WASHINGTON, D.C. — Former Texas Christian University swimmer Cooper Robinson fought through severe depression, childhood bullying, and a suicide attempt before finally getting the courage to come out to his friends, family, and teammates a couple of years ago.
The Supreme Court had just decreed same sex marriage the law of the land, and Robinson felt he was stepping out of the closet and into a society that was becoming much more tolerant and friendly, both socially and legislatively.
“When I came out, I felt that the country was moving forward. I felt safe and I felt comfortable,” Robinson said. Then 2016 happened.
“The past few months have been rocky. There are definitely some concerns. With the current administration, we’re always wondering, what are we waking up to this day, who is going to try to take our rights this time?”
On Sunday morning, Robinson joined thousands of rainbow-clad men, women, and gender nonconforming marchers in the Equality March for Unity and Pride in Washington, D.C., chanting “Shame!” as they passed by the White House in 95 degree weather.
“With the current administration, we’re always wondering, what are we waking up to this day, who is going to try to take our rights this time?”
Robinson was there with a group from Athlete Ally, an organization that strives to end LGBTQ discrimination in athletics and works to enact policies designed to make sports a safe environment for all. Ashley Dai, a former tennis player at the University of North Carolina, lacrosse player Colin Shaw, and water polo player Anthony Cordell also joined Robinson in the march as they wrapped up a busy weekend of Pride festivities.
While the sports world has seen progress when it comes to LGBTQ visibility and inclusion over the past few years, there remain few (if any) out athletes who are household names. Athlete Ally ambassadors know that today’s political climate isn’t making progress any easier.
Last year, Dai, who founded Tar Heels 4 Equality, was on the way home from a tournament in Syracuse with her UNC teammates when she heard that the North Carolina General Assembly had abruptly passed House Bill 2, the controversial bathroom bill that prohibited cities from passing nondiscrimination ordinances and required transgender people to use bathrooms corresponding to the gender on their birth certificate. She was shocked.
“People are now loudly saying, ‘it’s not okay to be gay, and we’re not going to protect you,’” said Dai, who is currently getting her masters in interior design in New York. “It’s definitely been a wake-up call — people realize that this is still an issue.”
The passing of HB2 fueled Dai’s advocacy work. She participated in a town hall with the Mayor of Greensboro and former NBA player Jason Collins, the first out male athlete to play in any of the four major sports in the United States, and spoke to lawmakers in Raleigh in an attempt to educate them on the dangers of the bill.
At first, the reaction from sports leagues — the NCAA, NBA, and ACC — was very liberating. They all came out strongly against HB2 and pulled high-profile events like championship tournaments and All-Star games from North Carolina. But HB2 remained the law of the land until this March, when the state Assembly abruptly passed a repeal-and-replace bill in order to lure NCAA events back into the state.
Though the new bill was almost as bad as HB2, the NCAA, ACC, and NBA all returned events to the state, which felt like a slap in the face to Dai.
“What kind of behavior are you supporting? What message are you sending?” she asked.
Athlete Ally has built and maintained close relationships with professional sports leagues in recent years, particularly with the NCAA and NBA. But the organization felt the bill that prompted those organizations to return to North Carolina was still extremely discriminatory — it still forbids cities from passing nondiscrimination ordinances and prohibits places from making their own guidelines on multiple-occupancy restrooms.
It would be safe to say that most of the LGBTQ community felt betrayed by the sharp reversals from those sporting organizations.
“I don’t think it’s been a step back in terms of the influence of sport, but it has been a step back in terms of how their values connect with their actions,” said Athlete Ally Executive Director Hudson Taylor, who was also at the march on Sunday. “It’s gotten less clear what standard leagues and teams expect when they host a championship game.”
Taylor knows — or at least he hopes — that as long as we revere sports in our society, sports will be able to foster positive social change. But there’s a long way to go.
Dai came out as a lesbian during her sophomore year, when she was so distracted by her own secret that it was negatively affecting her tennis game. Since then, she’s received the support of her family, coach, and most of her teammates, but with that freedom has come a lot of fear, particularly since Trump was elected President. (In addition to being an LGBTQ woman, Dai is first generation Chinese American.)
As she marched alongside signs bashing Betsy DeVos for her discriminatory education policies and remembering the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting, she couldn’t hold back her frustrations. She’s sick of lawmakers using “the protection of women” as an excuse to pass these bathroom bills, given that trans people are the ones who are most in need of protection. She’s sick of feeling like her rights are up for negotiation, that her personhood is up for debate.
“It’s important to be vocal, but just don’t be vocal. Get out there and do something.”
She’s sick of so many people in sports staying in the closet, even though she understands completely why they do.
Shaw does too. The former Wagner star, who is, in many ways, a stereotypical Philly sports bro, didn’t come out to his lacrosse teammates while he was in college.
“The sport I play is a really macho, straight-guy sport, but I was really good at it,” Shaw said. “I didn’t want to be a distraction to anyone on the team.”
But being in the closet and hiding who he was got old, and he started to wonder what he was so afraid of. When he finally decided to come out at the age of 26, the response of his former teammates was incredible.
“They were like, ‘We fucking love you, man,’” Shaw said.
He still had to deal with some common misconceptions — his father thought that being gay meant he didn’t like the Philadelphia Eagles anymore — but Shaw quickly cleared that up. He’s the same foul-mouth, metal-music-loving, go-for-broke guy he always was, he just likes to sleep with men. He decided to tell his story publicly to help others.
“There’s definitely other people like me, who are scared as shit,” Shaw said, when explaining why he decided to tell his story and march with Athlete Ally. But he is quick to caveat: “It’s important to be vocal, but just don’t be vocal. Get out there and do something.”
That’s something Covell, a water polo player at Penn State heading into his sophomore year, is learning. He remembers crying on the phone with his sister when marriage equality became legal, and then crying again last November for different reasons.
“I was like, we are going backwards after everything we just achieved,” he said as the march passed the Washington Monument. “It made me realize we are not done fighting. Our rights can be stripped for us at any time.”
Covell is spending the summer working on a political campaign and wants to be a politician himself in the future. He sees the danger that the LGBTQ community is facing right now, particularly young LGBTQ students and people of color in the LGBTQ community, and wants to help ensure that those people are protected by the law.
Athlete Ally is optimistic about the future, but realistic about the work ahead. Right now, the organization is working to change bylaws in different sports and leagues to make sports more inclusive of transgender athletes, and it is also trying to stop Texas from passing an HB2-like bill that discriminates against transgender athletes next month. It’s also trying to recruit more high-profile athletes to join in the fight — while it’s important to have advocates on the college and club level, professional athletes have far larger platforms at their disposal to really accelerate change.
“For as much progress as has been made over the last few years, this is not the beginning of the end, its the end of the beginning,” Taylor said. “We’re still growing, and this is our way of showing that we’re committed to the work that is ahead.”
The four athletes who marched on Sunday are certainly geared up. Robinson, who qualified for Olympic trials and was TCU’s first Big XII champion in swimming, used the competitive resilience he gained from sports to conquer his depression, and now he’s using it to fight for the rights of his community.
But he hopes that one day, he’ll be able to focus that competitive energy elsewhere.
“I want LGBT rights to be something we don’t have to fight for,” Robinson said. “I want there to be a day where you don’t have to come out. Where you don’t have to march.”