. “The idea is that when people stop using homophobic terms and language that it’ll create a movement of acceptance on campus. This is an issue I’m passionate about, so I’m glad to help, especially since most people don’t know where to look for resources.”
Julie Beer, women’s lacrosse coach at Centre College, in Kentucky, is one of the many athletics administrators to have signed the Athlete Ally pledge. Beer is a lesbian who said she felt comfortable coming out when she was an athlete at Clark University, in Massachusetts. Still, she said she felt compelled to sign the pledge to help other athletes who may have more difficulty.
“I know that if I had to go through it again and my team had turned on me, that coming out would have been much worse for me than it was,” Beer said. “But, even now, behind closed doors, I know that college athletics still needs to improve. People need to feel more open than they do now. Athletics is all about respect.”
Beer said she has spoken with two female athletes at Centre who are closeted and afraid to come out.
“I know one student-athlete whose friend came out and then that girl’s friends just cut her off,” Beer said. “The student-athlete has the same fears everyone goes through. ‘What if they do that to me as well?’ Also, I know another student-athlete who is afraid to come out because she wants to pursue a path in coaching and is worried it might hold her back.”
Beer said that the situation at Belmont worried her and other coaching colleagues, including one who she said “was pushed further back in the closet” by the incident. Still, she said she hopes her participation in Athlete Ally will help encourage more acceptance of LGBT individuals in college sport.
“It’s just about having the confidence to do it,” Beer said of coming out. “That’s what this is all about, giving more people that confidence.”